Assessing Shelters Across South Delhi’s Changing Spaces and Moving People

About half of Delhi’s homeless shelters operate at full capacity to overcrowded conditions, providing less space than the norm of 50 sq.ft. per resident. This is a planning problem since policymakers have treated critical questions of where shelters should be built, how many residents shelters should accommodate, and how much space to allot for each shelter as separate issues at various times, and independent of the actual demographics that the various shelters in different parts of the city cater to. This piece focuses on two neighboring, identically-sized porta-cabin shelters in South Delhi’s Nehru Place, which cater to two different groups of homeless people. It juxtaposes narratives of the two sets of residents with an analysis of the official data to reveal why, over the last eighteen months (March 2019-August 2020), one of them was constantly overcrowded and the other was, by official standards, modestly but consistently utilized.
By  |  September 24, 2020

A report I wrote in July 2020 examines wide-scale floor space shortages across Delhi’s 223 homeless shelters. On an average, the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) only reserves 18 square feet of space per resident. The limited available space is why only 7,317 people – 43% of the system’s 17,070 -person capacity – used shelters between March 2019-2020. A lesser share (40%) used or could access these spaces during the early, hazardous weeks of the Covid-19 lockdown between March and May 2020. The lack of space and limited use of shelters requires different metrics to evaluate how well shelters function. One measure could be the square footage per actual nightly residents (or,’ true area’), which is consistently lower than the National Urban Livelihood Mission (NULM)’s shelter space guideline of 50 square feet per person.

About half of Delhi’s shelters provide even less space, indicating that these spaces operate at full capacity to overcrowded conditions. Exclusion is therefore inscribed in the system. This is a planning problem since  policymakers treated critical questions of where shelters should be built (geographic distribution), how many residents shelters should accommodate (population-based shelter capacity) and how much space to allot  (shelter area) as separate issues at various times.  These policy mismatches impact how:

(a) urban spaces inhabited by highly vulnerable, mobile people like the homeless are officially recognized and, thus, governed;  and

(b)  nationally sanctioned, state-run social protection programs like shelters in operation in such areas meet local context-driven needs.

These  tasks are increasingly difficult to manage and assess due to the rapid pace of change across urban geographies in developing cities like Delhi.

Alongside floor space shortages, Delhi’s official homeless population count of 47,076 from the 2011 Census far outstrips the amount of people for whom the government has allotted shelter. During the lockdown period, the government set up additional, ‘temporary’ tent shelters, which increased the system’s shelter capacity from 17,070 to 18,478 residents.  Even with this additional capacity, 28,598 people – 61% of the 2011 homeless count – were invisible to shelter planners. The proposed NULM coverage guideline – 1 shelter for 100 residents in each jurisdiction across the city with a total population of 100,000 residents – would have similarly excluded 30,288 people, or 64.4% of the homeless population.

Floor space shortages and coverage gaps pervade the city’s eleven districts.  However, regions with these problems that also have high population growth rates should be deemed shelter-deficit. Overcrowding in and exclusion from shelters will increase in these areas until policymakers address future, impending, demand with needed  space, resources and services.

Three-fourths of Delhi’s shelters, comprising about two-thirds of the system’s official residential capacity (12,040 residents), are concentrated in four shelter-deficit regions (East+Shahdara districts, Southwest district, Southeast+South district and Northeast districts) that, by population, grew 24.5% between 2001 and 2011, higher than Delhi’s 21.2% growth during the same period.   The number of shelters, therefore, is not a reliable indicator of coverage. Rather, we should assess how allotted shelter space meets population demand. Shelters in these regions are officially only half-full but accord just 41 sq.ft. to people who access these spaces.

South Delhi in focus

The pattern of low occupancy rates (less than 50%) alongside shelter space shortages (less than 50 square feet per person) can be found throughout the city  but is especially problematic across the 43 shelters in the city’s South-West, South and South-East districts – hereafter called South Delhi (figure 1). At 25%, this is the fastest demographically growing region in the city.

South Delhi’s population growth is plausibly linked to it also being a prime target for infrastructure and real estate investment and development. The task of planning and providing enough shelter space and services for homeless people in this location requires understanding how the region’s rapidly changing geographies, amid demographic growth, are used by its highly mobile unsheltered people – especially families who lived in slums, or jhuggis, and were eventually displaced by the government to build metro stations, malls, cinema halls and residential colonies.

