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Why Re-defining Homelessness and Responding to Census Data Should Inform Homeless Policy in India

By: Motilal Mahamallik

June 13, 2016


(photo: Vivek Trivedi)

The 2011 census counts 17, 73,040 homeless people in India -  52.9 % in urban areas and 47.1% in rural areas – on the basis of a definition that identifies a person or family as homeless if they do not live in a ‘census house,’ which refers to a ‘structure with roof.'

Based on this definition, census officials instruct enumerators to visit places where the houseless population is likely to live – roadsides, pavements, near drainage pipes, under staircases, temple mandaps and railway stations (Census of India, 1991, p 64). In my opinion, a definition which explicitly mentions places where homeless people reside is required to prevent undercounting and exclusion.   Due to the lack of clarity in the current definition, people who sleep in places where they work, for instance, are not counted as homeless, like labourers on construction sites, which arguably comprise a sizeable share of the working homeless population in cities.

There has been some progress on this matter on the state level.   Karnataka has provided a definition that relies on distinct categories of homeless people and is based on places where people sleep.  Their definition considers a person or family homeless if they:

 (1) do not have a home, either self-owned or rented

 (2) spend their nights sleeping in the place of work such as shops (including dhabas), factories, construction sites and offices

 (3) spend their nights in or on their means of livelihood such as in hand/push carts or rickshaws

 (4) live and sleep on pavement, parks, railway stations, bus stands, and places of worship, outside shops and factories, at construction sites, under bridges, in hume pipes and other places under the open sky or places unfit for human habitation


 (5) spend their nights or days in shelters or transit, short stay, beggars' or children’s homes.   

One challenge for policymakers is to define homelessness in a way that reflects the conditions in which people on the streets and in shelters live.  The other is for the central and state governments to respond to the needs of these people with proper services and infrastructure on the basis of information on trends on urban and rural homelessness that is already in the hands of policymakers. 

Trends of Homelessness in India and States

Of 1.77 million homeless people counted by the census, 65.3% live in five states -- UP, Maharastra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Andra Pradesh and Gujarat. The homeless in Uttar Pradesh account for 18.6% of the total homeless population of India.

Another clear trend is that homelessness is growing in urban India. The census listed  421 urban areas in 2001 and 485 in 2011 where homeless people were found while the number of homeless people in urban areas grew from 542,128 and 704,499 in that decade. The share of homeless people in cities is also more than twice as high as the ratio in rural India.

There are 146 of every 100,000 people in India are homeless - 100 for every 100,000 people in rural India and 249 for every 100,000 in urban India.

India’s Supreme Court directed states to open one shelter home for 100 people in areas of cities with 100,000 people.  Since the census estimates a 0.25 incidence of homelessness in cities the Court’s ratio would, at most, cover 40 percent of the urban homeless population. 

Is increasing homelessness in India’s urban centers a product of urbanization and rural urban disparity?  In-depth research on this topic is required to answer this question consclusively.   In my experice with the homeless in Jaipur,  struggles the rural poor face in accessing public programs in commonly cited as a reason why people move to cities to avail opportunities in employment, health care and eduction for children. 

Rajasthan, where I work and reside, ranks 5th behind Chandigarh, Daman & Due, Dadra & Nagar Haveli and Delhi in terms of the number of homeless people per 100,000 population, . But the state’s urban areas have the highest ratio of urban homelessness compared to all others with 430 homeless per 100,000 people in its cities. 

Homelessness in Rajasthan

Rajasthan is the largest state in terms of area (342.24 thousand km) but ranks eighth in terms of population and is one of the lowest in population density (165 persons per sq. km compared to 325 for India as a whole).  About 70 per cent of the population earns their living from agriculture, implying that the story of urbanisation is yet to take off rapidly in the state.  Despite this, the share of the poor in cities is higher than in the countryside and the state, overall, has 10.2 % of the total homeless population in India.

The census counted 1,81,544 homeless people in 2011 and 1,43,497 in 2001. According to the 2011 census, 59.7% homeless people live in urban areas and 40.3% in rural Rajasthan. There are 29 cities where homeless people found in Rajasthan during 2011 census.

Homeless Households and Population in Cities of Rajasthan

Cities in Rajasthan Homeless Households
 Homeless Population Family Size
Jodhpur (M Corp. + OG) 2071 11138 5.4
Jaipur (M Corp.) 2340 8930 3.8
Kota (M Corp.) 1178 4679 4.0
Ajmer (M Corp.) 1007 1744 1.7
Baran (M) 270 1326 4.9
Udaipur (M Cl) 271 1280 4.7
Bikaner (M Corp.) 284 1113 3.9
Alwar (M Cl + OG) 235 1105 4.7
Beawar (M Cl + OG) 190 998 5.3
Sikar (M Cl + OG) 185 970 5.2
Chittaurgarh (M) 209 826 4.0
Banswara (M + OG) 160 765 4.8
Bhiwadi (M) 136 714 5.3
Churu (M Cl + OG) 101 559 5.5
Bharatpur (M Cl + OG)  113 543 4.8
Nagaur (M + OG) 97 471 4.9
Tonk (M Cl) 80 445 5.6
Hanumangarh (M Cl) 84 396 4.7
Kishangarh (M Cl) 79 382 4.8
Sawai Madhopur (M) 63 358 5.7
Pali (M Cl) 80 356 4.5
Bundi (M + OG) 67 341 5.1
Gangapur City (M) 72 323 4.5
Ganganagar (M Cl + OG) 127 215 1.7
Dhaulpur (M + OG) 59 214 3.6
Hindaun (M) 23 144 6.3
Sujangarh (M) 24 131 5.5
Jhunjhunun (M Cl) 21 108 5.1

Sources: Census of India, 2011.

 Jodhpur (11138), Jaipur (8930), and Kota (4679) have the highest number of homeless people in Rajasthan. There are 17 cities with a population of at least 100,000 which would fall under the ambit of the Supreme Court guidelines on shelters.  A few cities have sheltes but they are not adequate in terms of numbers, sufficient space to accommodate people and services, such as sanitation and food. 

Homelessness is emerging as an important issue in Rajasthan. Despite a lower rural poverty ratio and low population density, decreasing work opportunities in rural areas are resulting in the migration of a contingent of labourers to cities in search of employment. These people work in the cities’ informal economies but remain anonymous. A proactive definition of homelessness is required to officially acknowledge ther existence and needs to facilitate government responses by way of shelters, social protection services and housing models. 


Corno, Lucia (2011): Being Homeless: Evidence from Italy, Giornale degli Economisti e Annali di Economia, Nuova Serie, Vol, 70 (Anno 124), No 3 (December 2011), pp 33-73.

Office of Register General and census commissioner of India (2001): Primary Census Abstract, Ministry of Home Affair, Government of India.

Office of Register General and census commissioner of India (2011): Primary Census Abstract, Ministry of Home Affair, Government of India.

This Blog topic was posted in National Shelter Policy.


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