Fighting cold

Winter is the cruellest season for the homeless and the destitute in Delhi and other north Indian states as they find it extremely difficult to cope with the rigours of the cold weather. The winter peaks in December and January and deaths and diseases caused by cold wave conditions in these months are not unknown. This year also there have been reports of deaths, as in previous years.

A UP bureaucrat insensitively remarked a fortnight ago that no one dies of cold, but many children died of cold-related ailments and lack of protection in the Muzaffarnagar relief camps. While  these deaths attracted attention, many others in other parts of the northern states go unnoticed. After two deaths were reported from Delhi some days ago, the AAP government took steps to set up 100 night shelters for those who needed them. But the task of providing shelter to all needy people is huge and challenging.  

It is mostly the poor who become victims of extreme cold conditions. Safe dwellings with minimum requirements are unaffordable for large numbers of people in cities and many in villages. Cold wave deaths have been reported from slums also where there is only a rudimentary  protection against the weather. But the people most affected are migrant workers and others doing odd  and irregular jobs.

Many are forced to sleep on the roads, on shop verandas or under bridges. There was not even awareness till recently that they needed to be provided shelter. Some non-government organisations had set up some shelters but the governments started taking initiatives only recently. Three years ago the Supreme Court asked all state governments to set up shelter and other facilities for the homeless during the winter. The issue has come into the public domain since then.

Delhi now has 84 permanent shelters and 69 temporary shelters. They can accommodate about 13,000 people while the number of people who need shelter is many times that. Providing shelter also means providing winter clothes, bedding etc. While Delhi needs many more shelters, the situation in other states is much worse. No facilities exist in most places and deaths are not even taken note of.  

Giving the poor and indigent a shelter in winter is not just a humanitarian gesture. It is also an important civic responsibility. Governments and local bodies should pay greater attention to the problem and create permanent mechanisms and arrangements to deal with it.

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