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Hurried lockdown 'suggests' exclusionary, adhoc approach towards CityMakers


By Dr Balwant Singh Mehta, Dr Simi Mehta, Dr Arjun Kumar, Dr Indu Prakash Singh* 
Homeless residents contribute to the economy of the cities and of the nation as cheap labour in the informal sector. Lacking adequate resources, they are forced to live under miserable conditions with no shelter (in the open or roadside, pavements, inhume-pipes, under flyovers and staircases, or in the open in places of worship, mandaps, railway platforms etc.) or social security protection. Given this situation, the homeless shelters come to a rescue and perform a critical function in our communities.
Taking cognizance of the problem of homelessness and to ensure dignified shelter and living conditions for the urban homeless, the Deendayal Antyodaya Yojana National Urban Livelihoods Mission (DAY-NULM) was launched in 2016, after a decade long advocacy and umpteen actions for it. It made it pertinent to provide permanent 24 hours’ shelter (than merely a night shelter) equipped with benchmarked essential services to the urban homeless in a phased manner under the Scheme of Shelters for Urban Homeless (SUH).
The benchmarked services including adequate space, mattresses, bed rolls, blankets, potable drinking water, hygiene, functional latrines, first aid, primary medical facilities, storage, de-addiction and recreation facilities, welfare delivery, convergence with other schemes etc.
Critics of the neo-liberal school of thought have identified that the fundamental problem of development is revealed through the missing link between planning and practice, and this is the reason that has exacerbated homelessness and chronic urban poverty rather than addressing it. After all, cities provide the promise of better livelihood and opportunities, and the socio-economic distresses are major push-factors for rural-to-urban migration.
Being the ‘greatest economic emergency since India’s Independence’, spread of COVID-19 has brought the cities to a grinding halt. Yet again, it is the humongous population estimated at around 7.5 million (currently being served meals at relief camps and around 1.2 million using shelters there) consisting of the homeless, the street children and the migrant workers, who have been hit the hardest-after the ‘lockdown and stay-at-home’ orders came into effect from 00:00 hours of March 25, 2020.
Thus, in the prevailing context, homes being the hedge of protection from coronavirus, the homeless will unfortunately need to brace for serious health risks and challenges. Amongst the homeless citizens, the children seem to be among the uncared lot and are out of the purview of the administration. Even during current the lockdown days, they have been found to be wandering from one shelter home to another looking for food.
They need care and shelter along with food and other basic healthcare essentials and have little knowledge about the coronavirus and the precautions that need to be taken to prevent themselves from being infected. Access to hygienic space, hand sanitizers, masks, and gloves is implausible for them. In fact, the biggest scare is that they do fall in the high-risk category of catching the infection and therefore, a probable risk for everyone else as transmitter.
Engaged mostly in low paid informal jobs like construction labour (40%), rickshaw pulling (29%), begging (13%), rag-picking (9%) and self-employment i.e. selling newspaper, magazine, flowers and other items on roads/street (10%) etc. (IHD survey on Homeless in Delhi, 2007), these homeless citizens virtually lost all means of their incomes with the country going on a ‘total lockdown’.
Nervousness and anxiety to receive next meal seems to be more on CityMakers' minds instead of the worry if they catch the infection
Responding to the plight of the migrant workers, the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), has affirmed that total of 27,661 relief camps and shelters for them have been set up in the states, in which 12.5 lakh people have been given shelter. This translates into an average of 45 persons per shelter.
What is worrisome is that the government is itself complicit in the contravention of the NULM-SUH guidelines in the implementation of night shelters, which mandates a minimum of 50 square feet per person space in the shelter home. An added concern is the maintenance of social distance (6 feet distance between two persons) and isolation to prevent the coronavirus from spreading. But, with relief camps being set up in a jiffy, these measures are being repudiated, and have kept the threat of community transmission growing.
In fact, the homeless are faced with unimaginable sense of food insecurity. Leaving it to them to do their best to avoid crowded areas and maintain physical distancing principle during the virus catastrophe remains out of question. The nervousness and anxiety to receive the next meal seems to be more on their minds instead of the worry if they catch the infection.
