Sleepless nights, health risks: How Delhi’s homeless people struggle during hot summers

There is urgent need for action given they have nowhere to seek refuge from the scorching heat.

Photo of homeless people on the pavement in Delhi.
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Ramkumar, 38, has manoeuvred his rickshaw through the Sadar Bazar market in Delhi for almost 12 hours every day to earn a livelihood. But when night falls, he has nowhere to go. His meagre earnings and the increasing unaffordability of housing prevent him from renting even a single room.

During summer, the concrete footpaths retain the day’s scorching heat until the wee hours of night and render them unbearable to sleep on. Ramkumar spends the nights curled up in the seat of his rickshaw. “Due to the heat, I lie awake in my rickshaw the entire night,” he says. “I wait for the early morning's relative coolness to catch a few moments of sleep.”

Ramkumar's experience reflects the daily struggle of a significant portion of the city's population living in urban poverty. In Delhi, extreme temperatures, often attributed to climate change, have become increasingly common. The months from April to July bring intense heat. In 2022, India recorded 203 heatwave days, the highest in recent history, with Delhi accounting for around 17 of those heatwave days. March 2022 marked the hottest month ever recorded in India by the India Meteorological Department, while Delhi experienced its second-hottest April in 72 years that year.

The inability of the economically weak to access adequate housing intensifies the harsh impacts of extreme climatic conditions and hinders the ability of communities to adapt to escalating temperatures. The 2021 report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change identified India as one of the nations most vulnerable to the consequences of the climate crisis. Projections indicate that the country will witness more prolonged and frequent heat waves of heightened intensity in the future, increasing the risks for those living in poverty.

According to independent experts and estimates, in Delhi, at least 2-2.5 lakh individuals live in homelessness, including women, children, transgender persons, older individuals, persons with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups. The Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board, the principal agency addressing homelessness in Delhi, operates a network of 195 shelters, including 82 permanent structures (RCC buildings) in existing government buildings, 103 porta cabins made from tin sheets, and 10 shelters constructed under a ‘special drive’.

Despite these efforts, the overall capacity of these 195 shelters is around 16,675 beds, about 92 percent below the estimated population of homeless persons in the city.

Homeless persons also find themselves exempt from national and state policies on housing such as the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, as they are unable to fulfil the eligibility requirements laid down in the schemes. The lack of identity documents and a permanent address, coupled with homelessness and absence of assets for securing a loan, systematically exclude individuals from the scheme. Furthermore, there is no specific provision within the scheme for addressing the needs of the homeless. With no intermediary housing options or assistance, such as rental housing vouchers or hostels, a significant population is left with no choice but to live on the streets.

Despite the absence of official statistics on deaths of homeless persons, experts estimate that roughly 60 percent of ‘unidentified dead bodies’ discovered by law enforcement and other agencies are those of homeless individuals. In Delhi, a significant majority of these deaths (4,424 deaths) occurred during the summer months over the past five years.

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Between May and June 2023, Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), a non-profit organisation working in this sector for 25 years, undertook a rapid-assessment study to document the impact of rising temperatures on persons in Delhi without a home, assess their awareness of climate change, and understand their adaptability to extreme weather conditions.

In all, 102 homeless persons in Delhi participated in the study, representing diverse demographics including women, families, older individuals, persons with disabilities, and other vulnerable groups. Around 40 percent of the respondents identified as women and 60 percent of them as men, spanning an age range of 16 to 70 years. The people surveyed experienced various forms of homelessness: 5.9 percent in permanent shelters, 17.6 percent in porta cabins, 8.8 percent in tarpaulin shanties, and 67.7 percent on the streets.

"We know that heat waves do not impact everyone equally in a city,” says Chandni Singh, senior researcher at Indian Institute for Human settlements and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change lead author. “Extreme heat often follows and exposes existing faultlines of poverty, precarious livelihoods, and gender- and age-related vulnerabilities. Homeless people in particular are often invisibilised in heat vulnerability studies.”

Perception of climate change

Moolchand, aged 50, who lives in a shelter near Jamuna Bazar, Hanuman Mandir, reflects on the changing times, "Ten years ago, we could endure the summer with the assistance of coolers, fans, and trees. But now, they no longer provide any relief." According to HLRN's report, 91.2 percent of respondents noted a surge in heat, with 80 percent reporting increased challenges due to rising temperatures over the last decade.

The participants of the study highlighted several reasons for the increase in temperatures. Alluding to the impact of urban development, Mintu, a waste picker in Nizamuddin and Khan Market who lives in a park in Nizamuddin, said, "Due to the large buildings and bus traffic, the influence of heat is increasing.”

