The Covid-19 pandemic and the national lockdown last year led to thousands of migrant workers leaving the city due to loss of livelihood. The lockdown also had an impact on the population of homeless persons living in the city, many of whom had no place to go, even as the government directed people to remain indoors. Mohammed Tarique, a member of the Supreme Court Monitoring Committee on Shelters for Urban Homeless, and the director of Koshish, a field action project of the Tata Insitute of Social Sciences, which works with the homeless and those booked on charges of beggary, speaks to The Indian Express on the impact of the lockdown.
What has been the impact of the pandemic and the national lockdown on the homeless population in the city, many of whom belong to marginalised communities?
I think the visible impact is for everyone to see. We saw how people struggled for meals and to get to their homes. The deeper impact not being spoken about is the psychological trauma. In situations of disaster, there is a normalisation of violence. Many, who were stepping out of their homes to find food, were assaulted. People who earned a living were left standing in long queues to get one meal, stripping them of their dignity. Any crowding there resulted in them facing violence by authorities. There was humilation at being refused food after standing for hours. This would be a lifelong memory for many, including children. We have, over the last few months, spoken to many who faced hardships last year. One thing they kept saying is that they felt unwanted in the cities they helped build, cities that they maintain. There has been a sense of hostility and abandonment. They do not have the luxury of not returning, but the trauma will remain.
What do you think are the lessons for better safeguarding of the rights of the homeless?
The existing system excludes relief for many by design. Many cannot benefit from the PDS, as they do not have a ration card. It also relies on people coming forward to seek help. Many among the homeless cannot seek help, including the elderly. They lay upon the streets and depend on alms given to them even if they do not go seeking them or depend on small eateries feeding them. The policies therefore need to rethink how they can be reached out to.
Were there enough shelter homes for people to stay in during the pandemic?
There were many temporary shelter homes set up, which was better than I had expected. But, the civic body does not have enough shelter homes as per the directions of the Supreme Court. The court had stipulated five shelter homes per five lakh people. The civic body is not close to implementing the order, with just 9-10 shelters in the entire city.
The Delhi High Court decriminalised begging in 2018. Do you think there is a need for begging to be decriminalised elsewhere including in Mumbai?
Yes, absolutely. People are being punished, sentenced for ten years for being poor through the Prevention of Beggary Act which cannot be justified at all. There is now a Central government scheme which is based on the understanding that people are not responsible for their situation and need assistance to come out of it. The focus should only be rehabilitation. Even during the pandemic, from March, police had begun arresting at least 15 persons per day under the Act. This is not the time for action against the homeless when they are struggling to stay alive.