Chennai needs more shelters before rains

The Greater Chennai Corporation has a storied history and is the richest and largest local body in Tamil Nadu.
A Narikuravar family in the city stays inside huge pipes near Koyambedu.
A Narikuravar family in the city stays inside huge pipes near Koyambedu.FILE Photo | EPS

It is mostly in conditions of extreme weather that members of the public and the state come to think of homeless persons. The bitter cold of Delhi winters has been the impetus for the Supreme Court to pull up state governments more than once for failing to provide adequate shelter to homeless populations. But winter is not the only dangerous month for the unhoused. A blistering heatwave has swept the country in recent months and yet, in ever-balmy Chennai, the shelter supports the city corporation should be equipped to offer have been undermined.

Chennai opened its first shelter in 1944. Although it falls short of the Supreme Court-mandated one shelter per one lakh population, it still has 50 shelters for a population of around 70 lakh—on paper at least. In reality, TNIE has reported that four shelters were closed in 2022 and this year the city corporation surrendered nearly Rs 8 crore allocated for constructing new shelters, claiming non-availability of land.

Meanwhile, newly built shelters were repurposed—TNIE found one functioning as a primary health centre—and NGOs running shelter programmes are struggling to make ends meet as the local body delays payments for months on end. The losers, amid this brutal heatwave, are the people the state’s own revenue department categorised as ‘high-risk’ in such climatic conditions. The Greater Chennai Corporation has a storied history and is the richest and largest local body in Tamil Nadu. If it fails to fulfil its responsibilities to vulnerable populations, it will only set a trend for smaller local bodies to follow.

Homelessness is a complicated issue in India where destitute persons, employed but houseless persons, and entire families brave the elements in urban hubs without roofs over their heads. In situ housing near their workplaces has long been a demand that, if fulfilled, could resolve the problems and improve the prospects of a significant section of this population.

For the destitute who are alone, unable to work or unwell, it is vital that the state ensures their protection, while respecting their agency, by making appropriate budgetary allocations as activists have been demanding. Meanwhile, the city corporation must revive closed shelters and reclaim newly constructed ones so that facilities are ready and available to serve this vulnerable population ahead of the monsoon.

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