Close to 10 years after a reversing dumper truck ran over and crushed a 35-year-old sleeping on a Mumbai road in November 2007, a motor accident claims tribunal last month held that the victim was equally to blame for the accident. It held that the deceased was also “negligent” as he dangerously chose to sleep on the corner of the road.

Because of the man’s purported irresponsibility, the tribunal also halved the compensation due to the deceased’s family – they are now entitled to Rs 9 lakh instead of Rs 18 lakh. “Roads are meant for traffic of vehicles and not for sleeping at night,” the tribunal reportedly observed. “It was the responsibility of the injured to not sleep on the road. He should have at least slept on the footpath.”

When I read the observations of the learned members of the motor claims tribunal, I recalled the words of Anatole France, a late 19th century French poet, journalist, novelist and satirist, who famously wrote: “The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread”.

France reminded us of the fallacy and injustice of applying principles of equality upon people who live highly unequal lives. The ideal that all people are equal in the eyes of the law is a fine one, but if it incorporates within it an amnesia, or a blindness, or indifference – or all of these – to the stark reality that people live and survive under vastly different situations, then the principle can produce not justice but its distortion, parody, and ultimately, its tragic reversal.

Is there a choice?

I wish the members of the motor vehicle claims tribunal had read France before they deprived the accident victim’s family of half their insurance claim. For the members of the tribunal, to sleep on the streets is an act of grave and culpable irresponsibility. They seem to assume that those who do so have real choices – that they have a roof in a concrete house to sleep under, but irresponsibly and neglectfully choose the road instead.

I have worked with men, women and children who live in extreme poverty for 15 years now and have learnt that the word “homelessness” incorporates a spectrum of conditions. A homeless person could be someone who has no home and no family in the world. It could be someone who has a house and families back in their village but may be alone and homeless in the city where they are labouring to save and send some money home. Or, they may have families whom they sleep alongside on the streets of a city, but have no home.

But there are also some who have both a family as well as something that could be called a home in the city – such as a plastic sheet stretched over a piece of pavement, or an illegal shanty with a plastic roof – with not enough space to accommodate all the members of the family. It appears that the man killed by the dumper in Mumbai did have some such “home” but likely no place in it for him to sleep, so he opted for the outside.

Nearly 200,000 children, women and men in Mumbai and a slightly smaller number in Delhi sleep in a similar – and according to the tribunal, irresponsible – manner every night. The story is the same in every big city. In tiny reports in the inside pages of our newspapers, we often read about drunk drivers running over homeless people who sleep on or near highways, killing and maiming them. The tribunal’s decision illuminates the justice for them – that these homeless persons who die or lose their limbs are ultimately careless and irresponsible, and thereby share at least half the responsibility for their injury or death. The other half should be borne by the driver and his insurance company. The government and the larger society are not culpable in any way.

Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Supreme Court’s directive

On a few occasions, India’s Supreme Court has shown more empathy and compassion for rough sleepers and homeless people and more discernment about the reasons that force them to spend their nights under the open sky than the learned members of the Mumbai motor vehicle claims tribunal.

The apex court’s finest moment in this regard was in 2010-’11. During a particularly harsh winter in Delhi, Dr NC Saxena and I, in our capacity as commissioners of the Supreme Court in the Right to Food case, wrote three letters to the the top court. Spurred by a number of deaths of homeless people – many of them young and able-bodied – we told the court that the city’s poorest residents died because they lacked even a roof and the basic nutrition to survive the winter.

We said that for them to be assured of their right to life, the minimal duty of governments is to at least provide enough homeless shelters with adequate and dignified services. The Supreme Court concurred, and directed all state and local governments to run well shelters to protect the homeless from the vagaries of climate around the year.

Complying with the orders, a few hundred homeless shelters have sprung up in several cities since 2010. But these are far too few to cater to the full needs of vast and swelling homeless populations. Moreover, these shelters are often so unsanitary and cramped that they are not fit even for animals.

Members of motor accident claims tribunal should note that Mumbai – home to the richest municipal body in the country – has refused to establish any homeless shelters, in stubborn defiance of the directives of the country’s Supreme Court. There are just seven establishments that are pegged as shelters in the city and no new ones were built post the Supreme Court order. Clearly, the local and state government in Mumbai has lefts its homeless people with no option but to irresponsibly sleep in the open.

