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Asia

Indians worry what the next cold snap will bring

Thousand of homeless people fend for themselves in the Indian capital as winter closes in. An investigation by rights groups shows an alarming increase in number of deaths each year.

The cold snap is yet to set in but it won't be long before the bitter reminder of December's unforgiving cold takes its toll on thousands who spend their lives in the open.

Manish Kangan, a daily wager, lost his 20-year-old younger brother, Rajesh, last year after he was unable to stave off the persistent cold and died outside on the pavement.

Indian homeless men prepare to sleep on the footpath at night near red fort in New Delhi, India, (Photo: EPA/HARISH TYAGI +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk)

India's Supreme Court has ordered the states to provide adequate shelter for the homeless

"We could not afford the temporary shelters erected by the civic authorities," Kangan told DW. "Earnings were low and the road was our only home. He died of pneumonia and I could do nothing."

Rajesh's desolate death on the streets of Delhi is just one statistic in the long line of homeless deaths unearthed by rights organizations using information under the country's freedom of information laws on the issues surrounding the rights of the homeless.

According to information provided by New Delhi police, 6,861 homeless deaths were reported from 2007 to 2011 across five districts in the capital. While a majority of deaths constituted males, 277 females and 105 children also died in this period.

"This is just a tip of the iceberg. None of the institutions like the National Human Rights Commission, National Commission for Women and Delhi Commission for Women are interested in the rights of the homeless, women and children," S. A. Azad, who filed the application with the police to have the information released, told DW.

Azad, who runs a campaign for rehabilitation for the homeless, believes not all people who die on the streets are entered in police records.

Death on the streets

Two years back the Supreme Court directed all states and union territories to ensure that no night shelter was demolished amid the biting winter cold and slammed the Delhicivic authorities for demolishing facilities for the homeless. It directed officials to take appropriate disciplinary actions against officials responsible for the demolition.

After painstaking efforts, civil rights bodies have discovered that government institutions have been routinely violating court orders; again this year, no arrangements for the homeless have been made ahead of the winter season.

"Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members," Ameeta Joseph from Business and Community Foundation told DW. "The government needs to act expeditiously to ensure that court orders are implemented and the rights of homeless women are protected as a priority."

An Indian homeless man on the footpath at night near red fort in New Delhi, (Photo: EPA/HARISH TYAGI +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk)

Temperatures can get to near zero in the winter in New Delhi

With a population of well over one billion people, India is home to 170 million slum dwellers. That is 63 percent of all slum dwellers in South Asia and 17 percent of the total number of slum dwellers world wide.

Living in slums or on pavements along busy roads, many of these people contend daily with the difficulties of not having access to water and sanitation. Severe weather just adds to their problems.

There are reportedly 150,000 homeless people in New Delhi. Unfortunately, the city has only 64 permanent and 54 temporary shelters, which can accommodate just over 14,000 people. That means a majority of them are left to fend for themselves every night.

"We have no option - the streets and the open skies are all I know for the last four years," Razia Bhai, a rag picker, claimed wistfully. "It is a struggle but I have managed so far. How long I don't know?"

There is no accurate record of the total number of homeless deaths in India as the government keeps no records. Activists cannot make accurate estimates. But many believe that homeless deaths peak not in winter but in the summer months, followed by monsoons.

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