It is essential to identify opportunities across shelters amid limited space currently undermining the overall system. Based on the March 22-May 14 reference period of the report, 16 of the 42 shelters (floor space data of 1 shelter was not available) in this region provided more than the NULM 50 sq.ft. spatial guideline, and one-fourth provided more than 100 sq.ft .

Nehru Place in focus

A focus on two neighboring, identically-sized portacabin shelters in South Delhi’s Nehru Place over the last eighteen months (March 2019-August 2020) reveals why one is overcrowded and the other is, by official standards, modestly but consistently utilized (figure 2). Both shelters are 807 square feet and officially slated to accommodate 50 people. This means that the government officially provides 16 square feet per resident, less than a third of the norm under NULM.

Figures 2 and 3 show that shelter #128 (a family shelter) is consistently overcrowded. It either operated at or exceeded ‘full’ capacity (at least 50 residents) in two continuous 4-month periods (May–Aug ’19 and Oct ’19–Jan ’20).  Residents live in an enclosed space that, by any standard, should be deemed uninhabitable and inhumane. These multi-generational families had just 11 and 16.5 square feet of personal space between them during these months (figure 3). On average, the shelter’s 43.4 residents over the 15-month period enjoyed just 29.1 square feet of space between them. The neighbouring shelter (#129) is inhabited by adult men without families. It was occupied by an average of 16 residents over the same period. Even at this low occupancy rate of 32%, the residents had just about the bare minimum norm of personal space (51 sq.ft. each).

The mobility of these shelter residents between the city and their village, and in the city itself, explain these differences. Both sets of residents survive on locally sourced jobs that service Nehru Place’s burgeoning economy.  Family shelter residents are construction (beldari) workers and refuse collectors (kabbadawallahs), and often move together in large groups between the city and their Rajasthani villages. They belong to a Rajasthani tribal group known as the Bagariyas. Men’s shelter residents are young working migrants from Bihar, UP and Jharkhand, and other states that are, for the most part, alone in the city. They are connected to Nehru place  contractors and security firms to work construction jobs throughout the city and as security guards for numerous residential colonies and businesses that have rapidly emerged in this South Delhi locale in the last decade.  The family shelter (#128) was barely utilized during the lockdown while the men shelter’s (#129) occupancy rate remained consistently above average because the Bagariyas moved back to their villages en masse, while the disparate and large population of single male working migrants in Nehru Place continued to use the men’s shelter at the same rate.

Bagariyas have been fleeing drought conditions in their Ajmer district villages for generations. As G, a female shelter resident says about conditions that prompted her family to leave four decades ago:

‘My village was experiencing famine (akaal) the years before we left. No water. Nothing. We dug a well but there was no rain. What were we going to eat? There wasn’t even animal feed. We fled. Some to Bundi (Rajasthan), some to Mumbai. We’ve been moving about the country [ever since]. Some found work, others didn’t. Some begged on the side of the road, begged for water to drink. That’s how we moved about until we came here.’

The Bagariyas have lived in Nehru Place for generations. They’ve been the city’s construction workers on building and metro sites, that were in some cases built on lands on which the community’s jhuggis once stood.  Their working lives, conditions of homelessness and journeys home to provide for families still in the village are intimately linked to South Delhi’s economic development and spatial transformation.  As R, a 35-year old family shelter resident explains:

‘I don’t know how or why my father came to Delhi. [Nehru] Place was all woodland (jangal) then.  My father was a daily wage worker at Kamal temple.  I was very small then.  Chiranjiv tower was the first building in this area.  My father worked on that site.  That big hotel (Eros Hotel) followed. All of us earned our daily wages working that site some twenty years ago.

We lived in a jhuggi among about two or three thousand people. We lost all of our documents in the jhuggi when it was demolished. A madam in a Sant Nagar government office helped us get identity cards. Then, before this shelter was built, and [after] the jhuggi was demolished we lived in tents we made out of our clothes.  This was between 15 to 20 years ago – maybe 16 to 17 years ago. The land where the [Nehru Place] metro station now stands used to be a whole plot of jhuggis. We lived there. The police would come by nights, beat us and throw our food. We thought: how will we survive?’

