The World’s Most Ambitious Housing Goal Is Riding on India

In Mumbai and other Indian cities, new strategies for sheltering the poor are in play. Will the government be able to scale up efforts to meet a global deadline?

Story by Carlin CarrAshali Bhandari

Photography by BIND Collective

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It’s nearly midnight when Anita Kharva stretches out a 5-by-7 bamboo mat on a Mumbai roadside to catch a few hours of sleep. Kharva is in the same colorful salwar kameez she wore throughout the day, and with no bathroom to wash up in and no door to lock, preparations for bed take just seconds. All that surrounds her — what she can call “home” — is the small, enclosed space created by old sheets covered in cartoon characters. Her house of cloth is one that can be constructed and deconstructed at any moment, depending on the whims of city officials or local residents. But the unassuming spot is the only one she knows; she’s been there for decades, and so have thousands of other women and children who call the sidewalks home.

Sleep for Mumbai’s homeless doesn’t come easily. Although the relative quietness provides some relief, night brings its own worries. Kharva lives with her four brothers, three sisters, mother and father, but rarely feels safe enough to fall into a deep slumber. She and her friend Sangeeta, who lives on the sidewalk nearby with her family, say they often take turns staying up through the night to ward off nefarious men.

This open-air routine is tirelessly familiar to her. Kharva was born on the streets 21 years ago. Her parents were married here, and for 50 years, the family has bathed, cooked, celebrated, worked and slept on a slice of footpath no bigger than a middle-class American’s bathroom. Without permanent walls, Kharva is forced to conduct her daily routine in full public view.

Daily life for Mumbai’s homeless is conducted completely out in the open.

As the eldest girl, Kharva carries herself with the confidence and determination needed to take on a system that has left Mumbai’s working poor in a decades-long state of utter neglect. The city offers no shelters to give homeless families respite from the streets. Torrential monsoon rains bring fevers, illness and, sometimes, even unnecessary deaths. The homeless have no water and must pay to use the toilet and to wash their clothes at public bathrooms, extra money they often don’t have. Harassment from authorities and local residents puts their sidewalk homes under daily threat of being pushed out. Kharva keeps a small pile of her few possessions: a small cook stove, a few changes of clothing, a bucket to bathe in. In a life filled with waiting — for government intervention, for respect from the city she calls home, for a day without struggle — Kharva is also in a constant state of readiness to be pushed out at any moment.

By dawn, Kharva’s up again to head to a nearby market, where she sells used clothes that she collects from housewives in the area buildings. She deals in small amounts — 10, 20 or 50 rupees — just enough to feed her family members for the day, with little left over to make her most clear-cut goal in life possible: to move her family into the security of a small room, any space they could safely call home.

“I want to be something. I want to improve my life. I can’t live my entire life this way,” she says. Like most children of the streets, she left school to help support her family. Illiteracy, Kharva confesses, has been an obstacle to getting better work and wages. Her own lack of education has fueled her crusade for the next generation of girls in her family, especially her 2 1/2-year-old niece.

“I’ll do anything … I’ll make garlands, flowers, I’ll do work for someone, even if I get 20 rupees, I’ll save it up. But I’ll make her life better. Tomorrow, she won’t say, ‘My mother’s sister left me illiterate.’ It should be, ‘She was illiterate, but she didn’t let me be that.’”

Mumbai’s homeless children struggle with regular school attendance.

Kharva and her family live their precarious existence surrounded by the abundant offerings of Central Mumbai, one of the sprawling city’s busiest and most affluent neighborhoods. The city’s main train station, Mumbai Central, pulls into its gates, loading off legions of new arrivals to the city from villages across the country. Kharva’s parents once disembarked from one of these stations, never realizing they would spend half a century just outside its doors, giving birth to their children there and watching their children raise their own offspring out in the open. They quickly found that the “city of dreams” — where Bollywood and India’s Wall Street converge — doesn’t roll out the red carpet for everyone.

