on behalf of Gita Dewan Verma
------------------------------------------------------
Celebrating night shelters for the homeless SERVANTS, COPS AND BENEFACTORS

Gita Dewan Verma / Planner / 29.01.03

 

Let me clarify at the out start that I have nothing against night
shelters, only against them becoming part of haloes - because night
shelters are on my list of necessities that we must remember to be
embarrassed by for they are indicators of our failures on the housing
front.

In my book I have chronicled a presentation I attended in 2000 by Ashray
Adhikar Abhiyan, which had done and published a survey of the homeless in
Delhi. I place AAA in the category of what I call ?groups of NGOs
masquerading as movements?. These are not ?peoples? movements?. They only
reduce people to subjects of NGO-research and, later, dole based on
NGO-analysis sans accountability of NGO-research sans competence. The AAA
?group of NGOs? was set up by Action Aid (headed here by Harsh Mander, one
of our most compassionate bureaucrats who did not quite resign to shift to
the faster NGO lane). Its survey effort was shared by Prayas (NGO started
by our Joint Commissioner of Police, Amod Kanth, now also adviser to NGO
or group of NGOs called Delhi for Change) and Navjyoti (NGO started by our
best known police officer, Kiran Bedi, now doing a stint in the UN). The
presentation I had attended was about how AAA had inferred from its survey
that the homeless want night-shelters, drug de-addiction, etc. I found it
odd that AAA (Housing ? or shelter - Rights Campaign), was not speaking of
housing for the homeless. I was told these ?priorities? were as
ascertained from the homeless themselves. Being a conservative planner
loath to accept that the homeless did not want housing, I asked for survey
details. After cutting through a lot of bias about ivory-tower moorings of
planners, I learned they had counted about 53000 and interviewed about 600
homeless persons, arbitrarily selected. The sample was poor by any
standards, but what left me speechless was that 'priorities' had been
ascertained through a single question asking ?problems at sleeping place?.
Naturally, no one had said housing. The most frequently reported response
in the survey by the group of NGOs including two started by police
officers was 'police brutality', but there were no suggestions about this
key finding. What rattled me most was that these people said they were
going to provide inputs for the Tenth Plan, national policy for the
homeless, etc.

I did whine then that homeless need housing, that it is erroneous and
dangerous to connect homelessness with drug-abuse, that one can?t base
national plans and policies on patchy surveys in one city, and so on, but
then I'm just a planner. So, why am I whining about night shelters now? I
am not whining. I am diary-ing my disgust at the state of our democracy
captured by the coincidence of, on one hand, utter apathy to the real
question of housing for the poor raised by the end-November court
judgement striking down Delhi?s slum policy and, on the other, excessive
enthusiasm about night shelters. I have chronicled already the former,
notably the mid-December me-first consensus on moving court to reinstate
Delhi?s utterly defunct slum policy. Suffice it to add that to date no one
has moved court. Nor has any one responded to requests to at least issue
some order to public authorities, including the Police, to clarify that
the court has not quite ordered mid-winter evictions. The following is a
two-part account. First is a chronicle of who did what, rather
glamorously, apropos night shelters, while doing nothing of any
consequence to ensure the housed are not rendered homeless in mid-winter.
The second is a more comprehensive reaction to Amod Kanth?s edit page
piece in Hindustan Times of 25.01.03, which provoked this diary-ing in
disgust.

 

1. CELEBRATING NIGHT SHELTERS

On 21.10.02, The Hindu reported that at a discussion on ?Life with dignity
for Delhi's homeless? organised by a group of NGOs MCD commissioner
?welcomed the initiative of joint management for running night shelters by
civic bodies and NGOs?. The NGOs named overlapped with those that had
carried out the AAA survey. The number of homeless, however, was inflated
to 140,000. ?Recalling a survey?, AAA Director had displayed photographs
of those sleeping on pavements, etc, and said that over 70 per cent of
them ?were earning their livelihood and thus were part of socio-economic
set up of Delhi. Such persons also had the right to lead a normal life and
the State should feel responsible for their welfare?. AAA also presented
?a plan of action to combat problems related to the issue?. Additional
Commissioner MCD, Ramesh Negi, ?endorsed the need for a national policy
for the homeless, as emphasised by the participating NGOs?. Amod Kanth was
quoted appreciating ?the model of shelter and rehabilitation in New York
run by the Department of Homeless Services directly under the Mayor. Under
this programme, 35,000 shelterless persons have been rehabilitated with
the help of NGOs at an annual expenditure of one billion dollars?.

