As temperatures climbed up to 46 degrees centigrade in Delhi last week, life for the city’s homeless women became even tougher. Women lodging in Delhi’s homeless night shelters (or raen basera), have few options to beat the heat.
Only 21 out of 263 night shelters run by the government-controlled Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) cater to women. Jyoti Banal shifted to a cabin in one of the shelters near the Bangla Sahib Gurudwara, a prominent Sikh place of worship located in the centre of Delhi, when she got a job at a call centre. Despite the job, she chose the homeless shelter because her salary is still very limited, and she is anxious about living by herself in the areas where she would be able to afford the rent. She has family in Delhi but – because she is an orphan – they have abandoned her to her fate.
“We have two [air] coolers in each cabin and also exhaust fans but the steel cabins become so hot during the day that nothing works here and the heat remains trapped inside at night. We get cold water either from the Gurudwara or the water dispenser. That’s all. It’s enough that I have a roof over my head,” said Banal while fanning herself furiously with a magazine.
As heatwaves become more common and severe in India, it is the poor and vulnerable who fall victim to the heat first. Sweltering conditions are being felt this year across South Asia. In Karachi, Pakistan’s most populous city an estimated 100 people have been killed by recent hot weather with temperatures expected to continue into June. Between 2013 and 2016, over 4,000 Indians lost their lives to heat—and it is likely that the numbers are under-reported.
Authorities say the number of deaths have fallen dramatically in recent years as a result of public health campaigns, including sending temperature warnings through the media and WhatsApp. But for the homeless poor in Delhi, the heat is inescapable.
No support for Delhi’s homeless shelters
The raen basera complex is managed by an NGO, Humana People to People India. The caretaker, Monika Sharma, said that despite problems with some criminals, her team members have managed the complex well. Most women either walk in or have been rescued from the street. “We provide women with oral rehydration whenever they complain of heat stroke as most of these women leave the shelter in the day to eke out a livelihood. We have a fully functional clinic for any emergency and take them to the nearest hospital,” said Sharma.
But portable cabins are like furnaces in the summer and women prefer to sleep outside the shelters to escape the stifling heat. A senior official from the DUSIB admitted, on condition of anonymity, that the government has done nothing to improve the situation and NGOs managing many of the shelters are cash strapped.
Devmati from Begusarai in Bihar, who has been living in the Gurudwara shelter for over seven years, complained of acute water shortage in the toilets and bathrooms. Pushpa Devi, who was sleeping in the same place, agreed. According to them air coolers often don’t work and there is hardly any cold water available in the complex. The only way to cool down is to lie on the bare floor, they said. Members of the NGO dismissed complaints saying the women were chronic whiners. But for Preeti (26), who is expecting her fourth child, staving off heat stroke and stomach infections is a constant battle as she gets used to life in the sweltering heat of a portable cabin.
The scene at the night shelter on Lodhi Road, one of Delhi’s most high-end areas, was no different. Two portable cabins have been set up on the edge of a narrow lane, behind a famous temple visited by thousands every day. Manju, the night caretaker from an NGO, Prerna, was quite blasé about the fact that there are no arrangements for anyone, let alone women, to combat excessive heat. “What is there to do for summer heat? We have air coolers and a cold water dispenser. The temple’s clinic nearby gives inmates medicines and first aid if required,” said Manju with a shrug.
Outside the shelter in a dingy corner Sarita was cooking dinner over a wood fire stove. “We are dependent on the food and alms that we get from devotees at the temple and don’t dare ask for anything more at the shelter as we have no place to live. It’s terribly hot in the cabins and [they are] infested with rats but we can’t say anything to the managers,” said Sarita glancing over her shoulder nervously.
Security issues for women in the shelters have dominated media headlines in recent times, but equipping women and children in the shelters to deal with extreme heat is not on anybody’s priority list. Given the rising heat of the Indian summers, and the thousands of fatalities that have been caused in the last few years, the only reason that this issue continues to be ignored is that the homeless are considered expendable.