Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

Monday, May 19, 2008

ATM cards for Delhi’s homeless

The story of Nirmal Kumar Dega is one of despair and very little hope. Lying prone under the lone fan in a huge room at Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan (AAA), a rights-based organisation funded by ActionAid that runs shelters for the homeless in Delhi, Dega’s fatigue is evident. His lanky frame is clothed in a brown kurta-pyjama, his hair is dishevelled, his teeth stained yellow with tobacco.

Dega was 14 when he ran away, with friends, from his home in Deshnukh, Bikaner, carrying his father’s briefcase containing Rs 20,000. He wanted to see Delhi and all the exciting places that had been described to him. But at Kanpur his friends deserted him when he was fast asleep, absconding with his briefcase. The train got him to Delhi.

Penniless, frightened and with nowhere to go, Dega camped out on the city’s pavements. Hunger drove him to find work in a dhaba, where he scrubbed huge utensilsfrom morning until night, for two meals and a paltry sum of money. Each month his desire to return home was overshadowed by the guilt of having run away with a small family fortune and breaking the trust of his loved ones. One day, he decided he would never return.

Eight years of slavery went by until a companion got him a rickshaw to ply and took him to an AAA shelter. That gave him his first semblance of the family he had left behind, creating small ripples of change in his otherwise stagnant life.

People like Dega make up 150,000 of the homeless who live the unmapped, invisible, brittle lives of the disempowered. As forgotten people they cling fiercely to life in the callous city. As Delhi undergoes an intense makeover for the Commonwealth Games in 2010, the number of homeless people continues to rise with slums being demolished to make way for parks, shopping malls, the Metro, and new roads. There have been very few attempts to rehabilitate the urban poor; although some have been given alternative sites these are way outside the city limits, making travel costs impossibly high.

“The homeless have a right to shelter, right to life, right to livelihood. The State is accountable to everyone. Those who migrate from the villages are already in a very fragile condition. Living on the streets only leaves them more vulnerable to disease and abuse,” says Paramjeet Kaur, director of AAA.

Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan was set up eight years ago with the aim of ensuring that the poor get their most basic human rights. Today, it runs permanent shelters for the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) in Sadar, Pahargunj, Purani Dilli, Chandni Chowk, Jhandewalan and Nandnagri, accommodating roughly 800 people throughout the year.

Paramjeet admits that they can never cover all the homeless people in the city. “Not everyone can afford to pay Rs 6 as daily charges of living in the shelter,” says Dev Kumar, supervisor at the Fatehpuri shelter near Purani Dilli railway station. “At present all the shelters are for men only; the government closed down the only shelter at Yamuna Pushta for women as the place is wanted as a warehouse for the civic centre that is being built for the Commonwealth Games. Women and girls are the most vulnerable. We tried our best to rehabilitate them with some NGOs but many are back on the streets living extremely exploited lives.”

The AAA team has divided Delhi into five zones. Every month they hold five panchayats where the homeless congregate to talk about their lives and needs. This year, AAA held its fifth mahapanchayat.

Working closely with Paramjeet, Sanjay Kumar has spearheaded a number of programmes for AAA as its coordinator. He says: “Initially, when we began holding the homeless panchayats, people were reluctant to be a part of them. They had lived so long on the fringes of social conscience that they had stopped believing that anything could be done to better their lives. But we insisted that we were not going anywhere.

“Gradually they began talking about their biggest stumbling block -- identification. No identification meant they could not get permanent government jobs or access any government schemes. They were also vulnerable to being exploited by the street mafia and the police. In democratic India it’s painful to see so many homeless die without even an identity, and cremated as unclaimed. We also realised how important identity was to individuals as it gave them a sense of pride and acceptance in society.”

AAA decided to make the issue of identification its first task, in 2003, working through 42 street points across Delhi. After several awareness programmes, the organisation came up with Abhiyan Saathi identity cards. “That was a turning point,” recalls Sanjay, as the AAA team met the election commissioner (EC) with a petition of ensuring the homeless their voting rights. “The EC was very sensitive. They designed a Form 6, and 1,000 people filled it in. And so, 200 homeless people became a part of the public that voted the Manmohan Singh government to power.”

AAA also came to realise that homeless people were often excluded from savings schemes. Sanjay says: “The RBI guidelines make financial provision for weaker sections of society, but this does not include the homeless.”

Determined to break new ground, Sanjay met officials of the Union Bank of India and explained to them the need to extend reliable savings schemes to homeless people in order to enable them to deposit their daily earnings. With theft and exploitation rampant on the streets, most homeless people do not even attempt to save for a time when they can no longer work manually. As talks between Union Bank and AAA progressed, Ramanathan, Banking Secretary, GoI, visited the shelters and met the inmates.

Meanwhile, Fino Foundation agreed to pitch in with ATM cards made especially for the homeless. Each card is printed on biometric lines using individual fingerprints to cater to the illiterate. This also means that even if the card is stolen or lost, the finder cannot withdraw money unless his fingerprint exactly matches that recorded on the card.

“An agent from the bank comes to the shelter, and people can withdraw or deposit their money. By 4 pm all transactions cease and the machine is fed into the main server of Union Bank,” says Sanjay, explaining how the system works. “Our target for this year is to open up 10,000 accounts. The scheme started on February 1, 2008. Biometric cards take time to be made, that is why only around 600 accounts have been opened so far.”

At the Fatehpuri shelter, Dega grins and holds his ATM card up in front of his face. His pride is evident. Two years ago when he fell sick his friends advised him to start saving for a time when he could no longer work so hard. Like them, he began depositing a portion of his daily earnings with the local rajaiwala (person who does business in bedding). “I earn anything between Rs 100 and Rs 150 a day. Of this I have to pay a daily rent of Rs 35 to the rickshaw owner, besides paying for food. I am able to save at least Rs 50 -- this I give to the rajaiwala. But there have been cases of people being cheated of their savings, in this kind of arrangement. Keeping the money in a bank is foolproof; our money is safe. Saving has now become a nasha (intoxication). It makes me believe, for the first time, that my future is not so bad.”

Ashray Adhikar Abhiyan
Lane 4, Shakarpur
Delhi 110 092
Tel: 91-11-22022440

By Madhu Gurung


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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