The MHA has also claimed that a total of 19,460 food camps have been set up around the country, which are providing food to 75 lakh people, i.e., an average of 385 persons are being served per food camp. An important point to be noted here is whether the physical distancing norms are being followed here. Another question that arises is the gross neglect of catering to the older adults or those who have underlying medical conditions among the homeless, as they are at higher risks of infection.
Added to this is the insufficient number of shelters for the urban homeless, which, as per the data available on the official website of NULM as on April 6, 2020, the total number of shelters for the urban homeless in India stood at 2263 (men- 268, women- 210, family- 24, general- 1565, special- 196) with a capacity of accommodating 1.03 lakh people (men- 13684, women- 6145, family- 2395, general- 70221, special- 10829) (Interestingly the official web-link to the live numbers has stopped working!).
As per the Census 2011, the urban population was 37.7 crore in around 4000 cities (statutory) and 4000 census towns; the numbers of urban homeless being almost 10 lakh. Therefore, according to the NULM guidelines (100 capacity shelter per 1 lakh population), there should be homeless shelters for approximately 4 lakh population, which currently stands at just 1.03 lakh.
While authorities claim to have set up helpline numbers for the needy and migrant workers, majority of the calls remained unanswered
And if we input the NULM mandate of space per person, all the shelters (physical space) put together would not even be catering to one fourth of the 1.03 lakh homeless persons. It rather would highlight a very shocking facet of sick building syndrome, where people are sardined in shelters, even during the times of COVID -19.
Concerned about those living in emergency shelters, homelessness, and informal settlements the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to adequate housing urged the national governments to take extraordinary measures to secure the right to housing for all to protect against the pandemic. Other suggestions included:
  • Immediate provision of accommodation to all homeless people living ‘rough’ or on the streets with a view to transitioning them to permanent housing so that they do not return to a situation of homelessness once the pandemic is over. This may require procuring hotel or motel rooms, or repurposing buildings such as unoccupied houses. Public authorities should be empowered to make available privately-owned vacant housing or secondary homes.
  • Ensure that women, children and youth who may need to leave a household due to economic reasons, violence, accidents, medical attention and so on do not fall into homelessness and are provided with adequate alternative accommodations that ensure safety and provide access to water/sanitation, food, social supports, health services and testing for COVID-19. 
  • Ensure emergency accommodations for physical distancing, self-isolation, quarantine and any other health recommendations issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) to stop the spread of COVID-19, harnessing technology for real time implementation. 
  • Attention should be given to ensure the provision of adequate housing for families living in homelessness, women and children, persons with physical or psycho-social disabilities and persons at particular risk (over 60 years or with preexisting health conditions). Governments must ensure that service providers have access to up-to-date health information, masks, hand sanitizers and any other necessary personal protective equipment (PPEs) to continue to provide their invaluable support services. 
  • Ensure all persons living in homelessness, regardless of where they are living and without being stringent on particular identification documents, have access to non-discriminatory and cost-free health care and testing. There must also be widespread distribution of accessible, up-to-date information on COVID-19, including best health practices, government health policies and where and how health services may be accessed. 
  • The homeless citizens must have guaranteed access to public toilets, showers, and handwashing facilities. These facilities must be regularly disinfected. 
  • Governments must not undertake any measures that might result in people becoming homeless, such as evictions- which may only be permissible where they are necessary to protect household residents from harm from within the household, and those evicted must be provided with alternative accommodation. 
Caring for the homeless as per the above UN suggestions seems to be far-fetched in India. In fact, it is difficult to say whether this section of the population forms a priority for protection against the diseases or not. With sudden announcement of lockdown, tens of thousands of people of all ages suddenly turned jobless and destitute, thronged to the highways to return to their homes on foot. 
While the authorities claim to have set up helpline numbers for the needy and migrant workers, majority of the calls remained unanswered. The grim scope of livelihood opportunities in near future adds to further worrisome scenario as homelessness and destitution numbers along with urban poor would witness a sharp rise. 

Way forward and conclusions

Health departments and healthcare facilities should be aware that people who are homeless are a particularly vulnerable group. While ensuring that the services are rendered without fail, all shelters must have vigilant case managers, shelter staff, and other care providers to immediately isolate any person showing symptoms of COVID-19 and identify options for medical care as needed.
The role technology must be harnessed along with strengthening of the manpower assistance. For this the command and control centre and other initiatives and projects as well as private consultants working as project monitoring unit in the government departments under the Smart Cities Mission, AMRUT, Swachh Bharat Mission, PMAY-U Housing for All, etc must prioritised on an emergency basis.
