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Organize shelter for homeless, migrants sans violence, stigma: Petition to Thackeray

By Natash Maru*
On March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown as a preventative action against the community spread of the novel coronavirus. But while we remain within the safety of our homes, the homeless, migrant workers, and people of nomadic and denotified nomadic tribes have found themselves stranded and shelterless in Mumbai, Maharashtra.
A new petition addressed to Uddhav Thackeray, Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Ajit Pawar, Deputy Chief Minister, Kishori Pednekar, Mayor of Mumbai, Suhas Waadkarand, Deputy Mayor of Mumbai, Praveen Pardeshi, Commissioner of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), and other responsible officers and administrators demands for safe and secure shelter and nutrition for the homeless, the migrant workers, and people of nomadic and denotified nomadic tribes.
While the 2001 Census states the number of homeless people in the city as 54,716, civil society estimates peg the number closer to 2 lakh. Regularly residing on footpaths, road dividers, bus and railway stations, temples, mandaps, under bridges, and other public spaces, these people are three times more vulnerable to infectious disease such as Covid-19 given their reduced immunity, history of respiratory disease, and low sanitation levels.
The homeless also face greater social and economic insecurity because of the suspension of daily wage/casual/contractual work and small businesses in the informal sector. Despite the heightened risk and precarious existence, the homeless in Mumbai have not received adequate state support or care. Instead illegal and inhumane incidents of police brutality and eviction have been reported making their lives even harder.
The contradictions in the housing sector in Mumbai are well known. While more than half of its population lives in squalid conditions, the city boasts not only of the most expensive housing, but also of the largest inventory of unsold houses, mostly catering to the higher income group.
It is likely that many of the homeless and migrant workers helped construct the 2,16,603 houses, on the one hand, that remained unsold at the beginning of 2020, on the other hand, there are also 35,517 low cost housing  units in Maharashtra that were constructed under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) and remain vacant, mired in politics and logistical difficulties.
The number of functioning shelters for the homeless in Mumbai remains disputed between 8-18 with no more than a couple of thousands capacity at a time at the most. Delhi, with reportedly a third of Mumbai’s homeless population, has 192 permanent and 56 temporary shelters and the capacity to feed meals to over 15,000 people.
The Government of Kerala has also announced provision of rice free of cost up to 35 kg to BPL and 15 kg for APL and non-priority ration cards, as well as cooked meals delivered to the elderly, infirm and needy through public canteens. Compared to this the measures announced by the Maharashtra government are grossly inadequate.
Given the urgent need that the most disadvantaged among us now face, the petition urges the government to:
1) Immediately provide 24X7 shelter for the homeless, migrant and nomadic people in the city in for the next 3 months, without any legal or bureaucratic preconditions, and in line with the minimum standards laid out by the Supreme Court of India-commissioned “Shelters for the Urban Homeless” handbook for administrators and policy makers (as per orders of the Hon’ble Apex Court in WP(Civil) 196/2001). The handbook stipulates for the building of one shelter per lakh of population with a minimum capacity of 100, and the space of 3.5 sq.m. per person in the shelter. This can be done in vacant public properties, disputed properties under government control, within the unsold inventory of housing units currently available, or in any other arrangements as may be deemed necessary.
2) Provide critical water and sanitation facilities, including clean drinking water and soaps and sanitizers, at all shelters and across the city, with separate provision for women.
People living on the streets often rely on public water sources or water from nearby residential buildings and restaurants. They can spend Rs 20 - 25 per person per day  to use public toilet and bathing facilities, the alternatives being unhygienic and shameful.
Homeless also face greater social and economic insecurity because of the suspension of daily wage/ casual/ contractual work
Women bear an unfair burden in having to collect water as early as 4 am, and having limited access to sanitary conditions. These already scarce facilities may witness complete suspension in times of the lockdown when they are needed most to ensure cleanliness.
3) Supply free rations (including flour, rice, dal, salt, sugar and oil) for all, and cooked meals for the especially vulnerable such as the elderly, children, sick, and pregnant and lactating mothers for 3 months.
4) Grant a minimum income support of Rs 6,000 per month, if not more, for 3 months, with additional top-ups for the elderly and single mothers in collaboration with the central government
5) Provide regular screening, quarantine facilities, and primary healthcare for those showing symptoms or suspected of having contracted the coronavirus infection
6) Provide information on the pandemic, its spread, and preventive measures widely and continuously, including by non-digital means.
7) Publicly condemn the reported incidents of forceful eviction, abuse and violence against the homeless, the migrant workers and people of nomadic and denotified nomadic tribes at the hands of the police and other state agents, take action against those at fault, and make efforts to limit future violence and stigma through awareness initiatives.
8) Ensure the efficient and effective fulfillment of commitments and implementation of safeguards for the homeless as provided under schemes such as Mahatma Gandhi Pathkranti Yojana (2006), Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana (2011), Scheme of Shelters for Urban Homeless under the National Urban Livelihoods Mission (2013), and Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana or Housing for All (2014) in the longer run.
The demands above address the needs of the homeless, migrant and nomadic peoples that have continued to remain in Mumbai. Several of them have returned to their home villages or traveled out of the city since the beginning of the month, and may be infected and carriers of the infection.
Similarly, many may have returned back to the state and the Mumbai Metropolitan Region from elsewhere in the country. District administrations and Gram Panchayats must organize to quarantine these individuals, as has been done in Telangana, Odisha and West Bengal, without violence and stigma, always with care and concern.
The homeless, migrant workers and nomadic peoples that have called Mumbai streets their home, sometimes even for generations, are an integral part of the social fabric and economic machinery of the city. Every assistance should be extended to them in these trying times that unfairly penalizes those that are most vulnerable.
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*Mumbaikar, PhD candidate at the Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, working with nomadic pastoralists in Gujarat
Click here to sign the petition

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