This article is written by Souradh C. Valson from Government Law College, Thiruvananthapuram, and discusses the problem of homelessness in India and the impacts and its solution.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights defines a ‘homeless’, as a person who doesn’t live in a permanent house due to a lack of required housing, safety, and availability. According to the 2011 census, 1.77 million people were homeless in India, which made up 0.15% of the total population. The actual number was more than this data. Furthermore, a high proportion of the homeless are mentally ill or children. However, recent trends show that the existence of multidimensional poverty is declining, in fact in 2020, the number has gone down to 6 percent from 54.7 percent at the time of independence.
Reasons for homelessness
India has a shortage of over 20 million houses. Families migrating to urban areas from rural areas due to loss of property, search for employment, and better opportunities are often left homeless because of high rents (a basic apartment costs around Rs. 3000) and non-availability of houses to accommodate them. Faced with homelessness, these migrants try to create shelter from cardboard, tin, plastic, and wood.
In some other cases, people resort to dwelling in slums. In India, 78 million people live in such slums, tenements, and makeshift houses and account for 17% of the world’s slum-dwelling population. The number of slum dwellers has doubled since the last two decades.
Homelessness is a direct result of poverty. Poor people have to choose between necessities and housing, which take up a large part of the income. In India, 6.7% of the population live below the standard poverty line of $1.25
Another reason for poverty is unemployment. Currently, 23% of the Indian population is unemployed. The main reason is the replacement of jobs in heavy industries and manufacturing by the service sector jobs that may require higher education. Due to the low per capita income, university education is less accessible to the average Indian, thereby not equipping the youth for the 21st-century job market.
Other problems like domestic violence, drug addiction, mental and physical disability, desertion of unmarried pregnant women, divorced women, girl children, and the old also contribute towards homelessness.
Three types of homelessness
Homelessness is of three types, such as:
- Chronic homelessness: These are people who have been homeless for a long period. Chronic homeless mainly consists of older citizens with physical or mental disabilities without any employment. Such persons represent only a small proportion of the homeless.
- Transitional homelessness: Most of the transitional homeless have become homeless due to any catastrophic event.
- Episodic homelessness: They are part of the population that frequently shuttle in and out of homelessness and suffer from mental, health, and medical problems or chronic unemployment.
Why prevent homelessness
No matter how effective the services for the homeless are, the best to stop homelessness is to prevent it from happening. Hence, there is a need for effective preventive strategies. We must also accept that complete prevention is not possible and should at least strive for partial prevention of the problem.
The condition of homelessness is undesirable as it affects both individuals and society. It is especially disadvantageous for vulnerable groups like children, disabled, and women. Malnourishment, low birth weight, absence of schooling, and illiteracy will affect the children. The absence of privacy, and security along with no proper system for food, shelter, and sanitation, adds to the woes of the women. Elderly citizens and disabled don’t have the opportunities for healthcare and social dignity. Exposure to harmful substances has direct health impacts on the homeless, by causing diseases like respiratory infections, skin diseases, and hypothermia.
The youth are also vulnerable as they are prone to harmful addictions and can cause health problems like liver damage due to the excessive use of alcohol and other toxic drugs. Indirect effects include risky sexual behaviour resulting in the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases (STD). Drugs and alcohol are also strongly related to violence between the homeless.
Apart from unemployment and a difficult economic situation, the effects of drugs and alcohol worsen the situation of the homeless. Many homeless people resort to shadow works to maintain themselves. These are not a part of the formal economy and includes scavenging, panhandling, plasma donation, street vending, bartering, and recycling or illegal activities like petty theft, prostitution, and drug peddling. Homelessness is a multifaceted issue involving social, economic, political, psychological, and health-related problems. The impact of homelessness is long-lasting, disturbing, and affects their relations and wellbeing. Other issues like lack of medical care, drug use, unsafe sexual practices, violence, and unsafe shelters require immediate attention to prevent the social exclusion of the homeless.
Street children fall under the category of children in especially difficult circumstances (CDEC). India has around 400,000 street children and forms the most threatened group among the CDEC. UNICEF classifies street children into four groups: the children who work for income but live with a family, children who primarily stay on the street but have some kind of residence with the family, children residing on the streets without any contact with the family, and finally abandoned children.These children flee their homes because of abuse, violence, poverty, and exploitation. Children on the streets are subject to hard physical labour in hazardous conditions and prostitution. For money and food, they sift through the garbage. Bad performance and behaviour problems are common in street children, and they drop out of school, resulting in illiteracy and continuing the perpetual cycle of homelessness and poverty.
Pandemic and homelessness
The pandemic has affected the homeless severely. Many families who belonged to the low income sections of the society were forcefully evicted from their houses and rendered them homeless. The inability to socially distance, lack of proper sanitation, and other facilities along with absence of a steady stream of income proved to be a great obstacle for the homeless to survive the lockdown.
Homelessness, slums and informal living: the case of Mumbai
Mumbai is one of the most populous cities in India, with a very high population density of 20,692 people per km2. The majority of Mumbai’s population occupies the informal sector, with an average income of Rs 6000 monthly.
In the 1970s, the population of Mumbai witnessed a surge due to poor income in rural areas. The employers also preferred migrant laborers over the local workers as they supplied labour at lesser wages and were willing to work in unsafe conditions for long periods. One study shows that nearly 60% of the homeless in Mumbai are migrant laborers. These migrants work in the agricultural fields of others in their villages. They migrate to the city in search of a better livelihood, better sustenance, better health care, clean drinking water, and to escape the caste-based violence, which deprived them of any opportunity to make a decent living.