A Situation Out of Control

Homelessness for people in many parts of the world is an unfortunate stepping stone, a transitory period until they can get back on their feet. Often caused by economic difficulties, the duration of being houseless varies. In New York City, just 6 percent of homeless people live in emergency shelters for longer than six months. In Hong Kong, 60 percent are off the streets in less than three years.

In Mumbai, the homeless are people who survive on the street for decades despite their daily labor supporting the city around them. These people may be merchants like Kharva, waste-pickers, construction workers or domestic workers. They are “city builders,” says Brijesh Arya, the founder of Pehchan, a non-governmental organization that supports and empowers homeless women in the city.

For many of these daily wage workers, even a flimsy hut in an informal settlement is out of the question with rents in the city’s vast slums running Rs 10,000 ($151 U.S.) a month. Even the most basic housing is unaffordable to those with inconsistent, irregular and low-wage work.

“The situation … is the absolute worst. It’s about as bad as it can get,” Arya says. “There’s nothing: no shelter home for men, women, children or transgender or families. Because of that, people have to live in the streets.”

Government estimates put the number of Mumbai’s homeless — residents who live under the open sky, not in slums or even makeshift huts — at 57,416, under 1 percent of the city’s total population of over 12 million. Arya, who spends every day walking the streets to meet with homeless residents, says the number is likely more than 300,000 — that’s nearly half the population of Boston living entirely outdoors. Across India, a nation of 1.2 billion, 249 million people are counted as homeless.

It’s no accident that government figures downplay the problem. The issue is one that the country has been grappling with since economic liberalization in the 1990s unleashed a massive migration to economic hubs. The megacities, Mumbai included, grew almost overnight; services for new arrivals from India’s countryside didn’t keep pace.

“Homelessness isn’t an issue that stands alone,” says Indu Prakash Singh, a longtime activist for Delhi’s homeless who now works on the issue with ActionAide, an international development organization. He attributes the growth in the number of people living on sidewalks to a massive affordable housing deficit across the country and an uptick in evictions from informal settlements. He says there have been good master plans but a lack of implementation. “There’s a lot of hype around vibrant or smart cities, but these are catch phrases. There hasn’t been honest effort to create these cities.”

But now there is increased international pressure to disrupt this cycle. In September, the United Nations adopted a breathtakingly ambitious set of global development goals for solving many of the world’s most vexing problems, including homelessness and poverty. Known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), these 17 aspirations apply to all nations and come with 169 targets for action. Eliminating homelessness and ensuring “adequate, safe and affordable” housing for all is the first target listed under Sustainable Development Goal No. 11 — to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.” The deadline for meeting all 17 goals is 2030. The UN estimates the total cost for the 15-year plan could reach $172.2 trillion U.S., much of which will have to come from individual nations.

For India, the issue of homelessness came to a head in 2010 when Delhi played host to the Commonwealth Games, an international athletic event that brought to the capital city 6,000 competitors from 71 countries.

In an attempt to make Delhi more welcoming to foreign guests, officials opted for a quick fix to the city’s long-brewing problem. That winter, as temperatures plunged and homeless huddled around intersection bonfires, the local government bulldozed a temporary night shelter in the heart of the city. Some 250 people suffered the cold nights outdoors, leading to at least two deaths. The evictions continued until the well-known Indian activists N.C. Saxena and Harsh Mander stepped in.

The activists’ efforts prompted the Supreme Court of India to order the municipality to organize more night shelters in Delhi — and fast. In just two days, the government doubled the number of shelters. The movement prompted the Supreme Court to review the situation across the country and by the end of 2010, set out an unprecedented mandate requiring immediate action to help the homeless. Sixty-two selected cities had one year to set up permanent, 24-hour shelters with “appropriate facilities” or face being in contempt of court and in violation of Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees the right to human dignity. Shelterless cities around the country, the mandate suggested, were denying citizens these basic Constitutional guarantees.

The Court’s order was clear: Set up one shelter for every 100,000 people in the city. Mumbai was required to build 125 shelters by the one-year deadline.

Even the slums have become unaffordable for Mumbai’s working poor, causing many families to live on the streets for decades.