Two in five of the homeless persons surveyed highlighted the surge in vehicular activity as a key factor contributing to the escalating heat. This aligns with findings from the IPCC’s fifth assessment, which underscores the impact of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions by vehicles (14.3 percent) on rising temperatures. Despite lacking familiarity with the term 'climate change,' homeless persons’ interpretations and observations regarding the causes of extreme heat closely align with global trends.

Factors such as heightened air pollution, rapid industrialisation, urbanisation, deforestation, and conspicuous consumption among the affluent are also identified by the populace as contributors to rising temperatures. Sunil, a 42-year-old resident of a portable cabin, says, "The heat intensifies daily due to the construction of towering buildings. It stays really hot throughout the day, only cooling down after 2 am. The problem is made worse by the fact that there isn't enough open land in Delhi to soak up rainwater.”

Impact of extreme heat on homeless people

While the effects of extreme heat are evident on the human body, the adverse impacts on homeless individuals are even more pronounced, as revealed by the investigation conducted by HLRN. Nearly everyone (99 percent of individuals) living on the streets reported experiencing sleeplessness.

The effects of heat on the homeless population include heatstroke, weakness, an increase in vector-borne diseases, eye-related problems, diarrhoea, skin issues such as rashes and irritation, restlessness, difficulty in breathing, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, dehydration, elevated blood pressure, headaches, fever, coughing, cholera, frequent nosebleeds, loss of appetite, stomachache, and infections. Elevated temperatures and increased number of vectors--which can transmit infectious pathogens--compound the challenge of finding adequate outdoor sleeping arrangements, concurrently heightening health risks from food spoilage and contamination.

Further, 45.1 percent of individuals reported a deterioration in their existing health conditions due to the adverse impacts of extreme heat.

The inadequacy of basic infrastructure and cooling mechanisms exacerbates the impact of heat on homeless persons. Nazma, 28, residing in Daryaganj, said, "The tarpaulin sheet becomes hot and tears by evening, and even simple tasks like making chapatis (flatbread) becomes challenging due to the intense heat."

Even shelter homes prove ineffective in the summer. As Moolchand from the Jamuna Bazar shelter, says, "Fans in the shelter blow warm air, and there is no sleep throughout the night due to the warmth inside."

Porta cabins, which are intended to serve as shelters for homeless persons but are constructed of thick tin sheets, become heat traps in summer and are rendered useless. A 50-year-old man living in a porta cabin in Mayur Vihar, Delhi said, “As the day progresses, the porta cabin gets very hot and it is not possible to stay inside. We have to sit in a nearby park under the tree during the day.”

Loss and damage, often associated with the unavoidable or unprevented adverse effects of climate change, is typically discussed in the broader context of economic losses. However, for homeless individuals, the loss of possessions may not entail immovable assets like a house, but rather damage to essential daily items, such as perishable goods like food and vegetables.

For instance, 56 percent reported food spoilage as a problem. Baby Kumar, 23, residing in the Sarai Kale Khan shelter home, said, "Vegetables go bad, tomatoes and onions rot due to the heat, and the food we prepare in the morning turns bad by evening. Even the water becomes hot.”

Livelihood and labour

The International Labour Organization in 2019 projected that if current global warming trends persist, the total share of working hours lost will escalate to 2.2 percent by 2030. This translates to the loss of 80 million full-time jobs or $2.4 trillion in lost incomes. The findings of HLRN’s study align with these projections, as many homeless individuals are employed in outdoor work in informal settings, such as daily-wage manual labour, rickshaw pulling, selling goods at traffic signals, waste picking and segregation, construction work, street vending, and begging for sustenance.

Shrafat, 56, residing on the street near Sunehri Masjid and working as a rickshaw puller, said, "I can't work after one ride. It's disheartening to seek another ride, and the rickshaw's wheel gets weak and punctured, causing additional problems." He added, "We cook rotis in the heat. Working becomes difficult; we start feeling nauseous. It's challenging to work continuously."

The heat-induced loss of productivity further hampers the ability of the homeless to earn a decent living. On average, respondents earn less than $100 (Rs 8,000) per month, limiting their capacity to cope with the impact of extreme heat.

Afsana, 23, a daily wage worker living on the streets in Nizammudin, said, "When we fall sick, there's no money for treatment or sometimes we can't complete the course of medicine.“

IndiaSpend has reached out to the Directorate General of Health Services in Delhi for comment on the initiatives taken by the health department for the homeless population. We will update this story when we receive a response.

