Academic journal article Human Organization

Pavement Dwelling in Delhi, India: An Ethnographic Account of Survival on the Margins

Academic journal article Human Organization

Pavement Dwelling in Delhi, India: An Ethnographic Account of Survival on the Margins

Article excerpt

The worldwide problem of inadequate housing is especially evident in low-income countries where the status of being homeless could arguably include millions living in quasi-legal slums surrounding major cities (DuPont 2013; HLRN 2012). Despite intense poverty, slums offer a degree of stability compared to sleeping rough (or pavement dwelling as it is called in India). The tipping point into "true" homelessness, that is, sleeping outside, carrying one's belongings around, and having no fixed address, is a slippery slope, a descent precipitated by proximal misfortune but also situated within larger structural forces (Harriss-White 2005; Hopper 2003). The United Nations conservatively estimates that 1.1 billion urban dwellers worldwide live in inadequate housing, and 100 million have no housing whatsoever (UNDP 2014).

Research on homelessness in the Global North has proliferated in the past twenty-five years (Benjaminsen, Dyb, and O'Sullivan 2009; Hopper 2003; Padgett, Henwood, and Tsemberis 2016). In addition to studies conducted in the United States, Canada, and Western Europe, Hojdestrand's (2009) research in St. Petersburg, Russia, examines the plight of homeless adults consigned to the margins of post-socialist Russian society. Marr (2015) took a cross-national approach in his description of adults exiting homelessness in Los Angeles and Tokyo. Although anthropologists have for some time written about homelessness (Glasser and Bridgman 1999; Hopper 2003), less is known about homelessness in the Global South (Mitlin and Satterwhite 2013), especially with reference to adults and families. However, homeless children have received attention in studies of street youths in Brazil (Scheper-Hughes 1993), Central Africa (Kayembe et al. 2008), and India (Steinberg 2013). A testament to the intensity of urban poverty, these young people survive on the margins through begging, petty theft, and sharing scarce resources (Jackson 2015).

Homeless adults and families are becoming more visible in the rapidly growing megacities of Asia and Africa, where rural-urban migration has outpaced the availability of jobs and housing (Mander 2012). Global trends toward rising economic inequality (Marmot 2005; Piketty 2014) exacerbate this situation, juxtaposing the extremes of poverty and wealth. Few nations illustrate this trend better than India with its robust economy accelerated by market-based economic reforms in 1991. At current rates of population movement, India's population is predicted to be 41 percent urban by 2030 and over 50 percent urban by 2050 (UNDP 2014). The nation's historic roots in farming and village life are rapidly being replaced by an urban landscape of towering skyscrapers, high-tech industries, and vast slums. The extent of India's poverty shows in its ranking of 135 out of 187 nations according to the United Nations Human Development Index (HDI), an algorithm based upon life expectancy, years of schooling, and gross national income (UNDP 2014). By comparison, Norway ranks first in the HDI, and the United States ranks eighth (UNDP 2014).

At the bottom of India's socioeconomic hierarchy are its homeless citizens. A recent Indian government report defined homelessness as referring to "such persons (including men, women, eunuchs, and children) who do not have a home or settled place or abode..." and who spend their nights in shelters, on the pavement, at their workplace, in public spaces, or at construction sites (NRTH 2011:16). The scope of the problem in the capital city of Delhi is the subject of varying opinions. A city government survey estimated approximately 55,000 homeless persons in Delhi (Delhi Government 2010), a number considered a gross under estimate by homeless advocates whose estimates range from 150,000 to 1.5 million (Perappadan 2014).' Lacking even the precarious protection afforded by a slum dwelling, homeless individuals in Delhi encounter a harsh physical and social environment that threatens health and well-being (Balarajan, Selvaraj, and Subramanian 2011). …

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