The shelter has indeed served as a refugee camp of sorts since it was built in the early 2010s. Shelter managing NGO social workers and police officers reached out to this dispossessed community to convince them that this was a place built to protect them.  They’d be safe, they were told. As S, a female shelter resident explains:

‘We were scared [living on the streets] because the police could do anything to you.  Like, threaten to arrest you.  So, we were afraid of them. We’d avoid them.  We’d  [only stay] in places we thought would be safe.  [Eventually] some important officer visited us and said, “It’s my responsibility to ensure no one harasses you – your girls, your wives, your children. If something happens to you at night, I’ll protect you. You have nothing to fear. You’ll have water, food and a place to sleep.” He kept visiting us for a month.  But we didn’t come with him because we were afraid.  Eventually, we thought, ok, let’s go, we’ll live there for two or three days to see how it is.  We were very scared the first 5 to 7 days. But after 20 days, or a couple months, we realized it was safe.   Now we are not afraid.   Because a lot of other people have started to live here. They live here, go and come as they please.  Anyone can live here, for a night or more.

Residents our team interviewed at the two shelters were overwhelmingly migrant (92%) and transient (88%)  daily wage earners who use shelters, in equal measure, to protect themselves against physical danger and further destitution and to find work to support families back home (figure 4).

Family shelter residents’ employ collective savings strategies that determine mass, intermittent sojourns from the shelter to their villages. As S says, ‘We save our earnings here to go to the village – about 100 to 150 rupees from our 200 to 250 daily wage. [Working members in my family] save 10 to 15 thousand rupees a month. My mother is responsible for its safekeeping.’

This is partly why this shelter is  overcrowded most months then scarcely used each April. This year’s exodus from March to June 2020 (see figure 2) was propelled by the nationwide COVID-19 lockdown.

Men’s shelter residents’ find jobs through labour networks. But must devise their own savings strategies and commutes home.  They are on their own in the city. As Y, a 27 labourer from UP says:

‘It’s easy to find work nearby here in Nehru Place. I keep my belongings on me at all times. I sleep right here, with everything I own –  except the clothes I’m wearing –  in my bag and on me, all times.  I keep my money on me when I sleep. I mind my business. Eat my dinner. Go to sleep. Instead of couriering money home – I take it back myself. Collect my pay at the end of the month and go home. That’s right. Every month. It’s only a 2 or 3 hour commute.’

T is a 27-year old Jharkhand  native employed as a security guard for a nearby residential colony. He lives in the men’s shelter during his Delhi stints to save money required to support his children and ailing father. He says:

‘I just came back here ten days ago. I put in [leave] notice one month before I go home. The boss cuts wages, says, “I’ll [send] you the rest when you get home.” I’ve got stress at home. Stress here. Always thinking: let this month end fast so I can collect my pay to send home.  I’m a security guard, so don’t’ get paid before the 10th of the month and there are no advances in this line either. I need Rs. 3,000 – 4,000 of my Rs. 8,000 monthly salary to take care of my own expenses. I could only provide my family Rs. 3,500 last month. My father just called, complaining,   I was only able to provide that much? There’s no way I’d be able to save more than that if I lived in a rental.  A rental costs too much. It’s peaceful here. I get along with the caretakers.’

Concluding Thoughts

The men’s shelter’s average of 16 residents a month, based on the 51 sq.ft. allotted to each resident, likely reflects this space’s  ‘true full capacity’ (as opposed to its officially low to modest occupancy rate of 32%) . This shelter’s migrant residents are connected to various labour networks servicing this rapidly developing and increasingly populous region but are priced out of rentals because public rental housing does not exist. These men mostly access this shelter through referrals from other workers instead of through social workers or the police. This autonomous, informal yet network-driven shelter access route may explain why occupancy rates remain at the exact level that consistently ensures about 50 sq.ft. of personal space to actual users.

The context driving the Bagariya’s use of shelters and the painfully congested living conditions they endure to support family members is vastly different. Government demolitions employed to create the new economies of Nehru Place made them homeless. Shelters thus represent a failure of justice – the state’s failure to provide rehabilitation housing.

Both groups, however, are fighting to survive a form of capitalist development reliant on their dispossession to service the growing wealth economies  without reciprocity – via social protection and affordable housing.  The people know that some form of future and perpetual dispossession lurks. As G says, ‘What if this shelter closes down? We won’t be able to stay here. That’s what we’re thinking – that no one should be able to kick us out of here. Why is it even here?  It’s always on my mind.’


Data analysed and presented in this piece was assembled from the following sources: (1) Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board Occupancy Index;  (2) Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board Nightly Occupancy Report (3) Census 2011.  Life histories in this article are also cited, in some form, in a forthcoming book by this article’s author called Exiles of the New Frontier (New Delhi: Speaking Tiger), an outcome of CPR’s Understanding Metropolitan Homelessness Project, funded by the Indian Council on Social Science Research.

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Ashwin Parulkar

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