Welcome back! Today, we are fortunate to have with us Mr Sunil Kumar Aledia, Founder and Executive Director of Centre for Holistic Development. He has been very kind to find time from his hectic schedule.
Lockdown Voices: Sunilji, Centre for Holistic Development (CHD) works for people across society, but your key focus has been on the homeless. Please enlighten us about your work for them?
Sunil Kumar Aledia: We have been working for the homeless for the past twenty years. Today, we find that the health crisis from the pandemic has led to the declaration of a disaster. But most do not realise that whoever lands on the streets is already in a disaster situation.
There was no study or data available on homeless in the past and therefore no major policies. The Ministry of Urban Development had launched a scheme to provide footpath dwellers access to toilet, water and sanitation at a cost of one rupee. In year 2000, we did a mass level study in Delhi and identified close to 55000 homeless persons. This led to more policy interventions and helped in setting up Rein Basera (night shelters). In 2009-10, the houseless population were finally given recognition in the census under the homeless category.
Today, through our right-based approach and advocacy, CHD works to register the homeless for voter cards, health facilities and financial inclusion. We have always tried making the homeless conscious and proactive to bring about changes in their life.
[LV]: With the pandemic, there has been constant focus on social distancing. How achievable is this for the homeless?
[SKA]: Ideally for every one lakh population, there should be homeless shelter with 1000 sq m space. But there is only one such shelter in Delhi. Such shelters would have been ideal in the pandemic situation. In 2013, keeping in mind the need for minimum physical distance (not exactly social distancing), the shelter scheme for urban homeless population declared that 15 sq ft per person space had to be provided. When this was implemented, the capacity of the shelters came down. For instance, in a space for 100 only 30 could stay. This led to people leaving the shelter homes and moving back to the streets.
[LV]: Then is physical distancing possible on the streets?
[SKA]: No, distancing is not possible on the streets as the homeless tend to stay together in clusters. If you notice the homeless in Chandni Chowk, Jungpura, Sarai Kale Khan, AIIMS, they are in groups and not scattered. If they go beyond their boundaries, they face issues of safety and security and cannot reach out.
[LV]: During the pandemic, did the Government taken into account the homeless in its redressal plan ?
[SKA]: The Government imposed only physical distancing norms for the homeless and nothing beyond. There were no plans for giving them access to health facilities like dispensary or medical check-ups. When we talk of COVID-19 protocols, they don’t even have the basic amenities of water or soap to wash their hands. Other requisites like sanitisers, masks and gloves are items of luxury for them.
[LV]: You mentioned health facilities. Have the homeless been given access to vaccines ?
[SKA]: We had written to the Government in March about vaccinating the people in shelter homes. Many of them don’t have Aadhaar Card that is a pre-requisite for vaccination but we need to get them vaccinated. In Delhi, there are around 10,500 homeless who have voter cards. If we can get them registered, then they can get vaccinated.
[LV]: In the second national wave of the pandemic, what led CHD to expand its work area?
[SKA]: As part of our organisation’s vision and mission, we try looking at the larger context and keep expanding our work. Our aim is to help people out of difficult circumstances. Earlier we would pass the onus of the action on to the Government. In the second wave, we changed our strategy. The Government seemed helpless and not able to put things in order. So together with like-minded people we worked to overcome the situation. This time we pooled in various societies, entrepreneurs, volunteers, students and interns, into a campaign to help and fill in the gaps left by the Government
[LV]: What areas did you and your team decide to focus on?
[SKA]: In the second wave, we saw people helpless within the safe haven of their homes. They were not so much scared of dying of COVID-19 but of hunger. We provided food, masks and sanitisers. There’s such a fear created by the virus that people run away from one another. If there is someone COVID positive within the family and someone has died of COVID in the same house, protocol makes it impossible for the family to cremate the one who has died. To overcome such situations, our team stepped in and began helping at ground level.
Our role was to guide people. If somebody has died in the hospital and they are not being able to take the body, we would contact the affected family and tie up with hospital on their behalf. We would take the body out of the mortuary, arrange for an ambulance to take it to the crematorium, cremate and finally immerse the ashes. For individual immersion of ashes we prefer Yamuna but with larger number and if pocket permits we go to Gar Ganga or sometimes even Haridwar. It is all about retaining dignity at death.
[LV]: Tell us about the ground reality in crematoriums during the second wave?
