INDIA — Thousands of people across 30 Indian cities slept on the sidewalks to express solidarity with homeless people around the world.
They were part of the “World’s Big Sleep Out” campaign in which some 50,000 people, including celebrities, took part globally, aiming to highlight the plight of the homeless and raise some US$50 million to help them.
Catholics were part of about 100 people who slept on the side of the road in Indore city.
“This was totally a different experience for me,” said Sister Shalini Lakra, a social worker, after spending the night of 7 December on a roadside in Indore, the commercial capital of central India’s Madhya Pradesh state.
Sister Lakra told ucanews that she and others with her had “proper warm clothes” to protect them from the winter night. “That is not the case with many homeless people sleeping on the sidewalks, under trees or bridges,” she said.
The night chill in northern India can range from zero to seven degrees Celsius. An average of 925 homeless people die during the winter season. At least 3,700 people died from 2011-14 because of exposure to the cold, records show.
“It is a tragedy that even after 70 years of being a free democratic nation, we are unable to find homes for our people,” said Divine Word Father Roy Thomas, one of the organisers of the campaign in Indore.
The priest heads the Janvikas (people’s development) Society that works for the welfare and empowerment of rag pickers. “We need to become more generous and conscious of the struggles of people in our surroundings,” he said.
Official government data show that India has 1.77 million homeless people sleeping on roadsides and railway platforms and under flyovers and bridges, the priest said.
“But the actual number will be more as hundreds are losing their homes because of natural calamities every year,” Father Thomas said.
“We slept one night in the open but our brothers and sisters live their lives in such pathetic conditions. Imagine their plight if it rains. We need to find a solution. Both the government and people who can afford it should come together to ensure an end to homelessness in our country.
“It is an irony that on the one hand we have large houses with so many rooms but no one to live in them. And then millions live on the roadside without a cover over their heads.”
Sonu P. Yadav, who works with voluntary agency Indo Global Social Service Society, said the situation of the homeless in India “is worrisome due to the denial of their basic services and entitlements.”
A study by Yadav’s agency conducted in five states — Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Bihar and Tamil Nadu — revealed that homeless people often do not have records to prove their citizenship and identity.
Not only men but also women, children and the elderly die on the streets. For example, at least 263 boys and 103 girls below the age of 14 died because of cold and exposure between 2001 and 2014.