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Homeless in India: Out in the cold

The cold wave death toll in northern India is rising. Many are victims of not just the cold, but disease and age compounded by lack of food and shelter.

Urmila Maurya, 38, stands amidst the pile of rubble which was once her home in the institutional area of Lodi Colony, an upmarket area in New Delhi, India on 03 January 2012. A mother of 2, she spends her days on the pavement stringing flowers into garlands for devotees at the nearby Hindu temple. At night, she lays down on the same plastic tarpaulin she uses for the flowers but claims that the police come and tear it up in an attempt to discourage her from squatting in the open.
Urmila Maurya, 38, stands amidst the pile of rubble which was once her home in the institutional area of Lodi Colony, an upmarket area in New Delhi, India on 03 January 2012. A mother of 2, she spends her days on the pavement stringing flowers into garlands for devotees at the nearby Hindu temple. At night, she lays down on the same plastic tarpaulin she uses for the flowers but claims that the police come and tear it up in an attempt to discourage her from squatting in the open.

The cold wave death toll in northern India is rising. Sleeping under the open skies and being exposed to the vagaries of weather, many are victims of not just the cold, but disease and age compounded by lack of food and shelter. Suryatapa Bhattacharya, Foreign Correspondent, reports

NEW DELHI // Urmila Maurya spends her days on the pavement stringing flowers into garlands for devotees at the nearby Hindu temple.

At night, she lays down on the same blanket she uses for the flowers. When it gets really cold, she uses a plastic tarpaulin to cover herself, but said the police sometimes come and tear it up to discourage her from squatting in the open in New Delhi's Institutional Area, an upmarket locality of the city.

"This is the poor's burden," said Mrs Maurya, a 38-year-old widow. "To live and die on the streets on cold nights."

Every winter, hundreds die in northern India. This is even though India has one of the highest economic growth rates in the world and, by some accounts, the world's most expensive home - Mumbai's US$1-2 billion (Dh4.4bn) "Antilla", owned by Mukesh Ambani, one of the richest men in the world and head of Reliance Industries.

They die not from the cold - temperatures barely hit zero in the big cities in the north.

They die because of age, disease and lack of food. India might be booming, but its governments still struggle to look after those at the bottom of the ladder.

Every night in Delhi, an average of 15 homeless people die on the streets, says to Harsh Mander, special commissioner of India's Supreme Court for human rights and social justice. That figure is climbing.

Officially, more than 150 people died in December on the streets in Delhi and neighbouring Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Bihar and Haryana.

But Mr Mander's figure, which was drawn from a study by the Centre for Equity Studies, where Mr Mander is honorary chairman, is thought to be low.

Mr Mander is examining solutions to the severe shortage homeless shelters in the capital. There are an estimated 150,000 homeless people in Delhi. There are 112 homeless shelters.

In past years, authorities in the northern states have handed out blankets and lit public bonfires.

Delhi homeless population is the highest in North India. This is largely due to the large-scale migration from neighbouring states for work.

Most are illiterate day-wage labourers who lack proper identification, which would give them access to affordable food and housing programs, which are available to those who earn less than 32 rupees a day.

So, they end up on the streets.

Delhi's homeless problem was worsened by the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

To beautify the city for the event, the New Delhi authorities drove tens of thousands of pavement dwellers away from the roadsides by tearing down their makeshift huts.

Mrs Maurya was among those whose homes were torn down.

She sits beside a pile of broken bamboo and bricks piled high in a corner, on the piece of pavement she now calls home.

In August last year, three months before the Commonwealth Games kicked off in Delhi, the police came around and broke down her shack.

She is too afraid to rebuild because whatever she puts up may be torn down again.

Mrs Maurya has lived in the same spot on the pavement for more than 20 years after she was brought there as a bride from her village in the state of Uttar Pradesh, one of India's poorest.

Mrs Maurya's slab of pavement does not count for residency, and she lacks to the money to pay the bribe to obtain a government identification card.

She can't even afford to pay bus fare to go back to her village.

She earns 30 Indian rupees (Dh2) a day stringing flowers into garlands. She, quite literally, has nowhere else to go.

"It has been difficult," she says. "But you make do because there is nowhere else to go."

Her friend, Kalyani Devi, 50, also a widow, is homeless as well.

"We are not beggars. We earn a living, but it's just that it is not enough to sustain us." says Mrs Devi.

Her son works as a daily-wage worker on construction sites.

If he is out of work for more than a day, all they can afford to eat is salt and bread.

It is the lack of regular nutrition that poses the greatest danger to the homeless in Delhi, said Bipin Rai, a housing-rights advocate with the Indo-global Social Service Society, a homeless-rights advocacy group.

"To survive a winter, calories are needed," says Mr Rai.

"They may eat once every three days. If they are not working, they don't even get that. Even when they do eat, it is not enough of a daily intake of nutrition, especially when sleeping out in the cold."

The homeless tend to congregate around parks, bus terminals and train stations, but mostly around places of worship.

They gather around mosques, churches, Sikh gurdwaras and Hindu temples for the occasional free food and the chance of temporary work keeping the grounds clean.

Police are also more loathe to drive the homeless away from places of worship than from the pavements.

Indu Prakash Singh, also a member of the Indo-global society, says the homeless problem has been allowed to fester because there is too little political will to solve it.

"Unlike the slum-dwellers, the homeless are not voters, so they are not high on the government's agenda," he said. Slum-dwellers form substantial vote banks because they are given ID cards to allow them to vote.

In 2000, the Delhi state government established the Bawana Resettlement Colony, to provide cheap housing for those evicted from the capital's slums and streets.

But, 35km outside the city, the homeless day labourers were forced to spend most of their wages commuting to stand on the streets hoping to pick up a day's work.

So, they took to sleeping under flyovers and going home on weekends.

Finally, they decided to move their families to the flyovers to save on the commute and allow their families to live together.

A decade later, Bawana is a ghost town.

The greatest barrier to getting the homeless off the streets, however, is prejudice.

Mr Rai pointed to a steady row of devotees, who lined past Mrs Maurya and Mrs Devi, waiting to offer prayers, clutching flower garlands in their hands, bought from the women and other homeless flower-makers.

"You see all these people? They are middle class," he said. "They will offer food to the homeless, they will buy flowers from the homeless, but if you try to put a shelter in their neighbourhood, they will say no."

sbhattacharya@thenational.ae