Enumerating the Homeless – Census 2011

The Census, conducted once every 10 years, is a crucial exercise in India. The data generated through this countrywide survey is considered sacrosanct by academic researchers and policymakers alike. One would imagine that, given the long term policy decisions that depend entirely on statistics generated during the Census, those responsible for it would do everything humanly possible to make it error-free. However, like most other government-managed programmes, the Census is conducted in a shockingly slipshod manner.

This post is not about the general carelessness with which Census officials go about conducting the survey, though that is the bigger problem. It is about the innumerable shelter-less citizens of this country, whose future depends on Census figures. It is no secret that the official statistics available on the numbers and percentage of homeless families in India are grossly inaccurate. The numbers, on which every scheme for the poor depends, are always underplayed.

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The positive bit about Census 2011 was that the Census authorities agreed to take the support of NGOs working with the shelter-less to enumerate the latter. A plan was drawn to conduct the Census of the homeless in Delhi on two consecutive nights – February 27, 2011 and Fenruary 28, 2011. There was talk of getting 30,000 enumerators to count the homeless on a single night. Civil Society Organisations and NGOs were asked to provide volunteers to guide the teachers during the survey. A mapping exercise, too, was held a night before the Census was to begin. A large number of female teachers turned up to enumerate the homeless “in the middle of the night”. One read news stories applauding the determination of the teachers despite the ‘dangerous elements’ that lurked on the dark streets of Delhi.  

On paper, it looked almost like the Census officials and teachers had achieved an impossible feat – that of counting every homeless citizen in Delhi. And that in the face of innumerable odds.

The truth, however, was very different. Yes, there were teachers who worked very hard. Yes, there were officials who showed great sincerity. Unfortunately, these were the exceptions. IGSSS, which provided volunteers to help in the process on three consecutive nights, and sent regular reports to the Census authorities on the pockets in the city that were left out, organised a Press Conference on March 5, 2011, to tell the real story of the Homeless Census in Delhi.

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Following is the Press Release issued after the conference:

Census of homeless citizens in Delhi a farce; final numbers will not be accepted

New Delhi, March 05, 2011: The Indo-Global Social Service Society (IGSSS), a part of Shahri Adhikar Manch – Begharon Ke Liye (SAM-BKL) [SAM-BKL is a coalition of 30 organisations working on homelessness and urban poverty in Delhi ] , organised a press conference at the Press Club of India on March 5, 2011, to review the Census of homeless citizens in Delhi. Census enumerators in Delhi surveyed the city’s homeless on the 27th and the 28th of February, following a mapping exercise on the 26th of February. NGOs working with homeless citizens were asked to help the Census officials and enumerators in this whole process. In spite of the Census authorities agreeing to carry out the enumeration exercise on 2 days instead of the originally decided 1 day, and later extended it by another 1 day to cover left out areas (March 01, 2011), the process was far from satisfactory. 

The speakers at the conference included Miloon Kothari from the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), Indu Prakash Singh from the Indo-Global Social Service Society (IGSSS), Sanjay Kumar from Aashray Adhikar Abhiyan (AAA), Prashant Rawat from CHETNA, Zaved Nafis Rahman from Butterflies and  Parmod Kumar from GATI.

NGO volunteers say that teachers conducting the survey saw it as a punishment and a job that had to be completed as quickly as possible by devising innovative short-cuts. Some of these included putting multiple unrelated homeless families living on the same footpath in the same form (treating them as one family), taking down the names of tent shelter residents directly from the attendance register (and treating them as a single unit) and, in some cases, cooking up imaginary information on non-existent people on their own – one of the female enumerators’ husband was seen sitting alone on a railway track and completing one form after another, with no homeless person in sight! In several cases, the enumerators kept NGO volunteers waiting for hours, and began the enumeration process after 10 pm (the enumeration was officially supposed to have begun at 7 pm). In other places, they didn’t reach the designated spots at all. 

Several charge officers switched off their phones just when the survey was to begin, making it impossible for NGO volunteers to contact them. A large number of enumerators refused to interact with homeless citizens saying they were intoxicated – this, in spite of several enumerators being drunk themselves while on the job (eg. at Nangloi and Old Bridge, Loha Pul). They were also extremely abusive in some areas – not only towards NGO volunteers, but towards the homeless themselves.

