The state government's big, fat lie to the Supreme Court

Feb 05, 2012, 07:55 IST | Yoshita Sengupta

On January 6, the state government filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court saying that Mumbai has four night shelters, complete with beds, lights, drinking water and first-aid kits for the homeless. This, after the apex court instructed states in May 2010 to create shelters in cities with over five lakh people. Sunday MiD DAY visited the four shelters and found that the government lied by naming Non Government Organisation-run shelters for children as those for the homeless.

On January 6, the state government filed an affidavit in the Supreme Court saying that Mumbai has four night shelters, complete with beds, lights, drinking water and first-aid kits for  the homeless. This, after the apex court instructed states in May 2010 to create shelters in cities with over five lakh people. Sunday MiD DAY visited the four shelters and found that the government lied by naming Non Government Organisation-run shelters for children as those for the homeless. What's more, the Prinicipal Secretary of the Department of Urban Development says that the state has no policy on the homeless, in the first place. The homeless, meanwhile, caught in a web of deceit and apathy, continue to sleep on the city's cruel roads.
When the state government files an affidavit in the Supreme Court (a copy of which is with Sunday MiD DAY), claiming to having operationalised 24 shelters for the homeless across the state, complete with postal addresses and a list of 'amenities' available at each, you'd be inclined to believe that our officials are serious about following the guidelines laid down by the apex court with regard to providing shelter to the poorest of the poor. But as this reporter, with a homeless couple (49 year-old Ramu and 45 year-old Basanti) in tow, found during an investigative visit these shelters, as required by the Supreme Court (SC) stipulation, do not exist.

10.30 pm, Municipal School, Khetwadi, Prerana shelter: Ramu,
Basanti, Abhishek Bharadwaj (who runs the NGO Alternative Realities for
the homeless) enter the school compound with a Sunday MiD DAY reporter
and photographer, but are not allowed to enter the building. The caretakers
said the shelter was only for commercial sex workers' children below the
age of 12. Pics/Suresh KK

Create night shelters
Let's start at the beginning. In response to a petition filed by the People's Union For Civil Liberties (PUCL), a Supreme Court bench comprising Justice Dalveer Bhandari and Justice Gyan Sudha Mishra passed an order for all state governments on May 5, 2010, which stated that all cities covered under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) and with a population of over five lakh, need to have 24-hour, year-long, homeless shelters with a capacity of 100 persons for every one lakh population. It also stated that the shelters should have basic amenities like mattresses, bed rolls, blankets, potable drinking water, functional latrines, first aid, primary health facilities, and de-addiction and recreation facilities.

Each state was asked to file a response and commit to building more shelters. While all states filed a comprehensive affidavit committing to the same, the Maharashtra government didn't make any commitment. In its affidavit, the state acknowledged that the homeless are the poorest of the poor and cannot afford housing, but it put slum dwellers and beggars in the same category as the homeless. The government then cited schemes for the benefit of slum dwellers as those also meant for the homeless. Civil society members and petitioners objected to the state categorising the homeless in the same bracket as slum dwellers and passing off slum rehabilitation schemes and beggars' homes as initiatives for the homeless.

After several deadline extensions and both parties submitting various affidavits, the state submitted an affidavit signed by Chief Secretary to the Government of Maharashtra Ratnakar Yashwant Gaikwad on January 6, 2012, which  said that the state is fully committed to the Supreme Court guidelines for establishment, operation and maintenance of night shelters. The affidavit further states, "I (Gaikwad) say that as of now, the state has operationalised a total of 24 Night Shelters in the first phase."

The state also attached a document with the affidavit establishing the location of the shelters, the NGOs running them and the facilities available in the shelters.

11.00 pm, Kamathipura, Prerana shelter: The caretaker said that the
shelter is only for children and there is no provision for the homeless to
stay there."The Prerana shelter is only for children of commercial sex
workers (girls up to the age of 18 and boys not older than 14). We can't
allow adults to enter the shelter because we don't know who is safe for
the kids," said Priti Patkar, director of Prerana

Rejected everywhere
Sunday MiD DAY went to the locations with Ramu and Basanti, a homeless couple with a nine-month pregnant daughter Rekha, all of whom live on a street in Mahim, only to find out that the shelters that the government claimed were for the homeless, were actually existing night shelters for children run by NGOs Prerana, Salaam Balak Trust and SPARC (The Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres).