In comparison, there are 261 shelters in Delhi, with the capacity to accommodate 21,909 homeless people. Though the number of homeless people in the city is far greater, the national capital’s state government is comfortably ahead of all other India cities. The Delhi High Court too had also issued directions similar to the Supreme Court’s on setting up night shelters and, and with the help of a public-spirited team of citizen interlocutors, monitored the state government’s efforts. However, the government’s own website showed that on April 2, the number of homeless persons who used these services was only 4,333.

This means that even as much of the country is experiencing a heatwave, the shelters are only being used to a fifth of their capacity. But in winter too, the shelters cater to only about half their capacity, even on the coldest nights, even as tens of thousands of people battle the elements without a roof over their heads. For every homeless person who sleeps in a shelter in the city, there are an estimated 15 to 30 who still sleep out in the open, on any night in any season.

It would be tempting to regard this refusal to sleep in shelters as irrational, indeed irresponsible behaviour by homeless persons, concurring with the opinion of the learned Mumbai motor claims tribunal. But a very different picture emerges when one asks homeless people why they refuse to sleep in the state-run shelters.

Word on the streets

Most rough sleepers this writer spoke to said the shelters were so unsanitary that if they slept there, they would be troubled by fleas that would not only give them sleepless nights but also make their days unbearable. They also said they worry about sleeping beside strangers, bodies packed against bodies, because someone may steal the few belongings they own.

Those like rag-pickers, street vendors and rickshaw-pullers need spaces where they can safely store their bags, knick-knacks and vehicles, but shelters typically do not allow these. Many shelters do not have clean and functioning toilets or lockers in which they can store their few belongings. They also spoke about disrespectful behaviour by shelter managing staff, who are often untrained, very poorly paid, and poorly motivated.

A makeshift night shelter in Delhi. Photo credit: Prakash Singh/AFP.

What does one need the government to do, in such a situation? Some direction can possibly be seen in this excerpt from an earlier article of mine in that examines why so many homeless people in Delhi stay away from shelters:

Is the answer that the government does nothing for the homeless? Of course not. But it must respect the homeless residents of the city as people who are struggling to survive with dignity, actually listen to them, and construct a response that genuinely addresses the formidable challenges of their lives. At present, shelters are no more than spaces where living bodies of the very poor have to be stuffed every night – the more of them that fit in as little a space as possible the better it is – and summarily ejected every morning. They closely resemble Victorian poorhouses: unsanitary, undignified and disrespectful. This is surely not what India’s poorest deserve in 21st century republican India.

The largest majority of homeless persons are single working men, trying to earn enough to send home to their villages to keep hunger away from the door of their destitute families. Or these are women and children escaping monstrous violence in their homes. What they need is not poor-houses, but affordable working men and working women hostels, in which beds and lockers are available at modest rents; places of safety for women survivors of domestic violence; and for homeless children, hundreds of egalitarian welcoming residential schools, with after-care and continuing education even when they grow into young adults. For those with grave ailments like TB or injuries, the life-saving need is for recovery shelters where they can rest and recuperate in the absence of homes and families, because otherwise they would just die on the streets, winter, summer or rains.

Of course all of this would require large public investments. Even more than that, it would require respectful and empathetic official engagement with India’s working poor and survivors of violence. This would entail most of all a new cultural consensus that poor people actually matter, and are people to whom the city equally belongs. Until we are able to muster these – and that may sadly take a long time – it is best that we avoid insulting them with efforts to “rescue” them against their will into the “safety” of poorhouse shelters.  

For a good night’s sleep

You may say: okay, I understand why homeless persons may be forced to sleep under the open sky, but this still does not explain why a homeless person chooses to sleep so dangerously close to busy highways, or even on traffic islands and road dividers.

In this at least the Mumbai motor vehicle claims tribunal may be correct in dubbing them irresponsible? If they are so reckless about their own lives, then why should insurance agencies – or car or truck drivers and their employers – be made to pay for this?

