At night, the homeless get counted

At night, the homeless get counted

Outside the Hanuman Mandir in central Delhi, between the strings of lights and street stalls, a group of ragged, colourful figures collected on a flight of steps. At the top, under a lamp post, sat one of Delhi’s census enumerators, patiently recording a series of birth dates, marriage, religion and education data from the group of homeless migrants who surrounded her.

This Monday, the Census Commission of India faced one of its biggest challenges to date: finding and registering India’s massive homeless population in cities across the country over the space of a single night.

In fact, the operation took place over three days, explained Varsh Joshi, director of census operations in Delhi. The previous evening, enumerators had visited certain “fixed" locations in the walled city of Old Delhi including Jama Masjid and Sabzi Mandi, where a large homeless population is known to live. On the night of 26 February, male enumerators had been sent out as scouts to ascertain the areas in which vagrants were sleeping, in order to be better prepared for Monday’s sweep through the entire city.

“This is very civilized in comparison to last night," said census commissioner C. Chandramouli as he watched the scene at Hanuman Mandir. “Last night there were crowds of five or six thousand people in one location; there were 600 enumerators and no lights. People were using torches—it was pretty grim."

Chandramouli said that despite the obvious difficulties posed by the geography of the city, the time frame and the sheer number of people involved, the census commission is aiming to capture the city’s whole homeless population, true to its aim to beat its 2001 record of 97.8% inclusion.

A result like that would be a feat indeed. Delhi’s homeless population is vast and scattered. According to Census 2001, there were 24,966 homeless citizens in Delhi. However, a survey carried out by the Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan (AAA), an advocacy group for the homeless in Delhi, in 2000 put the number at 52,765. The Institute for Human Development counted 46,788 shelterless residents in 2007. Now, AAA claims, there are “no fewer than 140,000 people" living on the city’s streets, not including those sleeping “in carts or rickshaws or under flimsy plastic-sheet roofs".

The contradictory statistics indicate how difficult it is to make a complete count. Finding every person would mean tracking down those with night jobs, travelling and living in remote or hidden areas.

There is also the problem of registering people under the influence of drugs and alcohol, who are incoherent or unwilling to help, said S.P. Sanwal, director of general administration at New Delhi Municipal Corporation. “Sometimes they expect that they will get some money," he said.

The commission’s effort to combat these problems is ambitious in scale and scope. Over the two days, some 1,200 enumerators in teams of two-six collected data as fast as they could. One after another, homeless men and women gave their details outside the mandir.

“I have three children," volunteered a young father, holding them up one at a time. A migrant from Ahmedabad, he answered carefully and intently, a cross hanging loosely at the collar of his denim shirt. The enumerator completed her green and white census sheet in neat Devanagari script and produced an indigo pad of ink to take his thumbprint in place of a signature.

Behind them, in the shelter of an underpass, six men huddled in a disused flowerbed, drinking and smoking. “We’ll have to wait until they fall asleep, but actually these people are relatively easy to count," said Joshi. “It’s the ones in the tenements who are our biggest challenge. The landlords don’t want them counted."

To help enumerators, non-governmental organizations such as Indo-Global Social Service Society have been identifying likely areas and night shelters have become bases for counting. A few hundred yards down the street from the mandir, in a park lit dimly by the floodlights of the nearby gurudwara, census workers counted the men in a tented night shelter.

Enumerator Mohammed Irshad teaches geography at a nearby school and this has been his first year working for the census. “So far (at 10pm), we have registered 120 people in this area," he said. “Next, I will go out looking for more. Working into the night is quite difficult, but we are quite aware that the government will be using this data and planning will be done on it."

Whether the count is able to capture the majority of the homeless, the data it brings to light will doubtless be valuable. Information like this is particularly interesting for what it reveals about India’s migrant community, said Sanwal. “We are counting the number, but we also come to know more about them," he said.

Sanjay Kumar, director of operations for AAA, which is helping with the count for the second time, questioned the likelihood of 100% inclusion. “From my perspective, having worked in the field for 10 years, there might be 30-40% of people who escape the count," he said. “Most of the homeless are just invisible."