It is a regular monsoon afternoon in Mumbai and Ajit is lying down under one of the flyovers of Eastern Express Highway. A 20-something guy walks past him, just like every other person. Few minutes back, he comes back to Ajit, talks to him for a while and smells something stinky. He then notices his foot and sees the bones. He realizes that Ajit’s foot is infected and the infection is eating away his flesh. He inspects the legs further to see worms in action. He calls up one of the NGOs (Intermission) working for destitute people. In few days, with the help of the NGO and one of his close friends, Ajit is picked up from his place and is taken to J J Hospital where he is currently receiving the treatment with his leg cut to prevent infection from spreading into the rest of the body.
Few weeks later, that 20-something guy meets me in one of the cafés in Powai, explaining his fight against destitution in the country. For the next one and half hours, he walks me through his 1.5 years of journey with the destitutes in Mumbai, mainly eastern suburban Mumbai. Meet Richard D’Silva. Ajith, one of the 78 million homeless in India, is few among millions of homeless in Mumbai who have been fortunate enough to find a helping hand in Richard, been picked up from footpath and moved to their rightful place – hospital or old age homes or somewhere where they could find work and earn their bread. As he explains why he is doing what he is doing, ideas are presented, questions are asked, concerns are raised and hope is expressed.
Currently studying his civil engineering, Richard takes his inspiration from Jesus Christ. His battle against homelessness began in early 2011 when he saw a very old man lying homeless on the streets of Goadbundar road, Thane, disowned by his family. While he had seen many homeless before, this time the inspiration to do something for them overpowered societal fear. With the help of police, an NGO and his close friend Tushar James, who has helped Richard many times in his initiative, Richard arranged rehabilitation for the old man. However, as destiny would have decided, the homeless withdrew at the last moment. Even after a lot of persuasion he refused, to which Richard had to heed. However, a bitter experience on the first attempt itself did not deter Richard from his desire to do something for the homeless, whom he had been seeing since his childhood.
Over the last one and half year, he has been working to rehabilitate several homeless and has, in fact, improved the lives of many. Poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, illness, drug addiction, alcoholism, family disownment and many such reasons are leading to increase in the number of homeless in this country every year. Lack of political will to do something for them is resulting in many of them losing their lives due to various reasons, particularly climate extremities in winters, summers and monsoons.
While the government attitude is certainly not encouraging, greater concern is the public mind-set for the homeless. “People do not go out to help them but instead, frown upon them even when these destitute have done no harm to anybody. Station masters (at suburban railways stations) themselves tell that commuters call them to throw these people away from stations. They have to do that as well”, says Richard. This, in spite, that an average commuter does not spend anything more than 5 minutes in a day in station. These homeless are either thrown outside or put in any train and destiny takes care of the rest. Though very inhuman, it is a reality.
These are the realities that have kept Richard motivated in his mission. The small team identifies the homeless who are in need of immediate attention – either rehabilitation or medical treatment. In case of medical treatment, the homeless is shifted to the nearest government hospital as government hospitals are obliged to treat homeless free of cost. Although not all government hospitals follow these guidelines religiously, there are certain exceptions like J J Hospital and Nair Hospital where Richard has been able to get maximum number of homeless treated. In case of rehabilitation, the person is sent to a suitable location – old age home or a place where he/she can find work.
However, sometimes, these homeless refuse to co-operate. The problem becomes specifically acute with drug addicts. From adults to kids (as young as 8-10 years old), addiction of alcohol, smoking and even whiteners (which is fatal as well) lead these people to no apparent interest in life but to beg, earn money and spend it on drugs. In addition, there are also homeless who have lost complete interest in life so much so that they willfully try to kill themselves even while receiving treatment in hospital.
With Richard and his small group of friends have been active in rehabilitating the destitute since last 1.5 years, lack of professional guidance has been one of the major obstacle in achieving desired results. While Police does help in providing the necessary support, but if anything happens to the homeless then the person who brought the homeless is supposed to take care of everything that happens after that. NGOs that have helped till date are focused towards other social evils because of which the extent of help is restricted.
“Guidance and active help from NGOs who specialize in rehabilitating the homeless would solve multiple problems. While it will provide better rehabilitations to these homeless, it will also help tackle the police and hospital authorities in a better manner. Today, many hospital authorities hit back on us since neither we have any valid social ID card nor we are related to the homeless in any manner”.
Infrastructure and Resources
In addition, lack of proper infrastructure and resources is another concern that prevents rehabilitation of the homeless. With no apparent guidelines, lack of proper shelter homes especially during climatic extremities, lack of will in government hospital staff to treat the destitute and many other issues, a lot needs to be done. Also, creating more employment opportunities in rural areas will reduce the burden on cities to provide these people with employment. A majority of homeless in cities are the villagers who come to cities with hopes of getting a job, sending money back home so that their financial situation improves. With less education and employability, they do not find jobs but they also cannot go back to village due to societal pressures.
With social and academic responsibilities on head, it becomes difficult, at times, to devote adequate time to the initiative. Going ahead, Richard expects to rope in more people into the initiative. Till date, help from Tushar has been significant as he has accompanied Richard many times and has even filled the void for Richard when he is not available due to other commitments. Increase in the number of people joining the initiative will increase the number of homeless they are able to rehabilitate. For this, people will need to invest some time in knowing these homeless and understanding their concerns. This is necessary to change the mind set and public attitude towards destitutes.