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Last Updated: Tuesday, 30 December, 2003, 16:06 GMT
A bleak winter for India's homeless

By Geeta Pandey
BBC correspondent in Delhi

India's two million homeless people are now facing up to their seasonal enemy of winter, but the year-round enemy of prejudice is just as testing.

Homeless Indian man
India's street-dwellers, stricken by disease, often beg for survival

Homelessness is perceived as a crime here by many, forcing the unfortunate to live on the fringes of society.

Shelters are few and often badly managed.

One that breaks the mould is Delhi's Ashray Griha night shelter for the homeless.

It is run jointly by the Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan non-governmental organisation and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi.

Shelter pressure

There are more than 100,000 homeless in Delhi.

One of them is Rangeela. He works by day and spends his nights here.

Watching TV in the shelter
Almost all eyes are glued to the cricket in the homeless shelter

As the shelter's floor fills with homeless, mesmerised by a cricket match on television, Rangeela says: "I feel like it's our house. There's TV here, every facility is available here.

"Before I discovered this place, I used to feel very lonely. I used to think I was all alone in this world. But now I feel I belong here. This is my brotherhood."

Another resident, Sunil, has been coming here for six months now.

He says he likes the place because "we get cool water to drink and the toilets are clean".

There is space for about 170 people. The facilities cost six rupees (13 US cents] a night.

It is not yet midnight, but the place is full and as more people come in, they are turned away.

Winter on the streets

Not all night shelters are so well managed.

Family on the streets
A family sleeping rough: Many are born into destitution

Farooq goes to one in south Delhi run by the civic authorities.

It is clearly not much in demand. Only a handful of people come here.

Farooq says: "It's low on cleanliness and the beds and blankets stink".

For many, even this is out of reach.

A stone's throw from this shelter, a group of five gathers around a small fire.

A crackling old radio plays a Bollywood number.

The winter has begun but Haider Ali has nowhere to go.

"I earn less than 100 rupees a day, sometimes not even that. So if at the end of today I have a few rupees left, I save it because I may not find any work tomorrow," he says.

"I've been sleeping on the footpath for the past 15 years. I've survived so many winters, hopefully I'll survive this one too."

Treated like criminals

Night shelters can accommodate only 3,000 people.

Boy scavenges on rubbish dump
Against a backdrop of new housing, a child sifts through rubbish

And last year more than 3,000 unidentified bodies were found on the streets, most believed to have died from the cold.

Dhananjay Tingal, shelter co-ordinator with Ashray Adhikaar Abhiyan, says: "The government is not doing enough, a lot more needs to be done.

But the authorities are not bothered and the attitudes of the people running the shelters is not right. They think they are doing a favour by running these shelters, so things that break down do not get repaired."

Mr Tingal says the homeless are not organised; they lack an identity card and a fixed address, and so do not represent any political constituency.

Also, society treats them like petty criminals and no one cares for them.

Homeless men
Homeless men queue at the shelter in Delhi

RK Meena, director of Night Shelters at the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, says: "We have our limitations. There are no spaces, no funds. But we are doing our best. I've inspected many night shelters and have asked the staff to carry out repairs as soon as possible."

Mr Meena says the civic authorities, along with some NGOs, are putting up 29 extra tents across the city to provide temporary shelters to 1,500 more homeless during the winter months.

Warm for the night

But tents cannot shelter victims from all their adversities.

One 15-year-old boy outside Ashray Griha has just been assaulted.

"This man offered to get me something to eat," says Gullu.

An Indian slum
Many homeless aspire to have a shack to live in

"He forced me to drink alcohol. And then he asked me for money. I told him I had no money, so he started beating me up and tore off my shirt. I trusted him, but look what he's done."

Police are called and after much argument a man is taken in for questioning.

Mr Tingal says in most cases like this, the police are not keen to take action.

Back inside Ashray Griha, the cricket match is nearing the end.

The inmates have settled down in their warm blankets, happy to have a roof over their heads - even if it is just for the night.

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