The caretakers of all four centres denied the couple entry, in one case, misbehaved with them, and insisted that they are not aware of any government affidavit.

At the SPARC shelter below the Dadar flyover, the couple was told that the shelter is only for orphan children and that they haven't received any orders to allow homeless inside. "The shelter is only for children and the organisation does not cater to homeless adults," the caretaker said.

At the children's home run by Prerana in a  municipal school in Grant Road, the caretaker abused Basanti and threatened the Sunday MiD DAY photographer, asking him to delete the photographs.

11.15 pm, Dongri, Salaam Balak Trust shelter: The door of the trust
office was locked. "It's a night shelter for street girls. It is not a place for
homeless adults," Sucheta Banerjee, director of Salaam Balak Trust clarified

What affidavit?
We then began to cross check the facts with the concerned authorities. The director of Salaam Balak Trust Sucheta Banerjee, Padma and Ramon Magsaysay awardee and founder of SPARC Jockin Arputhamand and Priti Patkar, director and founder of Prerana, all confirmed that the centres they run were only for minors.

"The shelter in Dadar is only for orphan children, not for adults or families. That is the undertaking we have given to the authorities. If adults are allowed there and something goes wrong then that will be a big tragedy,"  said Arputhamand. Banerjee's stand was similar. Patkar, on being questioned on how the government used her NGOs name in the affidavit said, "I don't know. You should ask the government that."

Despite attempts to contact Ratnakar Gaikwad via phone calls and SMSes over three days, he remained unavailable. On Saturday evening, this reporter called up his residence and was told that Gaikwad was unwell and unable to talk.

We were also told by State Urban Development Department Secretary Manu Kumar Srivastava's office that he was on a month's leave. TC Benjamin, principal secretary of the Urban Development Department (UDD), said, "I don't deal with the issue of shelter for the homeless. NGOs look into the night shelter issue. I don't know if the government has any policy on homeless night shelters. I don't know about any affidavit. You should check with the Social Justice department."

Sunday MiD DAY also has in its possession an affidavit dated July 14, 2011, submitted to the Supreme Court by the Urban Development Department on behalf of the State on the issue of night shelters for the homeless, establishing that the issue is being dealt with by the UDD. 

What is the BMC doing?
The January 6 affidavit also stated that the State has "issued directions to the Municipal Commissioners to take all necessary measures to strictly ensure that no homeless person is compelled to sleep on the pavements, parks or public streets for want of shelter during this winter. The Municipal Commissioners have been further directed to ensure that if adequate number of permanent Night Shelters are not available in their city, they should immediately arrange to set up temporary night shelters in unused municipal buildings or in private rented buildings so that the homeless are sheltered therein."

When contacted, Municipal Commissioner Subodh Kumar said that the BMC has been asked by the state to identify locations and to set up shelters for the homeless. "I am aware of the four shelters, but I can't remember off hand where they are. We are trying for 20 more shelters, but the process of identifying the locations and working everything out is long so I can't give an exact time frame of when they will be operational."

On being questioned about the money allocated he said, "The budget is not ready yet, but the budget and money will not be a problem."

Top sources in the BMC, however, revealed that the civic body sent expressions of interest in September 2011 to several NGOs to set up shelters, of which only one responded. The body decided not to award it to this NGO.

When asked about the legal implications of lying in an affidavit, Special Public Prosecutor Rohini Salian said, "If a court comes across a case of lying on oath, in which one has lied in an affidavit submitted to the court, the court will set an enquiry against the person. The court will also direct the person to re-submit the affidavit, if it comes to know that the information is incorrect. However, if the court finds that the information in the affidavit was written with an intention to gain something in a wrong way, the court may register a case against the person."

Members of the civil society are shocked at the state apathy. "I am shocked that they have the gumption to lie to the Supreme Court. The NGOs involved have every reason to complain against the false usage of their name. They have to come out in the open and assert that they are not party to it," said Indu Prakash Singh, technical advisor of the Indo-Global Social Service Society, who brought the matter to the attention of the Supreme Court in 2010.

While we wait for clarification on the issue, Ramu and Basanti are trying to arrange for train tickets to go back to their village in Rajasthan along with their nine-month pregnant daughter. Is it safe for a woman in the last stages of pregnancy to travel in the crowded general compartment of an inter-state train or should she stay back and live on the cruel streets of Mumbai?

Maybe the state can answer that question.

Inputs from Saurabh Katkurwar

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