India's sick shelter in old buses during treatment

New Delhi - On a recent winter night in the Indian capital, eight-year-old cancer patient Habiba Khatun huddled with her mother against the cold on the floor of a disused bus.

Khatun, who has a malignant tumour in her right eye, has been sharing the bus with about 30 other patients for a week while she receives treatment at the state-run All India Institute of Medical Sciences.

"We know this bus is not the best place to live. But we are poor and what option do we have?" Khatun's mother asked, as her daughter, who has undergone 12 chemotherapy sessions since she was two, sat nearby.

"It is at least better than living inside public toilets or out in the open," she told AFP.

Like hundreds of others, the pair travelled from a rural area -- a village in Uttar Pradesh state -- for day-time specialist care at AIIMS, where treatment is relatively cheap and often free, before being turned out of its overcrowded wards at night.

The capital's steep hotel and rental prices force scores to sleep on pavements around AIIMS, India's most prestigious public hospital. With temperatures dropping at night to around four degrees Celsius (39 degrees Fahrenheit), the newly elected state government this month donated seven old, public buses for use as shelters outside AIIMS and other hospitals.

For mother-of-two Sulochana Lodhi, the buses, which have been stripped of their seats so patients can sleep on the floor, are a "blessing".

The 30-year-old has needed multiple surgeries and other treatment after burning her tongue, throat and stomach as a result of drinking acid in an attemped suicide last June.

"The bus is dirty and it reeks of urine and vomit," said Lodhi, as she explained that she tried to end her life after being "tortured" by her in-laws at their home in rural Guna in Madhya Pradesh state.

"The bus is of course not an ideal place. But I am glad I have a roof over my head," she told AFP on Tuesday.

Tubes that stick out of Lodhi's heavily bandaged stomach from her most recent treatment make lying on the bus floor difficult. But the bus is much better than the pavement that she has been forced to use in the past.

"Earlier, the street dogs would trouble us and sometimes it would start to rain suddenly in the night. It was horrible on the streets." A lack of beds in government hospitals for its large numbers of patients has long been a problem in India.

Public spending on health in the world's second most populous country is just four per cent of GDP, less than Afghanistan's, according to the World Health Organisation.

A decade of rapid economic growth has allowed the national government to boost health spending for poor and rural communities. But the public health system still falls far short of meeting the needs of its 1.2 billion people, according to a 2013 Oxfam report.

Prerna, a nonprofit group tasked with running the shelters, estimates that about 4,000 patients live in the open outside various government hospitals in New Delhi alone.

"We look after four buses outside the AIIMS hospital and they are all jam packed," Palvinder Singh, director of the charity, told AFP. "There are limitations on living inside buses. You can't cook and you have to travel to the nearest public toilet.

"But people inside are still happy, and more and more want to be accommodated in there," he said.