Governing the Houseless in India during COVID-19 Lockdown: Excerpts from a discussion

This post features highlights from the 145th talk in the series of CPR-CSH Urban Workshops, where Paroj Banerjee, Ratoola Kundu, and Maggie Paul talk about their ongoing research in Mumbai, Kolkata, and Delhi on the struggles of the houseless communities during 2020 to 2021. The discussion and the study raises important policy and governance questions about houseless communities in the city, arguing that the predominant shelter-centric policy discourse fails to capture the agency, the lived realities, and fundamental contributions and specific vulnerabilities of those who have made a home in the city, but do not have a ‘house’ to live in.
By  |  May 28, 2022

The imposition of a lockdown in March 2020 to curb the spread of COVID-19 in India was not only sudden, leading to widespread panic and chaos, but also violent. . The idea of safety that circulated during the pandemic reinforced hegemonic ideas of ‘home’ as a space of care and belonging, and also exacerbated this urban dispossession around housing, especially on the unhoused people in Indian cities. Paradoxically, the city’s houseless communities were rendered hypervisible and simultaneously categorised as a potential source of contagion and a threat to the public. For the urban poor, the pandemic was not a health issue, but rather of loss of livelihood, hunger, and housing injustice which continued from the pre-pandemic times. The pandemic disrupted means of survival for the urban poor.

This post features highlights from a conversation between Paroj Banerjee, Ratoola Kundu, and Maggie Paul about their ongoing research in Mumbai, Kolkata and Delhi on the struggles of the houseless communities from 2020 to 2021, part of the ‘Humaree Pehchaan’ project. It highlights different histories and arrangements of houseless communities led to their varied forms of negotiation and resistance in the face of a hostile city. This talk examined how the governance of the pandemic, shaped by particular ideas of public health and safety, exacerbated everyday insecurities amongst the houseless population. Houseless communities were subjected to stricter measures of control, surveillance, removal from the visible public spaces and segregation.

Delving into the research, the speakers talked about the government creating conditions of unsafety, particularly for the unhoused during the pandemic. As the home was seen as a space to shield one from the virus, those unhoused in the urban, were excluded from this trope of safety ‘within the house’. The pandemic recirculated some of the dominant and exclusionary perceptions of hygiene and sanitation, which ended up adversely targeting the urban poor. The pandemic also pronounced boundaries between the inside and outside, the inside seen as safe, while the outside was perceived as unsafe and dirty, completely disregarding the large urban population that lives on the streets. Lockdown measures were harsh, and weighed heavily on the urban poor. The entire outlook towards the unhoused during the pandemic echoed colonial ideas of hygiene, class, and sanitation and dominant ideas of house and habitation. In light of these perceptions, many evictions took place, personal possessions of the urban poor were seized, people were arrested, and there was a marked increase in police brutality. 

The measures taken by the government to extend support to the houseless communities were piecemeal and ad-hoc. The speakers argue that these measures were not informed by the principle of care and well-being but instead served to further dehumanize and stigmatize the houseless communities. For example, a shelter-centric policy response to houselessness during the pandemic created adverse effects like separating families. Further, the government’s directions for frequent handwashing disregarded the pre-existing paucity of running water for the people living on the streets. Such government directives increased the pressure on families to access public/private sanitation facilities, increasing expenses in a reduced accessibility environment. 

The urban unhoused faced many difficulties during the pandemic and were often left out of state support measures. Many of the governance measures that were floated were ration-centric, like the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana and Aatmanirbhar Bharat but most of the houseless relied on civil society and private individuals, charity, and self-organised efforts for food aid during the pandemic. MoHUA directed shelters to provide food aid to the houseless, but they were marred by problems of capacity and maintenance.

The houseless also suffered the repercussions of excessive policing during the lockdown period, since the directives were to police anyone seen on the roads. This disrupted the livelihoods of those living on the streets, who in turn became dependent on civil society and relief efforts by organisations and individuals. 

Owing to all these reasons,  the urban poor and especially houseless populations developed a general mistrust during the pandemic, of not just the disease, but also of the authorities presenting solutions. The lockdown exacerbated the problems and daily insecurities of the houseless, and state actions during the time were found to be violent and willfully negligent. The authors suggested multi-dimensional policy responses as the way forward, which would cover the vulnerabilities of all, including the houseless. Moreover, long term efforts to house the houseless and provide aid need to be implemented to reduce the everyday unsafety that the people on the streets face.

The full video of the discussion is available below:

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