Yet five years on, Mumbai has made little progress. The city currently has nine operating shelters, all of which have been repurposed from NGOs, residing on government land to accommodate homeless children. Unfortunately for the many families scattered on the streets of Mumbai, no shelters have been built that allow them to stay together. They remain, as they have for decades, on the sidewalks.

For shelters, funding isn’t the issue. Recent investigations prompted by the Supreme Court have shown that the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation released a whopping Rs 1078 crore (more than $160 million U.S.) for the construction of shelters for 900,000 homeless people. Despite the allocations, there are only 208 shelters in 14 states, while the remaining 11 states saw no construction despite being granted funds by the central government. One of the main stumbling blocks is not just lack of will, but a fight for land in fast-developing cities.

However, Arya is optimistic after the recent positive directives from the High Court urging Mumbai to allocate land for shelters within its boundaries. The Advocate General of Maharashtra has asked all land-owning government bodies to allocate plots within the city limits so shelters can be built near where the homeless already live. Keeping the homeless near their places of work is key to keeping them from plunging into an even more dire situation.

The Race to Eliminate Homelessness by 2030

India’s struggle to make good on its promise to build shelters highlights the challenge it faces as it strives to meet the UN’s ambitious target of ensuring universal access to housing by 2030. India has its own halfway target of 2022, the year the country celebrates 75 years of independence.

Singh, who has been a part of the UN process, says he doesn’t think it is feasible for India to meet this goal in the next seven years. “There’s a deficit of 25 million houses in urban India,” he says. “That means the government would have to build 9,781 houses per day. Do we have that technology? Do we have the ability to locally implement such a big project?”

While Singh questions whether there is the political will and on-the-ground know-how, other experts wonder where the money will come from.

A new study estimates that implementing SDGs in India by 2030 will cost a whopping $14.4 billion U.S. And high growth and redistribution itself are also not enough to help meet this massive financing need. According to a 2014 United Nations report, despite high economic growth, in 2010, one-third of the world’s 1.2 billion extreme poor lived in India alone. Given these constraints, it is likely that private sector financing will need to play a role if the SDGs are to be achieved.

One thing is clear: If the SDGs are to succeed, India will need to be at the forefront. Helen Clark, an administrator with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), has already said that India’s role in meeting the SDGs is “pivotal.” “Without India, the world cannot achieve the SDGs.”

Lessons From Home Soil

All hope is not lost. Already, there are lessons that can be learned from Indian cities.

After the Supreme Court’s 2010 mandate, Chennai led the way with 15 initial shelters. By 2014, 28 shelters were in place with plans to develop 40 more in 2015. Singh says that what Chennai hasn’t accomplished in numbers, it has made up for in creative efforts. The shelters in the eastern seaside city have beds, a luxury others around the country lack, and integrate much-needed services, including health checks and nutritious meals.

The Tamil Nadu state government, which Chennai falls under, has also provided a budget to establish 200 Amma Unavagam, which means “Mother Restaurant” in Tamil. The community kitchens provide the urban poor — many of whom are homeless — with cheap, hygienic and nutritious meals at subsidized rates of Rs 1 for breakfast and Rs 5 for lunch. Every day, these kitchens feed 100,000 of Chennai’s daily wage laborers, migrants, unorganized workers and homeless residents. The kitchens not only act as health food sources but also provide employment for the 16 women in charge of each Amma Unavagam. Originally from slum-based self-help groups, these women now earn Rs 300 ($4.54 U.S.) a day, running and maintaining the popular restaurants. The heavily subsidized model is one that Delhi is considering replicating.

If Delhi does adopt the canteens, the move would build off other strides the city has made since the court order. Five years on, local authorities recognized that despite the creation of shelters around the city, many homeless weren’t availing of the new infrastructure. The shelters were predominantly male only, women only, or for children — not accessible to families who wanted to be together. This resulted in the city opening 30 new shelters for families. Unlike Mumbai, Delhi now has 34 family shelters, one unique shelter for lactating mothers and 257 general night shelters.

