A flood of deaths that don’t matter

A flood of deaths that don’t matter

New Delhi: The people who uncovered the fact liken it to “encountering a mass grave of people who do not matter" in India’s seat of power: At least 10 homeless people are dying on the streets of Delhi every day, the rate peaking as the summer rolls on.

After a six-month examination of official records at crematoria, police stations and graveyards across India’s richest city, Smita Jacob and Asghar Sharif, analysts with an advisory body to the Supreme Court, found that 94% of those who die are single, working men. The average age: 42 years.

The Hindustan Times verified those records on the Delhi police’s meticulously kept website, where the 12,413 deaths between January 2005 and December 2009 are listed as UIDBs (unidentified dead bodies).

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The deaths in Delhi indicate the depth of the challenge facing the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) as it tries to implement its agenda of “inclusive growth". The challenge is growing because one-third of India’s poor— already more than any other country and predicted to grow to half—are now in cities unprepared or unwilling to build support systems.

Even in relative terms, the number of homeless people dying in Delhi is significant. India’s average death rate in 2010, is 7.6 per 1,000 people per year. Given Delhi’s 16 million population, that means around 333 people die in the city every day. The numbers thrown up by the study indicate that 3% of this number is made up of homeless working men in their 40s, who die from hunger and disease.

By 2030, 590 million people will live in Indian cities, said a recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute.

“That so many people, mostly working men, die each day at our doorsteps, close to the centres of power, is a reminder of how scarce compassion is in our public life," said Harsh Mander, commissioner to the Supreme Court, in a nine-year-long case that aims to make food a fundamental right.

Mander, who is now on the National Advisory Council created by UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi, said the solutions are “simple": shelters, affordable housing and hundreds of community kitchens supplying affordable, nutritious food.

“But we are not making these happen," said Mander.

Delhi’s social welfare minister Mangat Ram Singhal said the state did not have the resources to build shelters for the homeless. From 15 June though, mobile centres will provide “quality food at reasonable rates", from Rs10-15 to areas frequented by migrant labour.

“We have taken a lesson from Brazil, and these mobile centres will use infrastructure from community kitchens, anganwadis (health centres) and midday meal schemes for poor students," said Manoj Paridha, principal secretary of Delhi’s ministry of social welfare. “The poor won’t need ration cards. They can just walk up to these vans."

Police data for 60 months shows an average of seven unidentified bodies a day, but analyst Jacob said the number is higher because not all enter police records.

After examining the records for the first four months at Delhi’s largest electric crematorium, Sarai Kale Khan, and the main Muslim burial grounds run by the Wakf Board, Jacob and Sharif found they averaged 306 bodies a month, or 10 daily.

“Using this premise, one may conclude that in the year May 2009 to April 2010…92%, i.e. 3,381 deaths, could be directly or indirectly caused by starvation," said the report.

Joint commissioner of police (northern range) Karnal Singh said the police see “a lot of dead bodies" on the city’s streets, but the cause of death is investigated mainly in cases where “criminality can be established". He said it was “not within our purview" to investigate deaths from the weather or hunger.

The report acknowledged lack of a detailed death analysis to provide a “sharp argument" for the starvation deaths; lack of hospital records; and data errors from a manual count of crematoria and Wakf Board records.

Mander said the actual count could be higher. He explained that in his years of working with Delhi’s homeless, he had seen how they pool their “meagre savings" to cremate or bury bodies. These deaths do not enter records.

The report busts some myths about the homeless: That they are all beggars and junkies; that those who died are mostly the aged and destitute; that they are here temporarily; that most die in the winter.

“Homeless deaths actually peak during the summer, then the monsoons," said Jacob.

This emerged after the office of the SC commissioners began their investigations into deaths during the winter of 2009, one of the coldest on record in Delhi.

The investigators first found that many who died were young working people: balloon sellers, rickshaw pullers, casual workers and street vendors. Last winter, the Delhi government tried cutting back on its shelters, which in any case aid not more than 3% of the homeless.

After homeless people began to die on the site of a demolished shelter, the Delhi high court took suo moto notice and summoned government officials.

Within two nights, the Delhi government doubled the number of shelters.


Tracking Hunger is a joint effort of the Hindustan Times and Mint to track, investigate and report every aspect of the struggle to rid India of hunger. If you have any suggestions, write to us at thehungerproject@livemint.com.