Sunday, 8 December 2019

Homeless Pavement-Dwellers, A GARGANTUAN SOCIAL ISSUE

Updated: May 23, 2015 5:16 pm

The conviction  of Salman Khan  in the hit-and-run case, killing one  and injuring four,  who were sleeping on the Hill Road Junction in Bandra,   raises many  issue–the most significant being the  pathetic plight of the homeless, who  sleep on the pavements  and get run over by vehicles at night.  According to a Supreme Court   Bench, “Our country has the dubious distinction of registering maximum  number of deaths in road accidents.” This is not the first time that drunken drivers in Mumbai have run over the poor sleeping on the streets. In 2006, Alistair Pereira had mowed down seven persons sleeping on a Bandra pavement.  In Salman Khan’s case, the victims were working in a bakery; they did not have homes and were compelled to sleep on the pavement.  The homeless sleep on pavements at night because they cannot afford to pay for a roof on their heads. Given the choice, no one will sleep on the pavements at night, risking their lives.

Bollywood’s playback singer Abhijeet Bhattacharya in his tweet on the Salman Khan’s verdict of serving five years in jail  says, “Those who sleep like dogs on the streets will die like dogs and roads are not meant for the poor to sleep on.” This tweet of Abhijeet  has evoked considerable flak for his insensitivity towards  the  homeless poor.  But Abhijeet has also exposed the ground reality of a serious social problem pointing to the apathy of the government and civil society in failing to provide night shelters for the homeless. In the controversial draft Development Plan for Mumbai 2034, there is no provision to provide night shelters for the poor, sleeping on the pavements at night. After more than 60 years of Independence, if the poor are still sleeping on the pavements, this is a cause for serious concern.  One wonders why the BMC schools in Mumbai  are not allowed to be used as night shelters for the  homeless. Women are most vulnerable sleeping on the pavements at night, as they could be raped or sexually molested.

According to Nasreen Rustomfram, Chairperson of the Centre for Life-long Studies of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, “People sleeping on the pavements is a big social issue. The government has made many promises but has failed to deliver.  Let us not forget that those who sleep on the pavements provide us with services. They are our dudhwallas, dhobiwallas, construction workers and others.  The government should invest in providing them with night shelters.”

Nitin Gadkari, Minister for Road Transport and Highways, made a pertinent  observation  in an interview,  which he gave to a leading television channel.  According to Gadkari, metro cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bengaluru  and Chennai are facing the alarming problem of influx of rural population to these cities in search of livelihood.  Mumbai, said Nitin Gadkari, is island city and cannot expand further, as it is surrounded by water.  And when the rural population like farmers from drought-prone areas like Vidarbha migrate to cities like Mumbai, this is bound to further increase the burden of the civic infrastructure in the cities.  The only pragmatic solution, which has been ignored, is to rehabilitate the farmers and the unemployed rural poor in the villages itself so that they do not migrate to the already overcrowded cities.  Gadkari, however, admits that stopping the rural population from migrating to the cities is not going to be easy. Raj Thackeray cries hoarse  to stop North Indian migration from Bihar and UP to Mumbai but fails to acknowledge that migration to Mumbai is  not just from Bihar and UP, it is from rural Maharashtra too.

Apart from making much-publicised trips to villages for photo shoots, politicians have done little to improve the  pathetic conditions in rural areas.  The benefits of the   rural employment guarantee scheme has failed to reach the target group with middlemen siphoning off the funds meant for the welfare of the rural poor.  Rahul Gandhi had ostentatiously  narrated in the Lok Sabha  the pathetic story of Kalawati Bandurkar—a Dalit woman  whose house he visited in Jalka village, Vidarbha. After his visit to Jalka, Rahul Gandhi said that the village goes without power for 12 hours.  According to Kalawati, nothing has changed for her;  there is no improvement in her living condition even after Rahul Gandhi had visited her village in 2008.

Over one lakh homeless brave the harsh winter in Delhi every year. They are forced to sleep on the streets at night because they cannot afford a roof over their heads.  The Delhi government has set up night shelters, which can house only 75, 000 people and the rest of the homeless have no option  but to sleep on pavements  at night and risk their lives. Quoting Article 21 of the Constitution, which deals with the fundamental right to life and liberty, the Supreme Court has said that the right to shelter is also the right to life and has asked the authorities  “to preserve and protect”  the lives of the weaker sections and  the destitute. Politicians and bureaucrats often talk of transforming Mumbai into a  Shanghai or Singapore.  To transform Mumbai into a Shanghai  or Singapore, the social aberration  of people sleeping on the pavements in the night and getting killed  has to be addressed first. In Shanghai and in Singapore, where I have lived for some time, no one sleeps on the pavements at night.

By Indira  Satyanarayan

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