It took me some years to fully understand the answer to why homeless persons and residents of cramped and unsanitary shanties risk their lives each night when they sleep so close to major roads and highways. For some years now, in Old Delhi near the Tibetan Monastery on the banks of the Yamuna, we have been running a recovery shelter for homeless men and boys who are battling serious ailments such as TB and HIV AIDs, mental illnesses and grievous injuries. These are destitute men with no homes and no families to take care of them. Without a homeless recovery shelter, they would be permanently disabled or, more likely, dead.

Before this, we ran the same facility in the Yamuna Pushta area near ITO in Delhi. We recently opened a similar recovery shelter for homeless women at Kabir Basti.

Opening such facilities was possible because we were able to convince the Delhi government about the desperate need for then. The city needs hundreds of these if its poorest residents are to survive. Large numbers of these men were injured after being run over on the roadside when they slept at night, or in the course of work they do pushing overloaded carts in wholesale markets.

Who are these men and why do they risk their lives sleeping on pavements and dividers on busy highways? Most are men who, at some point in their lives, came to Delhi in search of work – old parents, siblings, wives and children. The work they found was casual, intermittent and paid them so little that there would not be able to send money home if they hired a room for themselves. Therefore, they chose the hard life of sleeping rough on the streets, so that their indigent families could survive.

In our work, we also encounter homeless men who fail to find even such low-end work regularly and who save little to send home. Their self-esteem plummets, their bonds with their families fray – and sometimes snap – and they gradually slip into a life of hard drugs, getting occasional work in wedding parties or as rag-pickers. Some live on the pavement in shanties made of plastic and other waste, where there is no place for them to sleep. Women are almost entirely homeless because of intense domestic violence and the lack of any place of safety to which they can go.

Around 4,000 lonely, destitute, homeless men have made Pushta – a raised embankment of the river Yamuna, adjacent to the Nigambodh cremation grounds – their home. Forced all day to watch burning corpses, the smoke from the bodies fills their lungs. It is only because this stretch of land is so inauspicious and inhospitable that the city has ceded it to its dregs. A string of tin-sheet homeless shelters on Pushta rapidly fill up every winter evening and thousands of men still sleep in the open every night. But in summer and monsoon months, even these shelters often lie vacant. Instead, the homeless sleep closer and closer to the busy highway below the Yamuna embankment.

I wondered why, until homeless people explained their choice of a place to sleep, especially in the summer and monsoon months. Why do they choose to sleep so dangerously on pavements and road dividers?The reason is actually very simple: it is mosquitoes. Anywhere else, such as in parks or parking lots, sleep is almost impossible because of swarms of summer and monsoon mosquitoes. The closer they are to a highway, the more feasible it to sleep, because automobile fumes drive away mosquitoes. The stark reality is that these men risk their lives every day, and indeed critically damage their lungs with vehicle emissions, because it is the only way that they can sleep every night. This is how unequal our cities are.

These are families coping with a city that gives them no decent place to live, men bravely battling the destitution of their families through hard and lonely labour and women surviving extreme violence. What these recurring accidents – of wayward speeding vehicles driven by intoxicated men lurching on to pavements and road dividers killing and maiming sleeping homeless people – highlight most is our enormous social tolerance for a situation in which homeless persons are compelled to destroy their lungs and risk their lives each night only to be able to sleep a few hours. Even this sleep, adjacent to a busy highway, could only be fitful. But this is all that the city is willing to allow to its most vulnerable residents.

The alternatives to this brutalised life of homeless and illegal shanty residents are not so hard to find. They do entail public-funded shelters for homeless men and women, but these are only the minimum. Each city should construct large numbers of working men and women hostels, with inexpensive rooms and dormitories which make sleeping rough on the streets unnecessary, it should force private builders to build decent worker camps before they start construction instead of leaving homeless workers and their families to their own devices that lead them to illegal slums or city pavements and high public investment in affordable rental and self-owned social housing.

It is an eloquent commentary on our times that we are unwilling to make these small public investments for building inclusive cities. Smart cities are not defined as those that are compassionate and just to their working poor.

The lives of the poor cannot continue to remain so dirt-cheap that they must risk dying each night only for a few hours of fitful sleep. And still we will blame them for being irresponsible and neglectful!