Abandoned amid a pandemic: The homelessness crisis in India
By Priyadarshee Mukhopadhyay
- The 1.7 million homeless people in India have been disproportionately affected during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The reported lack of emergency relief provisions for shelter, food, water, sanitation, and essential medical services have led to heightened social insecurity as well as the corrosion of the fundamental human right to safe and adequate housing.
- There has been transgression by the Indian government of domestic judicial rulings and International Human Rights obligations.
The World Health Organization’s recommendations to ‘stay home, self-isolate, wash your hands regularly and practice physical distancing’ has been adopted by nearly all governments to reduce COVID-19 transmission [1,2]. However, this policy stems from the assumption that access to adequate housing and necessary sanitation is universal . For the 800 million homeless people worldwide , living in overcrowded conditions with no access to water or sanitation , reality presents an antithetical picture. Leilani Farha’s report to the UN Human Rights Council termed homelessness as ‘serious deprivation of access to housing and as an extreme form of social exclusion, discrimination and loss of dignity’ . In India alone, there are 1.77 million people without homes , although unofficially this figure is closer to 4 million . The lack of adequate homeless shelters has contributed to this issue. Now that staying at home is a critical measure to prevent COVID-19 transmission, homelessness is even more problematic for health and freedom from discrimination.
What has been done so far?
The right of individuals to adequate housing is protected under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which states that shelter should be viewed not as merely having a roof over one’s head but rather as the right to live somewhere in security, peace and dignity . Prior to the covid-19 pandemic, the Supreme Court, responsible for protecting the constitutionally enshrined fundamental human rights of Indian citizens, performed two actions to support the rights of homeless citizens in India. First, they directed the availability of ‘portable drinking water and sanitation toilets; area for bathing and washing clothes with running water; ventilation; standard lighting (first aid; pest and mosquito control); bedding (blankets, mattresses and sheets); kitchen or space for cooking; equipment and utensils needed for cooking’ into shelters . Second, they created a comprehensive guide for how states could approach the issue of urban homelessness . Despite such steps taken by the Supreme Court, the Indian government remains apathetic in its approach towards homelessness.
Homeless shelters during the pandemic
During a pandemic, shelters are necessary to allow people without homes access to necessary sanitation, adequate water for drinking and hygiene purposes and to follow the ‘stay at home’ lockdown guidelines to reduce the spread of the infection. Many homeless women in India are exposed to physical and sexual violence, rape, and trafficking in non-pandemic times  and face further obstacles to safety due to the COVID-19 restrictions. For example, social distancing is particularly difficult for these women to follow as they often find safety in numbers [11,12]. In addition, entry to shelters is being denied to avoid overcrowding and reduce COVID-19 transmission, while police are evicting homeless people from the streets . Recently, around 400 homeless people were locked inside a night shelter with the police threatening to use force if they ventured outside . During this incident, at least three pregnant women were starved for three days before receiving food rations. Such maltreatment violates fundamental human rights and the lack of essential medical services, water, and food during lockdown increases the risk of death or disability of these individuals. Now more than ever, the Indian government must act to protect its homeless citizens.
Not enough shelters and poor conditions
The Indo Global Social Service Society (IGSSS) has highlighted the dismal situation for homeless individuals during lockdown. The latest IGSSS study found that in over 83% of the 28 Indian states there is a lack of sanitation, electronic payment systems for cash transfers, health facilities, awareness of precautions to prevent virus transmission, and shelter provisions (Figure 1) . The IGSSS also reported a lack of emergency food provision in 31% of the states . Life in existing shelters may be no better with conditions being reported as ‘subhuman, barely better than being on the streets’ . There have been multiple complaints by shelter residents of a ‘lack of water, medical facilities, insufficient or inadequate toilets and filthy, unwashed beddings’ . In addition to poor living conditions, the government was criticised in 2015 by the Supreme Court for underutilizing funds meant for constructing shelters . In 2013, the central government had provided a total of $163 million to construct shelters for 900,000 urban homeless, yet only 208 houses with a capacity of 50-100 residents each were built [8,18]. The state of Maharashtra was allotted $26 million from the central funds, but did not construct a single shelter home [17,19]. The following year, 770 shelters across India with a combined capacity of only 38,770 were sanctioned . At best, these shelters would provide housing for a meagre 2% of India’s homeless population. The survival of homeless Indians during and after the pandemic remains uncertain. The government appears to have abandoned its duty towards its homeless citizens through the lack of construction of appropriate shelters during this public health crisis.
Figure 1. Relief measures for homeless people in each of the Indian states 
The view by the government that homeless people are ‘encroachers’ rather than people with a right to safe and adequate housing has corroded their fundamental human rights and exacerbated the housing crisis in India . The pandemic merely serves as a magnifier of pre-existing housing problems. Disregarding such problems severely threatens the survival of homeless individuals during the pandemic. The Indian government must adhere to its international human rights obligations and domestic judicial rulings and recommendations.
Priyadarshee Mukhopadhyay is a second year B.A.LL.B(Hons.) student at National Law University Odisha (NLUO), India. He serves as an editorial board member for NLUO Student Law Journal, NLUO Human Rights Law Journal and International Review of Human Rights Law. His research interests include socio-legal concerns of marginalised communities in India, International Human Rights Law and feminist legal theories. He has written articles for LSE ‘Engenderings’ blog, and Berkeley Journal of International Law Blog.
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