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Homeless People in India – A Case Study of Chennai City

Thursday October 06, 2011 10:56:50 PM, Syed Ali Mujtaba

‘Oh think twice, it's another day for you and me in paradise,’ sang Phil Collins in the memorable song on the homeless people. I am sure many of us have seen such people in our daily lives. Some of us may have pity on them, others indifferent towards them, and some may have done acts of mercy towards them.

Notwithstanding the facts, the truth is, homeless people are part and parcel of every metropolitan city life. Any one who sleeps without shelter on the streets, on railway platform, under flyovers, in parks or in any place not meant for human habitation and anyone who sleeps in night shelter are considered as homeless people.

The problem of homeless people is engulfing many metropolitan cities of the world. They provide the ugly face of the glamorous side of these supposedly beautiful cities. In India too all the mega cities Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Chennai the problem of homeless people are growing many fold.

The moral dilemma in handling the problems of homeless people is whether to absorb them in the bosom of the city or push them out of the city limits. It’s a call of the conscience and it’s a difficult call that remains unresolved.

There are many government schemes to address the problems of the street people and some non governmental organization too are chipping in their efforts to improve their lot.

It is with these objectives, some Chennai based Non Governmental Organization has started two community based programmes for the welfare of homeless people in this southern metropolis of India. One is the legal aid training programme, other is career guidance training program.

The NGOs also offers special program for 0-5 age group, the most vulnerable group among the entire street population.

There are 40,533 homeless people in the Chennai city, comprising 11,000 families. Out of them, 9,298 people live together on the streets under the open sky. Many of them have been homeless for more than three generations.

In Zone II, V, VI and VII of Chennai Municipal Corporation, 57 percent of homeless people are concentrated. This is because these zones predominantly accommodate unorganized labour related to wholesale business and other commercial activities. In zone VII the homeless people are predominantly construction and daily wage workers

As part of the community capacity building activities, the NGOs organizes legal aid training for the homeless community. The homeless community is been trained on capacity building, skill building, basic human rights and RTI provisions. It ensure the homeless community in securing access to mainstream education, health services, legal aid, affordable shelters and livelihoods for all homeless people in the city.

Legal aid training provides information with regards to the housing rights, women rights and legal measures for them to know at the time of need. Legal Aid implies giving free legal services to the poor and needy who cannot afford the services of a lawyer for the conduct of a case or a legal proceeding in any court, tribunal or before an authority.

The Supreme Court has given guidelines that include food, identity cards, protection for the most vulnerable groups among the homeless, health, education, and livelihood, shelter and legal aid for the homeless community in India.

The NGOs legal aid training programme for the homeless community helps them to know their basic rights and the legal aid services pertaining to the poor and the marginalized community in Chennai.

The NGO’s has started career guidance training program that help young homeless generation to choose a career, gain competencies required for it, make decisions, set goals and then take an action which will improve their standard of living.

Of 40,533 homeless people in the Chennai, 21 percent are children below 14 years of whom 48 percent are girls. The children aged below 14 years form an extremely vulnerable group. They form 21 percent of the homeless population of Chennai.

About 85 percent of children below 14 years have never accessed to school education. It is to be noted the drop out rate of children of the ages 6-14 is 13 per cent, with the rate being higher among girls.

The story of the children below 18 years is still grim. The population of children between 15 and 18 years is 9 percent. The male- female sex ratio in this age group is nearly equal. More than 83 percent of the children do not have access to mainstream formal education.

There is a heavy decline in the number of children between the ages of 15 to18 years enrolling for higher education. The drop out rate has reached an alarming figure of 75 per cent.

The drop out rates among the homeless children is high especially after their high school because of lack of knowledge and opportunity on their higher education. Hence there is an increase in the drop out rates when they are 15 and above.

Choosing a career is a difficult matter, in the best of times. Add to this, opinions of friends and parents, and the young person is caught up in a confusing situation where making a decision is almost impossible.

Career Guidance refers to programmes and services intended to assist individuals of any age and at any point throughout their lives, to make education, training and occupational choices and to manage their careers. Choosing a career is a multi-step process. It involves gathering information on a number of things, the first being themselves.

The NGOs career guidance training program direct the homeless children in the right path and to make right choices which will in turn reduce the drop out rates, ensure higher education and choose a better career for their life.

The most challenging of the problems of street children are those faced by age group of 0-5 age as they are very vulnerable. There are 3574 street children aged below 5 years forming 9 percent of the population. They need physical, psychological, emotional, social, and economic support. It is very difficult for the shelter less people to provide this support to their children because they themselves are denied of the same being confined in the streets.

The children between 0-5 are required to avail facilities like the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) that ensures the nutrition, health and education needs. However, there is lack of these facilities to the children in the streets. As they grow up on the streets, they are exposed to multiple vulnerabilities caused by health complications and under nourishment. As a result, there is high amount of infant mortality among this segment of population. The NGOs with their special programmes are trying to address the issues of this vulnerable group.

Chennai is leading in addressing the issues of the population living on the street. ‘Chennai Pavement Dwellers Federation’ is formed to bring the homeless dwellers together and voice their concerns.
This attempt is to make people aware of their rights and get them to utilize those government schemes available to them. The federation also agitates for the right to shelter and changes in governmental policy towards them.

The homeless people are at the bottom of the pyramid and are engaged in menial jobs. They are migrants from rural areas, in search of better economic opportunities.

The dilemma that the cities face today is; whether absorb the migrants, as bonafide residents, and provide them with all the facilities of urban life, or temporarily accommodated in the city but encourage them to leave the urban space.

The problem if these people are given permanent shelters they will settle down eventually leading to overcrowding of the city and magnifying the problems of the urban habitat.

However, there is other fact of this issue as well. The migrant who constitute the homeless people contribute to the city’s well being as they perform various vital jobs and no city can run without them.

It’s a chicken and egg kind of syndrome and it’s a difficult choice to make. The fact is unless the rural habitats are made conducive for habitation, migration to the cities may continue unabated.

The symptoms are glaring in the census figures of 2011. It reveals that for the first time, the urban population in India is in access to its rural population. Here lies the problems of homeless people as its part of the emerging pattern in the country.


Syed Ali Mujtaba is a journalist based in Chennai. He can be contacted at







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