On 15.11.02 Times of India reported that ?in a bid to revive three of its
night shelters? the state had handed them over to AAA. The report
erroneously inflated the number of homeless in Delhi to 1 million. It said
the number of night shelters had gone down from 20 to 12, but did not
mention that this was because the rest were closed down on account of the
Metro Rail project, etc. Amod Kanth was quoted (as joint commissioner of
police, working on a project for the homeless with AAA) saying the
decision ?was timely? with the onset of winters. He was also quoted saying
that ?due to the government's failure to set up night shelters, the number
of deaths among the homeless has been rising?, and that ?occupancy in the
existing night shelters has also decreased?. No substantiating figures
were included and later reports suggest that he might have been relying on
figures of unidentified bodies, not necessarily of the homeless, and
aggregate occupancy figures in which decline owed to closure of a third of
the shelters. Apropos management by the state, he complained, ?Persons
seeking shelter pay Rs 6 but get nothing in return. There are no blankets
or bedding, toilets stink and roofs leak? and that ?these shelters are
also the hub of anti-social activities?. Apropose value addition by NGOs,
he said that AAA had (for reasons, etc, not explicated) ?decided to
provide counseling and vocational training to the homeless at its night
shelters? and since those seeking shelter are ?from all walks of life?,
this would be ?based on their needs?.

On 28.12.02, by when mid-winter evictions had begun and MCD had announced
its intent to move court against the November judgement, Hindustan Times
reported MCD had ?gifted the homeless of Delhi, including hundreds of
street children, five community centres to be used as much-needed shelters
on the eve of Christmas.? This, it said, was ?the result of a unique
collaborative effort of the Joint Apex Committee constituted by the Slum
and J.J. Wing comprising representatives from NGOs like Aashray Adhikar
Abhiyan, Delhi for Change, Prayas and Sulabh International?. The report
said, ?Various religious and charitable groups and a large number of
people have contributed to provide the homeless with blankets, bedding,
clothing, soaps etc?. Deputy Commissioner of Slum and J.J. Wing, Ashok
Verma, was quoted saying this was a temporary arrangement for the winter
and attempts were on to identify more community centres for the purpose by
?mobilising the local communities without whose help these community
centres cannot be given away as shelters?. Now the police, he said, would,
?instead of beating up the homeless for sleeping in the open?, direct them
to night shelters. Amod Kanth was quoted (as Jt. Commissioner of Police,
also secretary of Prayas) reiterating that the survey had ?revealed that
over 75 per cent of the homeless are productive people ...active economic
agents creating goods and services for us?.

On 08.01.03, by when MCD had re-announced its intent to move court (with
concern about the fact that without the defunct slum policy the Slum and
JJ Wing of MCD would become defunct) and Delhi Government had also
re-announced its intent to move court (with concern about the fact that
without the excuse of the slum policy it had no basis for seeking an
extension of the court deadline of March 2003 on cleaning the Yamuna,
which it was planning to do on grounds of ideas it was ? and is ? busily
manufacturing for relocating Yamuna Pushta), Times of India reported that
Night shelters would remain open round-the-clock. This odd-sounding
announcement was made by Delhi state social welfare minister, R K Chauhan,
while inspecting the night shelters handed over to NGOs along with the
NGOs. Amod Kanth was quoted (as project advisor of NGO, Delhi For Change)
saying, ?facilities for the homeless were inadequate and even the existing
night shelters were suffering poor occupancy? and that the joint apex
committee had ?now been formed to improve the facilities for the homeless
and destitute children?. He said the apex committee was providing
blankets, clothes and soaps free at the five community centres, being run
by a community based committee.

