Suffering in the Swelter: Delhi’s Homeless Battle Extreme Summer Heat

Md Kaifee Alam,

New Delhi: Sabina, 19, who prefers to go by her first name, has lived on the footpath near Sabz Burj in Nizamuddin for the last two years. She said in peak summers, the heat becomes unbearable. “It seems like the body is burning, we have to struggle in order to find shade under any tree and have to shift throughout the day,” said the mother of a one-and-a-half years old boy.

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It becomes impossible for them to sleep because of the heat, and using cardboard as a fan is their only respite.

Thousands of homeless live under scorching sun in Delhi’s summers. With mercury rising to over 45o C on some days, saving themselves from the heat is a task in itself. While the effects of extreme heat are evident on the human body, homeless individuals feel wrath of this heat as medical conditions like diarrhoea, heatstroke, weakness, eye-related problems, skin issues such as rashes and irritation are common among others.

In its customary seasonal forecast, Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) predicted above-normal maximum temperatures for most parts of the country, including Delhi. El Nino conditions, which are usually linked to above-normal temperatures, warm winters and low rainfall are also expected to persist, resulting in a higher number of heatwave days.

“During March to May (MAM) 2024, above normal number of heatwave days are likely over most parts of the country, except over northeast India, Western Himalayan Region, Southwest Peninsula and West coast,” stated a press release by IMD on March 1.

The Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), the principal agency addressing homelessness in the national capital, has a network of 343 shelter homes with a total capacity of 20,264 beds, which is one of the highest in the country. Among them, 82 are permanent structures, 103 are portacabins made up of tin sheets, 10 functions under a special drive, eight are temporary buildings and 140 are tents set up in different parts of the city.

Despite such enticing numbers, a significant proportion of homeless people live out in the streets and suffer extreme hot conditions.

Sabina tried to get into a shelter home but was allegedly denied entry because she did not have an Aadhar card. “Today, having a meal is also uncertain for us as we depend on food distributed by some people. We attend natural calls in a nearby jungle. Getting into a shelter home not only provides a roof but also resolves other issues like these as well,” she said.

Despite some break from the blazing sun, the night also does not bring any substantial comfort for them. Constant noise of traffic and hot pan-like roads and footpaths do not let them sleep either.

Dilpit Sahu, 53, who has been living under the Lodhi Road Flyover for the last 25 years, said, “Even after working for the whole day, we cannot get a few hours of sleep. I have been in Delhi for many years but could not get a home. This flyover is my only roof.”

Unusual exposure to extreme heat poses several health risks. Heatstroke and dehydration are the predominant issues, resulting from excessive heat exposure.

“Heatstroke and dehydration may be fatal if not addressed on time,” said Dr Irshad Hussain Naqvi, incharge and chief medical officer at MA Ansari Health Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia.

Dehydration, he said, is most common among children, and if not controlled with proper intake of water, it can lead to more severe conditions, including low blood pressure and brain clotting.

“Additionally, long exposure to direct sun rays may cause skin cancer,” he added.

Homeless individuals are highly susceptible to diseases, particularly those transmitted by vectors, due to their exposure to outdoor environments.

In a survey conducted in 2023 by the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), a charitable trust working in the field of land and housing rights, 89% of the respondents reported an increase in vector-borne disease during summers.

Nasima Bibi, mother of a two-year-old boy, Hussain, also lives on the same footpath alongside Sabina with her family. She said every season is difficult without a house, but the summer season is the most problematic even more than winters.

“Apart from the heat, we have to deal with dangerous mosquitoes,” she said. Pointing towards her son, who was sleeping and covered by a thin cloth to protect from mosquitoes, Bibi said, “He has been down with fever for more than a week. Almost all the money my husband earns is spent on the medicine of the child, still he is not getting well.”

Inadequate income compounded with lack of sanitation makes treatment of the ailment exceptionally challenging for them.

As per the 2011 census, there are 46,724 homeless people in the national capital; whereas, the Indo-Global Social Service Society, a non-profit organisation counted them to be 88,410 in 2008 and the Delhi Development Authority estimated them to be 150,000 at that point of time. With increase in total population of the city and high migration in search of better employment opportunities, these numbers have amplified.

Experts argue that around 1% of the city’s population is homeless. The HLRN survey also estimates this number to be around 2 to 2.5 lakhs.

Sunil Kumar Aledia, executive director of the Centre for Holistic Development and a social worker working with Delhi’s homeless population for years, believes that homelessness will increase with the increase in cities if measures are not taken.

“The government does not pay attention to homeless people because they are not vote banks. Only 10,412 of them have their name on the electoral list in the city. We need a concrete, long-term policy to control homelessness. It is the responsibility of the state to provide a roof to citizens. We often ignore makan (house) from the famous catchphrase of the ‘roti, kapda aur makan’ as the basic need for the citizens,” he said.

He called for the convergence and interlinking of various government departments to address the problem. “The DUSIB is an engineering board, whereas homelessness is a social problem. It should be handled by the Social Welfare Department,” he added.

Md Kaifee Alam is a freelance journalist and a master’s student of Convergent Journalism at AJK MCRC, Jamia Millia Islamia.