This week was marked by World Homeless Day, a day meant to draw attention to the global problem of homelessness.
This year one group in New Delhi took an unusual approach to do just that. They asked people to show solidarity with the homeless by spending a night on the street – and many responded.
Bismillah Geelani has this report.
It is about an hour past midnight and more than a hundred people are out in the open on the footpath along New Delhi’s Bahadur Shah Zafar Road.
Using empty plastic sacks as groundsheets, some of them are asleep while others are engaged in lively discussions.
The unusual event, ‘Feel the Footpath’, was organized by Marham, an NGO working for homeless people.
Thirty-year old Irtiza Qureishi is the group’s founder.
“We are inviting people from all over Delhi to spend one night on the footpath and feel the pain of a homeless person,” he explained.
“How does it feel like sleeping on the road with mosquitoes and insects all around, with the fear of getting run over by a car or a truck, with nothing on your head just the open sky.”
According to the 2011 census, India has 1.7 million homeless people, less than one percent of the country’s total population.
But social activists like Induprakash Singh say these figures are highly unreliable and misleading.
“If you are going by the census data, it is actually the biggest fraud in the country, because as far as the homeless are concerned we have seen that hundreds of thousands are not even enumerated, they were not counted in 2001 neither in 2011, and at that point we were there as volunteers in both years,” Singh said.
“The figures are just five times more than that; surely there will be at least 10 million homeless people if you do the exact counting.”
Singh’s group Action Aid was the first to conduct a survey on the living conditions of the homeless people a few years ago.
The findings, he says, were disturbing.
“We saw police beating the homeless on the streets, not one homeless would have escaped the police’s sticks, be it a woman, a child, a mentally disabled or ill. That is one of the biggest problem,” Singh said.
“Then second is illness. The manner in which they get ill, we saw dead bodies on the streets. Third is food, at times many of them don’t get food, then water, sanitation, security of physical self and the security of the possessions that they have,” Singh explained.
The situation hasn’t changed much since.
So the efforts of groups such as Marham are helping to highlight the difficulties homeless people face. And the group has also rehabilitated nearly a dozen homeless people.
Irtiza Qureishi explains.
“We picked up 11 homeless young adults from the streets, we gave them shelter, food, clothes and everything and in just one year our achievement so far has been that they are living a hygienic life,” Qureishi told me.
Marham has also offered them training, says Qureishi.
“Half of them in plumbing and the other half in electrical fittings, so they are learning two different skills, which are very much in demand, and as soon as they get trained the will get a lot of work,” Qureishi stated.
Among those at the “Feel the Footpath” event were some who have benefited from Marham’s programs.
People were moved to tears as they recounted the hardships of their past life.
Listening to their stories, the Deputy Chief Minister of Delhi, Manish Sisodia deplored what he described as a shocking state of affairs.
“This is something that we all need to do together. If we wait for the government then you know that the government comes up with best of plans but they all remain on paper. So these are things society does better but of course the government can help and we are bound to do that,” Sisodia announced.
Marham has also launched a campaign titled “Each Blessed Adopt a Homeless”.
Under the initiative economically well off people are encouraged to bear the living expenses of at least one homeless person and help them acquire some skills so that they can begin their life afresh.
There are nearly 200,000 homeless people in New Delhi and as Qureishi says, a little compassion can go a long way.