But as Mumbai takes its time learning from cities like Chennai, NGOs have begun to experiment with their own salvos. One promising interim solution is ekShelter, a tent made from weather-resistant, locally available materials. Developed by Delhi-based Micro Home Solutions City Lab (mHS City Lab), the tents have proven popular in that city. The idea for ekShelter was born when architects from the think tank mapped the movement of homeless Delhi residents, watching how they erected their temporary shelters and, eventually, identifying a design problem that they could address. The problem they tackled was the technical difficulties inherent in anchoring temporary structures on hard pavements,” says Swati Janu, an architect at mHS City Lab. As a result, “many of them sleep on pavements dangerously close to vehicles.” With its self-supporting structure and easy-to-assemble form, the tent is an attempt to solve that problem.

Brijesh Arya, founder of Pehchan, holds a meeting with homeless leaders to discuss voter ID cards, safety and other issues facing Mumbai’s homeless population.

Meanwhile, Arya’s group has taken an approach that could prove vital as negotiations over how to best accomplish the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals commence. In Mumbai, Pehchan has helped homeless women and their families gain an identity — figuratively and literally through helping them obtain two national identity cards that open up opportunities of citizenship. These cards — a ration card that entitles individuals to government-given rice and kerosene and a voter ID for ballot access — signify that the homeless have a place in the city and even the country. Before, says Arya, “they didn’t have a citizenship document where they could identify as Indians.” For many of the women, the voter ID card is the single most important possession they own and an important legitimating document as they work to make their voices heard to local government.

Pehchan has also been working to organize Mumbai’s homeless women to strengthen their collective voice to approach authorities and governing bodies. The organization trains the women to understand their legal rights to defend themselves against harassment and eviction, and understand government programs that could help them access food rations, shelter or housing possibilities, and even education for their children.

A woman hangs laundry on the sidewalk where she lives. There are no homeless shelters for Mumbai’s homeless families.

Tulsi Thakur, a 52-year-old grandmother, is one of Pehchan’s most dedicated leaders. Thakur has lived on the streets of Mumbai since she was a child, and the stress of life without shelter is beginning to show. To combat it, she starts her day with a prayer. “The first thing we do in the morning is pray to God that the day might go well. That we don’t face any problems today. We ask that we’re saved from worries today. Then we go to bathe.”

Thakur, a leader and activist in the homeless community, spends much of her days guiding other women and families on how to obtain identity cards, get to school or find jobs in the area. What she really wants, though, is respect. “Being poor,” she says, “is not a crime,” and she wants the city to see its homeless residents as contributors who need help and who have dreams and goals too. “We also want a house. We also want our children and grandchildren to do well,” Thakur says. “I also want a better life.”

Solutions by the People, for the People

In October, Singh attended an Urban Thinkers Campus in Delhi, one of a series of UN events leading up to the international body’s conference on housing and sustainable urban development to be held in October. The UN Habitat conference, known as Habitat III, will be a time for the world’s leaders to hash out the specifics of the SDGs and how to meet targets, like eliminating homelessness.

Singh brought homeless leaders from Delhi to the event so their voices could be heard. “They need to be involved in the process whenever possible,” he says. In fact, a people’s vision of Indian cities is what Singh says is at the heart of any sustainable solution.

Having been working on this issue for 15 years, Singh concedes there have been many setbacks. But he’s hopeful for the future. “We are die-hard optimists,” he says. “If we are on a mission, we will reach somewhere. Look at where we are. We’ve got nothing, so we’ve got nothing to lose. It’s only gain, gain, gain.”

This piece is part of a series of reported articles and op-eds that Next City is publishing related to preparations for the United Nations’ Habitat III conference in Quito, Ecuador, in October 2016. With a grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, we’re covering the critical issues at stake on the road to creating a “New Urban Agenda,” and hosting events at PrepCom III in Surabaya, Indonesia, in July 2016, and in Quito.

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Carlin Carr is an urban development professional interested in innovative ideas for social change.

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Ashali Bhandari works at Columbia University’s StudioX in Mumbai and writes on urban issues in Mumbai and Bangalore.

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BIND is a photography-oriented collective in India run by practitioners in the field.

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