[SKA]: The situation was bad and grim when the second wave curfew was declared. We knew things would get worse and lockdown would be extended. The first request for cremation help came on 14th April and we were in the cremation ground then on. There were long queues in the crematoriums and people were waiting for 24 hours. There was fear even with normal dead bodies. Nigambodh Ghat one of the biggest crematoriums of Delhi with 157 stations was full by 15th April. The situation became more serious 24th April onwards as there was no space to cremate. From the very beginning, we were writing to forewarn the Government on the situation. In Sarai Kale Khan, there is an electric crematorium for unidentified and unclaimed bodies of homeless. The nearby beautified park was converted into crematorium. We know after sunset usually last rites are not done but there were people desperately coming at 2 am to get dead bodies cremated. The situation was serious and scary.
[LV]: How has this situation affected the common man? What kind of reaction do you find in people now?
[SKA]: COVID-19 has had a far bigger mental impact. The constant media bombardment and the helplessness of all institutions (oxygen, ambulance, hospital bed, medicines, plasma etc.) has affected the mental illness of every house and individual. If you cough or have fever, outright COVID is suspected. There is no discussion other than COVID. There is no one ready to discuss on this crucial mental health issue.
[LV]: What about the attitude of people in the frontline?
[SKA]: The frontline workers including those working in ambulances, post death nursing staff, morgue workers or those in crematoriums are fearlessly playing their roles fulfilling their responsibilities. For instance, those taking 5-6 COVID dead bodies in an ambulance are just able to take minimum precautions – they wear mask, wash hands infrequently, maybe wear a PPE kit. But their mental state is stable and they know they have work to do. Surprisingly we have not heard them getting infected with COVID. So fear is a big factor in the way COVID affects people.
[LV]: Aren’t you scared of getting COVID?
[SKA]: It is not really in my mind whether I will get infected now or have already been infected. Last year, when I was working, I had cold, cough and fever. I paid for RTPCR online. But it didn’t happen and my money got re-funded. My family doctor asked me my symptoms. I told him. He said not to worry and I need not get tested. I did not turn back and look. I will not say I am very strong but I do follow the safety protocols. Even went for a vaccine a week ago. For the past one year I have been sleeping in my office and don’t go home. I just miss my one and a half and ten year old daughters. Work for the society comes before family.
[LV]: What has been your philosophy that has guided you all through ?
[SKA]: I have got ONE life and there is only the ONE above who can take it… Through disease, accident, heart attack or any other means. We should be of use to people and our life should be dedicated to them. We get motivated through our work. At every opportunity, we look for new work, try to resolve and complete it.
[LV]: How many people have you helped till now?
[SKA]: We have directly reached out to 168 families but have not kept any account of how many we have supported indirectly. In one day, we have arranged for ambulances and cremated 8 people from different families. Every day, we have new challenges and today we are trying to get admission for a cancer patient. Once we begin work, things do tend to get resolved.
[LV]: How have you funded these initiatives?
[SKA]: We do not take money from those we help. We manage through funds from friends and well wishers.
[LV]: Any closing thoughts ?
[SKA]: I would like to close with a poem of a mother’s body that lies in the mortuary. The oxygen concentrator and cylinder that got freed-up were taken away by the family, but the body is still waiting for someone.
शवदाहगृह में हफ्ते से पड़ी
एक मां का पार्थिव शरीर…
वो डरती है, आखिर मां है,
बच्चे इंतजार कर रहे है
आज एक मां को हफ्ते से पड़ी
अन्य पुरुषो के साथ शवदाहगृह में
बच्चो का, परिवार का
उसे इंतजार है आज भी
शवदाहगृह में पड़े
अन्य पुरुषो के बीच
“अपने” पुरुष का
पति का, बेटे का
वो लड़ती थी,
आखिर वो एक स्त्री थी….
उसे इंतजार है आज भी
शवदाहगृह में ……
A mother’s mortal remains has been at
the mortuary for a week [Translation]
She’s frightened, a mother after all,
Her children await her
Today a mother has been for a week
with men unknown at the mortuary
for her children, her family
She still waits today
in the mortuary
In the midst of unknown men
For her “own” Man
Her husband, her son
After all, a woman…
She waits even today,
In the mortuary
Sunil Kumar Aledia has been working for the upliftment of the homeless people since 2000. He started his career as a volunteer working with non-governmental organisations, which aimed at providing basic facilities to destitutes in Delhi. After many years of work in this area, he started an NGO – Centre for Holistic Development (CHD). Currently, he is the Executive Director of CHD, and National Convenor of National Forum for Homeless Housing Rights-NFHHR. You can find more information on Sunil’s work here.
Cover image: Author
Story images: Author
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