Homeless suffer in North Indian winter cold

While the government has made 40 night shelters available, critics say they are insufficient in number and poorly equipped.

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NEW DELHI // Hundreds of thousands of homeless people in the capital and across northern India are facing a battle for survival as minimum temperatures continue to hover near zero. Up to 150 people have died in two northern states, where temperatures have dropped to near freezing. Such temperatures are not unheard of, but the homeless, who in India number about 78 million, are ill equipped to handle it.
For Bola Singh, a homeless labourer, surviving this exceptionally harsh winter has been difficult. Sitting under a massive concrete flyover in the posh South Delhi neighbourhood of the Indian capital, Mr Singh is equipped only with a thin sweater and shawl to protect him from the cold. His lifeline is a small bonfire made of old newspapers and waste plastic items. "It's difficult to survive these temperatures. I cannot afford to buy clothes to fight the chill. It's the waste we burn that keeps us alive," Mr Singh said.
Mr Singh who hails from Bihar, the most impoverished state in India, came to New Delhi last summer in hope of a better life. He earns no more than 100 rupees (Dh8) a day and often remains out of work. He shares the space under the flyover with a dozen other labourers. "Our earnings don't allow us to rent a house and there is no help from the government either. We can barely feed ourselves; most of the money goes to our families back home," he said. "We don't have any option but to make this open space our home."
Ramesh Kumar, who shares a space under the flyover with Mr Singh, was shivering with cold. As he spoke, he coughed intermittently. He said the government is doing nothing to help make their lives secure. "Every winter hundreds of people die due to the cold weather in Delhi, but the government simply doesn't care. They spend millions of rupees on building flyovers but can't provide a shelter for us."
Non-governmental organisations campaigning for the rights of the homeless in New Delhi describe the situation as grave. As the government does not keep any official figures, the organisations estimate the number of homeless in the Delhi area to be 150,000. They claim that only five per cent to seven per cent of homeless people manage to find refuge in night shelters, which are run by either the government or the NGOs.
New Delhi itself has not recorded any deaths from the cold officially, but homeless people interviewed for this article said they knew of six people who have died. The homeless have no identification cards and are often alone in the city. In case of death, police categorise them as unidentified men and cremate them in government-run crematoriums. The cause of death is rarely known. In 2002, 3,095 deaths were reported in New Delhi due to a cold wave, according to media reports. The Delhi government, however, had declared that 500 homeless died that winter due to cold. The government has not reported on cold-related deaths since then.
"The winters are always a tough time for the homeless. We have been working for the betterment of this community for last 10 years, but it's a huge task," said Paramjeet Kaur, the director of Ashraya Adhikar Abhiyan, an NGO working for the homeless in greater Delhi. Cold waves are an annual feature in northern India, but this year the mercury has plummeted a few degrees below the normal average in many areas. According to Press Trust of India, the official news agency, more than 150 mostly homeless people have died in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar during the current cold snap, which began last week.
The sudden dip in temperatures - the average night-time temperature is 7 to 10C°, whereas Delhi has recorded 5.2C° this week - is caused by cold air descending from the Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh regions. Thick fog that descended over most of northern India at the time of the cold snap disrupted the transport system and brought normal life to a halt. Hospitals across the region are reporting a huge rush of patients with symptoms of hypothermia and cold-related ailments.
New Delhi's homeless population has grown rapidly in recent years. Massive construction projects begun in 2007 for this year's Commonwealth Games have brought thousands of labourers to the city with little or no help from the government to provide them with shelter. Sociologists say homeless women and children face the highest risk during extreme weather, and volunteer organisations in Delhi say they make up 10 per cent of the total homeless population.
"Women and children are often easy targets for men who are looking for an extra blanket or sweater. Under the influence of alcohol, incidents of stealing firewood, shelters and items which provide some warmth are common and mostly weaker people become the victims," said Rahul Shekhar, a New Delhi-based sociologist. Last week, The Hindustan Times reported that police arrested a 55-year-old man for killing a 15-year-old boy for a blanket in New Delhi. The homeless boy, Sonu, was alleged to have resisted the attempts made by Sharvan Kumar to steal his blanket. During the altercation Mr Kumar hit the boy with a heavy stone, which resulted in the boy's death, it was reported.
At present, the government, with the assistance of volunteer organisations, is running about 40 night shelters for New Delhi's homeless. Many of them are little more than tarpaulin sheets with no heating arrangements. Suresh Kumar, a cart puller, claimed he abandoned one of the night shelters in Old Delhi after officials demanded money. "If you don't have money, you don't have any right to live. The government is making tall claims but the reality is we live under open sky," he said. "They have left poor people to their fates."
Ms Paramjeet said providing shelter to the homeless is a colossal task. Although her organisation, with government assistance in erecting tents, has managed to help shelter about 5,000 homeless people, she called for greater participation from ordinary people to help the overwhelming numbers of homeless. "Things have changed to some extent. So far this year, no deaths have been reported due to cold in Delhi. We distribute blankets and warm clothes to them to survive the cold. But we need individuals to come forward and help them, she said."