A solution to the high prices in the city was to live in slums. Around 5.5 million people live in Mumbai’s slums, which occupies only 8% of the total land area. The occupants in slums live in unhygienic overcrowded spaces with poor lighting, electricity, unclean drinking water. The pressure from the landlords to pay the rent makes the situation worse.The Maharashtra government in 1971 passed the Maharashtra Slum Areas (Improvement, Clearance, and Redevelopment) Act (MSAA) to address the issues of inadequate housing, especially in slums.
With this Act, the government had the power to declare an area as a slum and take necessary measures for its improvement. It also granted the government power to ask the inhabitants to move to another area without providing necessary accommodation. By the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Act (MHADA), the government could acquire lands for fulfilling the objectives of the Act. Through the Slum Upgrading Program, the World Bank helped the inhabitants to get leases. The Slum Redevelopment Scheme (SRD) encouraged the participation of the private sector to redevelop slums. The inability to manage the existing problems, with a huge influx of migrant laborers, the housing problem deepens despite all the legislation.
Governmental and non-governmental services for the homeless
In the 8thFive year plan (1992-1997), India, for the first time, developed programs for the poor and homeless. The government implemented the Footpath Dwellers Night Shelter Scheme in this plan. In the 11th Five year plan (2007–12), the government recognized the right to access a roof over one’s head as a fundamental right.
New policies for the development of shelters and housing in urban areas improved the situation of the homeless in the past few decades. A shelter is a covered area for protecting the homeless from the environment, to keep their belongings, provide clean drinking water and sanitary bathroom facilities. However, shelters are not a permanent solution. The Supreme Court directed a new mission to improve the infrastructure of the slums known as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission.
This mission directed the shelters in cities with a population of more than five lakhs to have all the basic requirements. In 2010, a commission of the Supreme Court reported the poor conditions of the shelters. Furthermore, the report showed a lack of women occupying these shelters. In response to this, the Supreme Court directed the construction of one shelter for every hundred people.
In 2013, the Central government finally implemented the National Urban Livelihood Mission, which established guidelines to states for constructing and running the shelters.
PDS (Public Distribution System) is a system used by the government to distribute food and grains at cheaper rates for low-income households. Another major problem faced by the poor is the lack of documented identification. Only 3% of the homeless have proper identity proofs. Without proper identity proof, the poor cannot avail of the benefits of governmental services like the PDS.
National Shelter Policy
The National Shelter Policy is the outcome of the Supreme Court’s direction to construct 1 homeless shelter for every 100 people in every locality where the population exceeds 100,000 after reports of the death of many homeless in New Delhi. The shelters offered sanitation, clean drinking water and a facility for identification, which was later incorporated into the National Policy on the Urban Homeless.
NGOs play an important role in helping the homeless. The number of NGOs have increased due to the inefficiency of governmental organizations. Drop-in centers are a service agency to help the homeless and have been proved effective in helping street children. NGOs work closely with these centers in big cities.
Salam Baalak Trust is an NGO functioning in Delhi since 1989. They operate four homeless shelters, which can accommodate around 220 children at a time. In addition to this, they also provide food, clothing, health care services, and education. With skill development classes, the children can acquire new skills for their future employment.
NGOs can help battling homelessness in two ways; firstly, the NGOs can overcome the problem of insufficient funds and still do something about the problem. Secondly, they can raise awareness about the problem of homelessness.
Urgent need for a comprehensive law
Economic segregation and inadequate access to high-quality education is the main reason for beggary and homelessness. India has a high number of beggars and homeless people, and the sad fact is that 90% of these vagrants are below the age of fourteen. The lack of a comprehensive law to address the issue of homelessness and beggary is worsening the issue.
Article 21 of the Constitution guarantees the right to life, which is not only the act of living and breathing but also includes the right to live with livelihood and dignity along with other aspects that makes life worth living.
India is also a part of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which provides for the right to live life with dignity. The absence of a comprehensive law is a violation of this provision.
Laws like the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, 1959 only deals with the issues at the state level. Furthermore, these policies follow a “one size fits all” for problems like homelessness and begging. From cases like Ram Lakhan v State, we can see that the law is biased against the destitute and homeless.
Homelessness is a complex and widespread problem. Overcoming the problem of homelessness includes numerous steps of prevention and intervention. The process of prevention involves targeting people who are at the risk of abuse, ignored, and prone to homelessness. The intervention measures focus on the already homeless population. System based responses such as providing MGNREGA, Aadhar cards, and ration cards can help the implementation of preventive and intervention methods.
Providing affordable housing, employment opportunities, and removing discrimination are good solutions for primary prevention. The absence of affordable housing is the main reason for homelessness. By providing employment opportunities, the homeless can become more self-reliant and will also prevent social exclusion. Providing better health and educational facilities can help poor people to find suitable employment. Ensuring socio-economic equality will make the common people more aware of the problems faced by the homeless.
The quality of a citizen’s life is an important indicator of the progress and development of countries. Homelessness and poverty are a few of the most problems faced by India. Homelessness is a serious issue affecting people of all age groups. Prevention, early intervention, providing adequate nutrition, and a comprehensive law is important to stop homelessness.
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