As reported by Somak Ghoshal in on 25 March 2008:
The Telegraph - Calcutta (Kolkata) | Opinion | Listless in the city


Last month, the Calcutta Municipal Corporation came up with a provisional list of people living below the poverty line, the final version of which is scheduled to appear in April. The list, prepared by the state urban development agency, registered more than 1.27 lakh families in the city, earning less than Rs 2,000 a month, as BPL. In a city of roughly 45 lakh people, BPL families constitute 2.8 per cent of the gross population. But what about the scores of homeless, physically or mentally challenged people, the aged and the abandoned, the sprawling families living in a mess of polythene sheets and mosquito nets on the streets? You don’t have to guess very hard how much these people earn a month.

According to the 2001 census, there are 67,000 homeless people in Calcutta, but they do not appear on the BPL list. It is absurd trying to define these loose conglomerations of people in terms of a homogenizing concept like the ‘family’. How did the surveyors, who prepared the BPL list, fail to notice them?

There were far too many irregularities in the BPL draft list. On February 18, the municipal commissioner, Alapan Bandopadhyay, had laid down rules that were to be observed regarding the list. It was supposed to be kept in all ward and borough offices. Where there is no such place, it had to be put up in the local corporation school or ward health unit or in any other centrally-located public place that had to be fixed in consultation with the local councillors. These instructions were widely ignored.

A short report, prepared by The Calcutta Samaritans, in association with Griha Adhikar Manch and members of the homeless community in the city, reveals the extent to which the publicity of the BPL list has been neglected. Most of the ward and borough offices refused to display the list. An assistant engineer of a borough, having exhausted all means of dissuading the Calcutta Samaritans and its associates, finally said that the list was displayed somewhere in the building, and it was up to them to seek it out.
Far from providing assistance to the illiterate, scores of perfectly valid applications from the homeless community were rejected without citing proper reasons. Till March 1, about 1,200 homeless people have successfully submitted their application. Only 44 have been given receipts. Finally, and perhaps not all too shockingly, several well-to-do people, some of them members of political parties, have found their way into this much-coveted list.

The anomalies in the drawing up of the BPL list are thus two-fold. There is, first, a procedural glitch. The Calcutta Samaritans and its associates have so far filed seven petitions under the Right to Information Act, 2005, in order to find out the details of the list — the guideline for its preparation, names of the officers involved in its preparation, the methodology followed, and so on — but to no avail. The violation of rights, in this regard, has been more fundamental than the authorities’ refusal to engage with just public demands. Chapter IV of the RTI requires state governments to proactively display information that is intended for the public. This protocol itself has been violated by the administrative secrecy around the BPL list. After all, you have to first know what to ask for before you can legally demand it. Thus, instead of simply a discourse of rights, what we need is the awareness that we have a right to demand certain rights.

After the discrepancies in the list were revealed, the mayor, Bikash Ranjan Bhattacharyya, conceded that names of undeserving people have indeed cropped up. “We want citizens to come forward with their claims and objections and help us make the corrections,” he said. The mayor’s words provide the ideal point of entry into the second form of anomaly in the list. This has to do with how the “citizen” has been conceptualized. Citizenship is a troubling idea in relation to the homeless. It can be defined as much on the basis of facts as on perceptions and principles. The former definition, based on identification papers (voter’s card, ration card, proof of residence, and so on), provides a template for the smooth running of bureaucracy. But this definition of citizenship cannot be invoked unqualifiedly in the case of the homeless. What does a pavement dweller show as proof of his residence? Is he then, by definition, an illegal citizen, residing outside the structure of law?

Residence, here, is a legally pliable term. ‘Ordinarily resident’ applies as much to ‘proper’ citizens living in fixed addresses as to the old woman begging outside the Chandni Chowk metro station, daily and all day. She too is ‘ordinarily resident’ on that stretch of the street, as Chapter III.5.1 in the Handbook for Electoral Registration Officers clarifies: “A person is said to be ordinarily resident in a place if he uses that place for sleeping. He need not be eating in that place...mere ownership or possession of a building or other immovable property will not bestow on the owner, the residential qualification”.

But law takes away with one hand what it gives with the other. The clause continues, “even persons living in sheds...on pavements without any proof are eligible for enrolment provided not change the place of residence and are otherwise identifiable.” Thus the margins of the legal can be stretched to include those outside the law — making them ‘paralegal’, rather than ‘illegal’, citizens.

This is a chicken-and-egg situation. People who do not have the means to live in authorized slums have to live on pavements. Since dwelling on pavements is illegal, they are then forced to move from one place to the other. And vagrancy disqualifies them from getting a voter’s card, and, by extension, the benefits given to the BPL category. In such cases, the working definition of this category, based on income and family size, becomes meaningless. Such a limited definition makes it possible for only a certain income group and type of citizens to access the benefits, which should ideally reach a far greater number of people.