On 13.01.03 (when Arjun Camp demolition was averted) Express Newsline
reported that the CM had also inspected the night shelters handed over to
NGOs. The report described the crowded tents and quoted the ?sheltered?
complaining about mattresses and blankets not being warm enough,
cleanliness being rather limited to VIP inspection occasions, and the Rs-6
fee being too high.

On 16.01.03 Express Newsline and Times of India reported that MCD had
decided to waive Night Shelter fees waived for winter. (By then, after the
Arjun Camp demolition was averted on grounds, among others, that the court
had not quite ordered mid-winter evictions, requests had been made to at
least issue instructions making this simple clarification). ToI quoted
Chairman of standing committee, Ram Babu Sharma, saying that providing
night shelter facility was one of the main welfare duties of the MCD and
?we don't want to run these as commercial ventures?. Express Newsline
quoted BJP councillor Vijender Gupta saying that MCD had earned nearly Rs
14 lakh from its 12 shelters last year and this winter Rs 5 lakh has
already been collected. Both reports said members had expressed concern
over the poor service at night shelters. ToI reported suggestions for
weekly visits by area councillors and the decision that the Chairman and
opposition leader would distribute free blankets to 200 homeless people in
various shelters. Both reports said that MCD was going to build 11 new
shelters for 6000. ToI said MCD would also lease out land to a charitable
organisation to build one for 1000. Express Newsline quoted Additional
Commissioner Slum and JJ saying that land use change would be needed
first, 2 crores had been sanctioned and the project would be complete by
next winter. ;

On 17.01.03 Times of India reported, in the continuing innovations about
Night Shelters, MCD?s ?plans to install wooden sleepers, similar to those
in railway coaches, at their night shelters to increase the capacity?.
Standing Committee Chairman and opposition leader, accompanied by
representatives of NGOs and officials of the slum and JJ wing, had
inspected several night shelters and distributed the free blankets, as
announced in the previous day?s reports. (A Subsequent report in the
Pioneer said the Mayor was also part of the inspection / distribution
visit). The visit, the report said, ?proved to be an eye-opener for MCD
functionaries? and Standing Committee Chairman announced that MCD had
?taken a decision to open 15 new night shelters by next year. Five of
these would be exclusively for women?. Amod Kanth was again quoted (as
project advisor of NGO, Delhi For Change) saying that facilities were
inadequate, occupancy low in even existing night shelters, the joint apex
committee formed to improve the facilities is providing blankets, clothes,
soaps, etc.

As the weather became less cold, the hype became less hot and chinks began
to show in news reports. On 26.01.03 Express Newsline reported on the
crowded and unhygienic conditions in the tent shelters. It also mentioned
cases of those who had made night shelters ?their permanent address?,
citing advantages of proximity to bus terminus or railway station and a
charge cheaper than room rental. . And a report on 29.01.03 provided an
almost hilarious account of the problem assessment apropos night shelters
for women. It had Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit saying, ?NGOs like Chetna
and Prayas have given us an indication that there are no destitute women
on the roads?. And it had Secretary of NGO Chetna, Anil Sood, saying, ?Our
estimate says that there would be about 50,000-60,000 women living on the
streets?. (The AAA survey had counted about 4% women, which proportion
would make Chetna?s estimate of total homeless population a whopping 1.5
million). Anil Sood goes on, almost in luscious Bollywood style, ?Setting
up a night shelter for women is not any more difficult than setting up a
shelter for men. There are no law and order issues involved. But it is a
racket that is being allowed. These are women that are forced to work as
prostitutes and it benefits the racketeers to ensure that there are no
shelters for them?. One Meera Khanna ?who runs widows' homes in Brindavan
and Gujarat? was also quoted saying, ?We definitely need a shelter for
women. It should be embarrassing for a government if there are women
wandering on the streets because there are no night shelters they can turn
to?. The report has Dikshit saying, after saying that NGOs say there are
no destitute women on the streets, that the government is considering
setting up a shelter for women and ?We have requested colleges and
gurdwaras to accommodate these women. We are even ready to use schools?.
And it had Sood insisting, ?As far as we know, there are no proposals to
have shelters for women?. And it has Dikshit ?explaining? why her
government or others before it have not set up night shelters for women
with a vague ?No one likes to take the responsibility of sheltering
women?. All this enlightened discourse on solutions to an undefined
?problem? was happening at one of the meetings that our CM keeps calling
with NGOs to discuss the most topical (read reported by the press) issues
plaguing our city.

