Vivek Kumar Sah
The homeless, or people without shelter, are often denied their dignity as human beings. Homelessness accompanied by poverty forces people to live without proper shelter, housing, food, childcare, healthcare, and education. This section of people is also most vulnerable to violence by any muscle power. Media reports of a growing economy and low unemployment mask a number of important reasons why homelessness persists.
For the simple understanding, “homelessness” means the absence of a place to live (a house, apartment, or room—the physical structure)—which includes the absence of belonging to a place and the people living there (a home, in the social and psychological sense)’. Simply anyone who doesn’t possess a fixed, regular, and adequate nighttime residence is considered homeless.
A report says that in India, 25% of the country’s poor live in urban areas, and 31% of the urban population is poor and is expected to grow to almost 50% by 2030. Traditional rural-urban migration exists in India as villagers seek to improve opportunities and lifestyles. In 1991, 39 million people migrated in rural-urban patterns, of which 54% were female. Caste and tribal systems complicate these population movements.
‘In Guwahati, the population of homeless people is not a fixed number. It varies from time to time over the years,’ said Sattar Choudhury. He said, “During our observation, we have come to the conclusion that due to social, economic, and psycho-physical reasons, they have left their native place and family and come to Guwahati for livelihood opportunities and are compelled to take shelter on the pavements and in the premises of government and non-government institutions situated on the roadside as well as beneath trees’. They are often ‘cleared’ from the streets by the authorities, especially during visits by VIPs, on the ground that they indulge in activities that are ‘criminal in nature’.
People migrate from one part to another part of the country for various reasons ranging from socio-economic, political or other reason and the trend of migration is higher among the shelter-less people. ‘It is seen that the highest percentage of this group of poor has migrated to Assam from Bihar. The shelterless have come from other states too, like Madhya Pradesh, Meghalaya, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, and Nepal’. In Guwahati city, homeless people are mostly from underdeveloped districts like Kamrup, Barpeta, Goalpara, Dhubri, Sonitpur, Nagaon, and Golaghat. The concentration of the homeless population in Guwahati can be witnessed almost all over the city area, though the highest number of homeless people is concentrated in the Sukreswar Mandir near Panbazar, Paltanbazar, the Railway Station, and Lakhtakia. There are about 100 people living in and around Sukreshwar temple, about 30 of them are women. This figure includes 3-4 mentally ill, a few disabled to various degrees, 10-15 of them are suffering from various diseases. A few women have their kids along with them.
According to the survey, “the other areas where these people sheltered themselves are Guwahati Club, Ulubari Flyover, Kamakhya Gate, Bhorolumukh, Machkhowa, Bora Service, Bhangagarh, Ganeshguri Flyover, Sarapbhati, Fatasil Ambari, Kamakhya Station, Beltola, Kumarpara, Morachali near the stadium, Jalukbari, Khalipara, Jatiya, and Maligaon’.
The causes of homelessness are diverse and complicated. Various reports cited the reasons as natural disasters, ethnic conflicts, soil erosion, migration in search of jobs, social stigma towards TB, disability, and mental illness. Most of the homeless people with whom this writer interacted, however, cited domestic violence as the prime reason for leaving home and taking shelter in the streets.
Livelihood options are almost absent for the homeless. Begging seems to be the prime source of livelihood for the homeless. Some are forced to become hawkers, wage labourers, prostitutes, rickshaw pullers, cart pushers, and servants, while others are involved in petty trade, dead body carrying, and rag picking.
“The lives of homeless people are very vulnerable. They are exploited at every step and often harassed by police and others. “They are also very carefree and “bindass’ as they have nothing to lose’, shared Sattar. This proved true later as a young boy burst into laughter while narrating how he lost his hand in an accident just two days ago as if he has no regret for losing a hand.
Harassment by police on suspicion is commonplace, leading to additional fear and vulnerability. Raj Ali (name changed), a young homeless man with his family, informed me that he has been arrested many times for crimes unknown to him. Each time he has to stay in the police lockup for 3–4 days, which burns a hole in his pocket. ‘I am forced to spend about 4-5 hundred rupees each time I am arrested, and my wife and children are left unattended in my absence’. Sex workers are too informed that they have to constantly ‘contribute’ to the police to keep earning.
There are also ‘internal’ vulnerabilities. Very often, they indulge in ‘friendly clashes’ among themselves. Reasons for such violence in a clash can be silly. I was ‘privileged’ to witness such a silly fight. I noticed that a boy who lost one of his hands in an accident recently smelled a piece of cloth. Suspecting it to be of dendrite, I asked him to show me the cloth piece. He smiled and replied, “Didi, no smoking’. Immediately, another fellow homeless person started beating him. Some onlookers intervened, but both were in serious pain by then. The reason behind such a sudden attack became clear within minutes. ‘He never went school and never learned English.” Why he was talking in English with you?’ I realised that ‘no smoking’ is an English sentence. Instances of such ‘friendly clashes’ are also observed in other ‘sites’ of homeless populations in Guwahati. Best explanation for such violent behaviour could be only one element, that is, their vulnerability towards their existence.