Not to have a home in an Indian city not only means sleeping in the rain and the cold, but also missing the benefits of food schemes and other programmes for ‘below poverty line’ citizens because of the lack of proof of residence. For two years, the Supreme Court and various high courts have been trying to get the state governments to build night shelters for these most unfortunate of India’s poor — beggars and vagrants, migrant and other workers in the informal sector. It is amazing how tardy the states have been in implementing these directives, either through indifference or conscious resistance. There are, presumably, at least 30 lakh people in 15 Indian cities sleeping in the open in this keen winter, many worn out with labour, exposure and little nutrition and therefore vulnerable to sickness and death. But the number could be many times greater than 30 lakh, for it is impossible to account for this shifting population. It is as though state governments would like to pretend that people sleeping on the streets are not their responsibility. Yet many of them do the dirtiest and least valued of tasks that help big cities run smoothly. The Centre, too, seems careless. It has no effective policy to house them.
It is really not the courts’ job to see that vulnerable citizens get a place to sleep or that states get their priorities right. But the fact is that the courts have given a series of directions, even regarding the ratio of night shelters to particular numbers of the urban homeless and the facilities these should have. A few states have begun to comply, although half-heartedly. Shelters are still far from adequate, often put up in places where there is no concentration of homeless workers, or lacking the basic facilities required. Sometimes, mechanical compliance has meant that the targeted beneficiaries are left unaware and the structures are either locked up or abandoned. The two states that have barely shown 20 per cent compliance are Maharashtra and West Bengal. After two years of broken promises, this cannot be called just a failure. It is a significant lack of political will that could be interpreted as a resistance to the expenditure of time, energy and funds on sheltering the homeless.