 

2. SERVANTS, COPS AND BENEFACTORS

On 25.01.03 (by when nearly everyone had piously inspected Night Shelters
and doled out blankets and ideas, no one had moved court about evictions
without resettlement, and the media had reported that our government had
not spent most of its budget allocation except on housing for our
representatives and servants and that our Chief Mister was looking for a
bigger and better home for herself) Hindustan Times carried an edit-page
piece, movingly titled ?Homeless in the cold?, by Amod Kanth (this time
Joint Commissioner of Police).

Kanth attributed slums and homelessness to city-ward migration, quoting
all India poverty percentages from a Planning Commission report of 1995-96
and, from unspecified and obviously dubious sources, a figure of 4 million
for slum population in Delhi. Obviously he does not know that, among
others, the Planning Commission?s report of 2002 on slums in Delhi,
rejects the hypothesis that migrant and poor population is coterminous in
Delhi. Nor that the 2001 census places slum population at 2 million and
even MCD, whose estimates are likely to be somewhat exaggerated, places it
at about 3 million.

Kanth?s inflated slum population estimate is matched by his inflated
estimate of the homeless, which he says ?could be half a million?,
speaking in the very next phrase of ?the last count of 140,000? and having
been part (through his NGO Prayas) of the survey in 1999 that counted
53,000. He says, ?Perhaps, it was never understood that the unidentified
bodies found by Delhi Police - 2,348 in 2000 and 2,407 in 2001, and nearly
3,000 this year - are mostly such homeless?. But he does not elucidate
what fresh police investigations, rather than just the latest interest of
joint commissioner of police, have caused it to now be ?understood? that
any unidentified body in Delhi may be ?identified? as being of a late
homeless person.

Kanth correctly points out that the capacity of 2,400 in MCD?s Night
Shelters is inadequate compared with even the survey count of about 53,000
(before the ?last count of 140,000? and the latest estimate of half a
million). What he does not tell us is that the capacity of MCD?s Night
shelters has never matched the number of homeless and that other options
of night shelter for them have existed long before the group of NGOs he
belongs to came into being. It is noteworthy that the celebrated but
frivolous AAA summer-time rapid survey of the homeless on which all these
policy-pushing ideas are based does not seem to have asked any questions
about winter-time options available to the homeless.

Kanth admits that the ?major effort? of all the good guys working through
his joint apex committee is ?to accommodate 5,000 to 10,000 homeless
people in temporary and permanent shelters?. He stops short of adding
that, all the media coverage and piety notwithstanding, this, too, is very
?inadequate?. Nor does he mention what, if anything, did his group-of-NGOs
do when two thirds of MCD?s night shelters, all neatly listed in a matrix
in the AAA survey report, were closed over the last three years. After
all, what is supposed to set these NGOs apart from other simpler
charitable souls who take the homeless in for the night is the purportedly
more rigorous and sustained engaging with the issue over precisely the
last three years. Nothing else gives them a claim to greater insight or
concern.