At the tent and permanent shelters for the homeless, enumerators left at 10:30-11 pm, when the shelters are only half full, when they had earlier been told that the enumeration was to go on till early the next morning. Several shelters were not covered at all (such as the ones in Kashmiri Gate – Chabi Ganj and Ganda Nala with capacities exceeding 100 residents each), and a number of areas have still not been covered. To mention a few cases – at Azadpur, Transport Nagar, approximately 1,000 homeless citizens were left unenumerated; in Dwarka, over 5,000 construction workers have been left out; in the Nilothi area, the mapping exercise showed 1,500-2,000 homeless people, out of which only 60 have been enumerated; in North East Delhi, an estimated 3,000 people have been left unenumerated. If one were to make an exhaustive list of those left out, it would be endless.

Indu Prakash Singh, Technical Advisor – CityMakers Programme, IGSSS, said that the whole enumeration process was a farce, and that the NGOs involved in the exercise as volunteers would submit a memorandum to the President of India, and send copies of the same to the Registrar General of India (RGI), the Governor and Chief Minister of Delhi, saying that the entire survey of the homeless was flawed, and the final figures unacceptable. He said the Census authorities and the government would have to make amends now, and that organizations working with the homeless would not wait for another ten years to see improvements in the enumeration process.

As part of a study conducted by AAA in 2,000, over 52,000 homeless citizens were counted on Delhi’s roads. However, the 2001 Census came up with a figure of only 24,966 homeless persons in the city. In 2008, an IGSSS study found 88,410 homeless citizens in Delhi. The actual number is estimated to be almost double, considering the limitations of a headcount. 

Miloon Kothari from HLRN said that the Census of the homeless had turned out to be another form of corruption. He said that while Delhi had made more progress than other metropolitan cities when it came to putting up shelters for the homeless, the Census exercise showed that the government was not serious about tackling the homelessness issue. He said that because of inaccurate figures for the homeless in the city, the shelter issue too would be affected, considering the number of shelters to be set up in a city is decided on the basis of population (1 shelter per one lakh urban population).  Shivani Chaudhry, also with HLRN, said that the long term (housing-related) policy implications of thousands of people being left out during the Census would be grave.    

Sanjay Kumar from AAA said that NGOs’ support had been sought not to make the work of the enumerators easy, but to legitimise the enumeration process. Several NGO volunteers were asked to sign papers saying the process had been completed satisfactorily, in spite of gaps in the exercise. Mr Kumar called the survey of the homeless a case of ‘willful neglect’ by the authorities. He said that during the planning process, which began early in February 2011, NGOs working with the homeless had even offered to provide direct assistance to the Census authorities in the enumeration work. However, this offer of help was rejected, and the NGOs were told that their role would be limited to facilitating the process. The result is that the survey of the homeless was finally conducted in an extremely slipshod manner, with several areas still left out.

Where the enumerators reached, the survey process was flawed; where they did not, they survey did not take place at all. The final figure of the homeless in Delhi that comes out after the counting, will not be anywhere close to the actual figure. Even if the figure exceeds a lakh, which is extremely unlikely, it will still be grossly inaccurate. NGOs working with the homeless say that in future, school teachers should not be involved in surveying the homeless ever, because of their sheer lack of will to do the same. Also, the number of days set aside for this exercise must be increased to at least a week or ten days, if one is to arrive at an accurate number. If possible, Census authorities can be asked to repeat the process within this year, if the government is serious about wanting an exact figure for the homeless in Delhi, and elsewhere.

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What is needed is a change in the State’s priorities, and a foolproof mechanism to implement high-sounding plans. A mechanism like that should be put in place long before the exercise itself begins. Those conducting the Census should receive extensive training before they go out in the field. The number of days to conduct the census of the homeless needs to be extended to at least a week. Also, the Census authorities need to take NGOs a lot more seriously, and should entrust them with far greater responsibilities than just acting as ‘volunteers’, for those working voluntarily alone will have the requisite mindset, sensitivity and patience to conduct such an exercise.

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News links on the Census story:

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