homeless in delhi

For homeless women in Delhi’s night shelters, there’s no respite from the soaring heat

Facilities are paltry and the few amenities available don’t work properly.

As temperatures climbed up to 46 degrees centigrade in Delhi last week, life for the city’s homeless women became even tougher. Women lodging in Delhi’s homeless night shelters (or raen basera), have few options to beat the heat.

Only 21 out of 263 night shelters run by the government-controlled Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board cater to women. Jyoti Banal shifted to a cabin in one of the shelters near the Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, a prominent Sikh place of worship located at the centre of Delhi, when she got a job at a call centre. Despite the job, she chose the homeless shelter because her salary is still very limited and she is anxious about living by herself in the areas where she would be able to afford the rent. She has family in Delhi but – because she is an orphan – they have abandoned her to her fate.

Jyoti Banal (left), a homeless girl and a call centre executive spends a hot afternoon with roommate Jyoti and her children at women’s night shelter near Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, New Delhi. Photo Credit: Anasuya Basu
Jyoti Banal (left), a homeless girl and a call centre executive spends a hot afternoon with roommate Jyoti and her children at women’s night shelter near Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, New Delhi. Photo Credit: Anasuya Basu

“We have two [air] coolers in each cabin and also exhaust fans but the steel cabins become so hot during the day that nothing works here and the heat remains trapped inside at night. We get cold water either from the Gurudwara or the water dispenser. That’s all. It’s enough that I have a roof over my head,” said Banal while fanning herself furiously with a magazine.

Rising heat

As heatwaves become more common and severe in India, it is the poor and vulnerable who fall victim to the heat first. Sweltering conditions are being felt this year across South Asia. In Karachi, Pakistan’s most populous city, an estimated 100 people have been killed by recent hot weather, with temperatures expected to continue into June. Between 2013 and 2016, over 4,000 Indians lost their lives to heat – and it is likely that the numbers are under-reported.

Authorities say the number of deaths have fallen dramatically in recent years as a result of public health campaigns, including sending temperature warnings through the media and WhatsApp. But for the homeless poor in Delhi, the heat is inescapable.

No support for Delhi’s homeless shelters

The raen basera complex is managed by an NGO, Humana People to People India. The caretaker, Monika Sharma, said that despite problems with some criminals, her team members have managed the complex well. Most women either walk in or have been rescued from the street. “We provide women with oral rehydration whenever they complain of heat stroke as most of these women leave the shelter in the day to eke out a livelihood. We have a fully functional clinic for any emergency and take them to the nearest hospital,” said Sharma.

But portable cabins are like furnaces in the summer and women prefer to sleep outside the shelters to escape the stifling heat. A senior official from the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board admitted, on condition of anonymity, that the government has done nothing to improve the situation and NGOs managing many of the shelters are cash-strapped.

The fan blades of the the non-functional air cooler are as still as the women sleeping in the afternoon heat in shelter no. 85 near Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, New Delhi. Photo Credit: Anasuya Basu
The fan blades of the the non-functional air cooler are as still as the women sleeping in the afternoon heat in shelter no. 85 near Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, New Delhi. Photo Credit: Anasuya Basu

Devmati from Begusarai in Bihar, who has been living in the Gurudwara shelter for over seven years, complained of acute water shortage in the toilets and bathrooms. Pushpa Devi, who was sleeping in the same place, agreed. According to them air coolers often don’t work and there is hardly any cold water available in the complex. The only way to cool down is to lie on the bare floor, they said. Members of the NGO dismissed complaints. But for Preeti, 26, who is expecting her fourth child, staving off heat stroke and stomach infections is a constant battle as she gets used to life in the sweltering heat of a portable cabin.

The scene at the night shelter on Lodhi Road, one of Delhi’s most high-end areas, was no different. Two portable cabins have been set up on the edge of a narrow lane, behind a famous temple visited by thousands every day. Manju, the night caretaker from an NGO, Prerna, was quite blasé about the fact that there are no arrangements for anyone, let alone women, to combat excessive heat. “What is there to do for summer heat? We have air coolers and a cold water dispenser. The temple’s clinic nearby gives inmates medicines and first aid if required,” said Manju with a shrug.

While the air cooler may not work, the TV does, as the women watch a serial at a night shelter in Lodi Road, New Delhi. Photo Credit: Anasuya Basu
While the air cooler may not work, the TV does, as the women watch a serial at a night shelter in Lodi Road, New Delhi. Photo Credit: Anasuya Basu

Outside the shelter in a dingy corner Sarita was cooking dinner over a wood fire stove. “We are dependent on the food and alms that we get from devotees at the temple and don’t dare ask for anything more at the shelter as we have no place to live. It’s terribly hot in the cabins and [they are] infested with rats but we can’t say anything to the managers,” said Sarita glancing over her shoulder nervously.

Security issues for women in the shelters have dominated media headlines in recent times, but equipping women and children in the shelters to deal with extreme heat is not on anybody’s priority list. Given the rising heat of the Indian summers, and the thousands of fatalities that have been caused in the last few years, the only reason that this issue continues to be ignored is that the homeless are considered expendable.

This article airst appeared on The Third Pole.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.