Climate adaptation

Individuals experiencing homelessness lack access to essential resources such as potable water, nutritious food, and healthcare--crucial elements for safeguarding against the rigours of intense heat. Around 35 percent of the surveyed homeless people stated that they lack access to drinking water, electricity, food, toilets, and cooling devices.

Housing plays a central role in safeguarding individuals from the adverse impacts of heat and climate change. However, the unavailability of adequate housing restricts access to essential resources such as water, food, health, education, and even livelihood. The human right to adequate housing has been affirmed by the judiciary as an integral component of the right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution of India. The lack of access to adequate housing, thus, leaves an individual susceptible to various other human rights violations.

When asked about the adequacy of their places of stay in providing protection from extreme heat and weather, none of the surveyed individuals stated that their living arrangements were sufficient. Fewer than four percent of the respondents mentioned that their places provided a little protection but not adequately. Chandan, 45, from Yamuna Khadar, said, "We only have this hut that is providing us shelter; apart from that, we have no other means of protection or facilities."

While access to drinking water is crucial to prevent heat strokes, 95.1 percent of people are unable to obtain the water necessary to stay cool during the summer. People we spoke to pointed out that earlier, water was available through public taps, but now it has to be bought. Similarly, bathing involves paying to use public toilets.

The severity of the situation is more pronounced for those living on the streets, but conditions in shelters are not significantly better. Among respondents living in shelter homes or porta cabins, 12 percent reported unavailability of drinking water, and 21 percent mentioned a lack of electricity. Further, 74.3 percent of people on the streets and in shelters pointed to a lack of cooling devices like fans or coolers.

Additionally, 85 percent of the respondents living on the streets emphasised the absence of access to public toilet facilities, sometimes forcing them to defecate in the open.

Seventy-eight percent of the respondents mentioned having no access to healthcare and medicines. Around 74 percent of the respondents also reported no access to parks and open spaces.

Recommendations

While the government of Delhi takes special steps to respond during the winter months, it does not have any significant plans for summer/heat or monsoons, specifically for homeless persons. This results in homeless persons having to fend for themselves during these equally harsh seasons and deal with extreme temperatures, heat waves, infectious diseases, and lack of access to adequate and affordable healthcare.

In 2023, the Delhi Disaster Management Authority launched a Heat Action Plan, which does not address or accommodate the specific needs of homeless individuals.

While the shelters may not be entirely sufficient, they still offer a sense of refuge and protection. For example, most of these shelters provide food and better access to services such as drinking water and fans compared to those living on the streets. Despite concerted efforts by the DUSIB to safeguard the homeless during winter by erecting temporary tents, a critical gap emerges as these erected tents are routinely disassembled by the end of March, thereby exposing people to the elements and depriving them of essential services such as water, meals, and sanitary facilities through the remainder of the year.

At a time when lack of shelters is a pressing issue, In March 2023, the DUSIB had demolished eight shelter homes in various parts of the city, rendering many individuals homeless. Evictions and forced demolitions of slums and houses exacerbate the issue even further.

The Summer Action Plan by HLRN highlights the need for enhanced facilities and services in existing shelters. This includes ensuring a consistent supply of potable water for drinking, as well as clean water for bathing, washing clothes, and fulfilling other personal needs at all shelters. Moreover, the plan advocates for the installation of functional air coolers and fans in all shelters, encompassing both porta cabins and reinforced concrete cement buildings. Special attention is urged to improve ventilation, particularly in structures made with tin. Additionally, the implementation of regular pest- and vector-control measures is emphasised across all shelters.

While these short-term measures can mitigate some of the harsh impacts of extreme weather to some extent, only a comprehensive national policy on homelessness with a long term plan to secure diverse forms of housing for the homeless can protect them from the actual dangers of climate change.

Soumya Dutta, co-convener, South Asian people’s Action on Climate Crisis, added, "The worst impacts of climate change--severe heat waves, increased urban flooding, more frequent urban fires--in urban environments are on the homeless, those doing physical work outdoors and those living in heavily congested shanties and slums. There is little recognition of the multiple vulnerabilities these people face, let alone learning from their lived experiences and incorporating these in the State Action Plans for Climate Change or city level heat action plans.”

IndiaSpend has written to the DUSIB asking for additional details about existing measures and future plans. We will update this story when we receive a response.

This report is republished with permission from IndiaSpend.org, a data-driven, public-interest journalism non-profit. It has been lightly edited for style and clarity.

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