But the truth is that their claim is a lie and their survey and insight
hogwash. It is hardly surprising that this shoddy NGO-survey has found
only the obvious and that Kanth and his NGO-colleagues continue to find it
surprising, for instance, that 75 to 80 per cent of the homeless work and
are not in the city just to be homeless and create photo-ops for NGOs and
politicians. That oodles of compassion, real or otherwise, makes only a
sea few inches deep is obvious from the patently pointless ideas for
vocational training, counseling, round-the-clock functioning, user charge
waiver, etc, that have really nothing to do with core issues of night
shelter provision. While Kanth is repeatedly quoted claiming that the
joint apex committee has been formed to ?improve? the functioning of MCD?s
night shelters, neither the deficiencies in the existing functioning, nor
the parameters of improvement are spelled out. The media has not reported
any qualitative improvement. And Kanth himself has admitted that the
quantitative improvement is hardly worth celebration. Frankly, beyond a
series of photo-ops not much seems to have been gained. And in the process
an entirely frivolous discourse has been opened up, with incompetent
assessments and ill-informed opinion already hogging centre-stage in it.

Kanth obviously has no clue that the marginal incremental benefit (not
counting gains for his group of NGOs, etc) of the high profile Night
Shelter business in Delhi?s winter of 2002-3 is hardly worth the cost of
obfuscating issues relating to homelessness. Nor obviously is he concerned
about the import of reducing citizens to ?marginalised people? in need of
?inclusive governance? of a type in which public servants are free to
become rather willful ?caring society?. Kanth, while he does not say in
his piece that the AAA survey found police brutality to be the main
problem faced by the homeless, does say that the homeless ?are harassed by
the land mafia, municipal and police authorities, victimised by organised
anti-socials?. Signing as Joint Commissioner of Police he says much about
the major NGO effort to marginally improve MCD?s routine effort of night
shelter provision for just about 5000 people. But he says nothing about
what he has done to ensure that the remaining 50,000 (or, by his reckoning
nearly half million) not blessed by the halo-ed NGOs are at least
protected by the Police from its own brutality if not harassment by
others.

Kanth?s NGO Prayas is supposedly focussed on interventions for street
children. With the same ingenuity with which Kanth, pirouetting on the
?street? in the street-children, has forayed from there to stake claim to
policy making for the homeless, he has done so also for hawkers, being one
of the committee, entirely dominated by NGOs, for drafting the national
hawker policy. In all the matters he claims insight, harassment by the
police is easily the most significant problem. In none has he attempted
any systemic reform to deal with that. In effect, he has used his position
in government to further his non-government pursuits, but never has he
demonstrated any attempt to use his NGO insights and experiences to
improve government functioning in his own department.

In 2002-2003, while our Joint Commissioner was busy with night shelters
for those homeless in the cold, Delhi Police was providing ?force? to DDA
to render people, including on 13 January my clients in Arjun Camp,
homeless in mid-winter. Just as in 2001-2002, while our Joint Commissioner
was busy with drafting a national hawker policy, Delhi Police was
harassing hawkers routinely as well as, in case of my hawker clients, with
'force' for demolition ? once inclusive of burning and looting ? of their
stalls.

I have written time and again to complain about specific matters, to draw
attention to the inconsistency between policy-level posturing and actions
on the ground and, most importantly, to point out the absurdity of cops
playing benefactors on issues they do not understand. Homelessness and
hawking are ?law and order? problems less from a policing perspective than
from a perspective of planning law and spatial order, embodying
entitlements of the homeless and hawkers. For all our joint commissioner?s
claims of concern about urban issues, I have seen not even the courtesy of
a response to my letters, far more informed than NGO banter passing off as
policy discourse, on precisely these issues. Of course, I am not
surprised, because I can see very clearly what is happening here. Our best
known Police officials are practically ?using? urban issues to let loose
NGO red herrings to divert attention from their own failures to deal with
problems like police brutality. At a personal level they are gaining much,
which is not the point. The point is that we are losing. A lot.

And so it is that while many, if not most, sit up and cheer Amod Kanth's
compassion, I can not find it in me to join them. I maintain we'd be
better off if our public servants would apply themselves to doing well
what they are paid by the public to do, let others paid and trained at
public cost to do other things do those, and, most of all, not presume to
be 'kind' to public.