With relief camps being set up in a jiffy, these measures are being repudiated, and have kept the threat of community transmission growing
Those with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 should stay in a place where they can best be isolated from other people to prevent spreading the infection. Local health departments, housing authorities, homeless service systems and healthcare facilities should plan to identify locations to isolate those with known or suspected COVID-19 until they meet the criteria to end isolation.
Isolation housing could be units designated by local authorities (using many vacant and unutilized properties) or shelters determined to have capacity to sufficiently isolate these people. If no other options are available, homeless service providers should plan for how they can help people isolate themselves while efforts are underway to provide additional support.
Ad-hocism in dealing with the CityMakers reveals the half-hearted and exclusionary approach of the government by adopting hurried lockdowns. It seems that Gandhi’s talisman has been forgotten, wherein the last person is bound to suffer when s/he/it has largely remained ignored in the planning, preparedness, and response to COVID-19. The above description demonstrates that India is a testimony to an aftermath of such a decision. Certainly, the DAY-NULM has not been able to demonstrate its commitment of ‘Antyodaya’ for the urban and shelter poor.
In fact, DAY-NULM which could have come to the rescue of these workers, itself suffers from several inherent challenges. For instance, for the last 18 months the Government has been mulling over the idea of outsourcing the upkeep of the mission to corporates and philanthropic institutions. This implicit failure of the Government that led to the generation of such an idea is further amplified by hiring big private consultants as project monitoring units, having a “corporate-style target achievement attitude.”
Further, the inconsiderate approach of the authorities during times of economic slowdown, when the migrant workers are the hardest hit, is evident from the meagre increase in the budgetary allocation for DAY-NULM vis-à-vis the flagship schemes of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA). It was Rs 750 crore (in 2019-20) and was raised by only six per cent to Rs 795 crore in 2020-21.
The deep-seated contentions in DAY-NULM do not stop here. Several private players and NGOs have been roped in to carry out different implementation functions for which they have tendered huge sums of money. The irony is that these agencies are bearing the brunt of corruption in the bureaucratic system leading to deferred payments for months and years even after fulfilling their work assignments punctually.
The complacency in the approach of the various projects sanctioned under DDU-NULM has remained without any independent third-party monitoring and evaluation, highlighting the consistent callousness approach of bureaucracy, along with the void of political leadership and willingness.
Further, there is a need of urgent action task force (in short term) and homeless policy (in medium term) in all the states to tackle these issues in a more planned manner in future. Expanding the SUH component of DDU-NULM to meet the decent space and shelter requirements along with catering to the shelter needs of women, children, elderly, persons with disabilities; community kitchens; medical help; in-kind assistance through public distribution systems, water, toilets, etc.
This must be developed with service level benchmarking standards to combat pandemics like COVID-19. For this, the GoI must at least triple the budgetary allocation of DDU-NULM (to atleast Rs. 2500) and immediate transfers to the state and city governments, on an urgent basis.
In the saga of the COVID-19-led lockdown in India, it is unfortunate that the human and fundamental right to life seems to have been compromised because of their socio-economic statuses. Coming summers will only aggravate the situation, in terms of their access to water, food, healthcare and sanitation.
Understandably, as per our estimates, there is more than 2 crore vulnerable urban poor population that are directly exposed to it requires stringent physical and social security. Failing to recognize the incredible role played by them thus far, in the nation-building process, entails the risk of ignominy of oblivion in the community of ‘civilized nations’; and India can ill-afford it!
Unprecedented leadership accompanied by the extraordinary bravery of the frontline workers performing essential services will ensure that the country’s most vulnerable have all necessary resources to survive and live their lives in these days of global health emergency.
--- 
*(Respectively): Balwant Singh Mehta, Fellow at Institute for Human Development (IHD) and Co-Founder & Visiting Senior Fellow at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi; Simi Mehta, CEO & Editorial Director, IMPRI; Arjun Kumar, Director, IMPRI; Indu Prakash Singh,Mentor, IMPRI, Member of the State Level Shelter Monitoring Committee for Progress of Shelter for Urban Homeless in Delhi, appointed by the Government of NCT of Delhi on the orders of the Supreme Court

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