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Homeless in Mumbai
A few years ago, there were around 38,000. Today, there are nearly one lakh homeless in the city. The writer hit the streets of the city to meet the people who either have flimsy tarpaulin sheets or only the sky for a roof over their heads.
LARGE-SCALE MIGRATION from rural areas to cities is not a new phenomenon in India. While many reasons can be attributed to this trend, cities symbolize the hope that one can obtain at least a morsel a day. In Mumbai today, one clearly witnesses two kinds of lateral movements: the movement of poor people from other geographical areas to the city in search of livelihood and the movement of people within the city from meagre income to penury. Without any support structure to fall back upon, these unskilled people begin living on open pavements, under over-bridges, road dividers, small unhygienic makeshift hutments and so on. The continued day-to-day struggle to meet basic needs gets aggravated day by day. For the rest of society, their courageous efforts are unacknowledged and they are instead ostracized and labeled as criminals.
The urban poor in India fall into three distinct categories: the slum-dwellers, who live in juggi-jhopadis or bastis that spring up on vacant lots or stretches of land; pavement-dwellers who live in hutments built on the footpaths/pavements of the city-streets, the homeless-- people sleeping in the open without any shelter--on pavements, under over-bridges, temple stairs and so on.
Encounters with the homeless
In April 2003, as a second year student of TISS, I wanted to experience the much touted ‘nightlife’ of Mumbai and so I ventured out in the night. That is how I witnessed hundreds of homeless populations wandering in search of livelihood at various places in Mumbai. In the days to come, two of my friends joined me in my night-out mission and we teamed up with an organization named Action-Aid Mumbai. Clocking in hours of such interventions with face-to-face encounters with the people sleeping on the streets, night-outs and individual interactions taught me a lot about the issue of homelessness in Mumbai.
I met so many youth who eke out a life daily, without proper food for days, with lost hopes and shattered dreams…homeless beings who are victims of police atrocities, women taking refuge in sex work to meet their basic needs, old citizens languishing in the streets in search of security, children succumbing to juvenile delinquency, extreme misery and want.
The homeless get beaten up mercilessly by the police who mark them as criminals. They are denied access to basic facilities like medicine, education, water and so on. Even though the homeless constitute a large portion of Mumbai population, they are invisible for the general populace. Yet they are optimistic and I do believe that their reality can be changed. They can be empowered to change their lives so that they enjoy a life of dignity.
First step: Identifying the homeless
According to the census of India the homeless people are those who do not live in census houses (a census house is referred to a structure with roof.) The enumerators are instructed to take note of the possible places where the home-less population is likely to live, such as in the pavements, streets, in hume pipes under stair-cases or in the open in temples, mandaps, platforms and the like. (Census of India 1991)
The homeless population mainly consists of children and teenagers estranged from their families, young women and men lacking education and job history, and middle-aged men who have lost jobs due to recession, changing technologies and mergers. A small part of the population also consists of migrant families which belong to the same village.
See me if you can
Visible at night and missing during the day, they sleep on public land. Almost everyone keeps their valuables with him or her wherever they sleep because they are under constant threat of robbery. They use nearby public toilets if they have the money, otherwise it’s the open.
Not idlers, but workers!
The majority of the homeless are involved in casual labour or daily wage labour while some are even petty businessman, tailors, vendors and taxi drivers. A very small percentage constitutes the beggars of which few are part-time beggars, those who resort to begging during the phase of unemployment.
The violence of stigma
The stigma associated with homelessness often results in them being victimized and blamed by the general public for their circumstances in life, adding to their sense of being a burden on society.
Ask any homeless person about their life and pat comes the reply:
When we approach anyone for a job, they demand proof of identity…police personnel beat us under the pretext of we being an unsocial element…when we get caught and are unable to produce any proof of identity, we land up in Chembur Beggars’ home. Wherever we go everyone looks down upon us as if we are some extraterritorial beings…we want to be treated as human beings…without identity card we are unable to live a dignified life
They feel particularly cheated by their experience at the hands of doctors at government hospitals:
We approach government hospitals, in the case of accidents…but the police catch us and we land up in jail. When we fall ill and go to the government hospital, the doctors and nurses refuse to touch or diagnose us because we are shabbily dressed and have no money to pay for our treatment. Doctors write the name of medicines on the piece of paper and ask us to get it from the market. But many a time we don’t have the money to buy the medicines. During the rainy season, many people die without proper access to medical facilities.
As dusk falls and night approaches, some of them took out some ganja and started filling up their chillum. One said:
You will go back to your cosy shelter after getting all this information from us but for us there is no concept of shelter… We are also human beings and need little peace and solitude… The roar of traffic, harsh streetlights, the dim future and contemptuous eyes of the society always besiege us… Ganja is the only thing on which we fall back upon for few moments of tranquility.
Most of them evince poor trust in social work organizations, perceiving any new intervention as beneficial to the interventionist. As a homeless youth in Mahim said:
We have seen lots of organizations and people coming and giving false promises but nothing has happened as yet…you will also do the same. We are ready to fight till the end for our rights but we need proper and sustained outside support for translating our effort into success.
There’s little hope for some, like a homeless man at Haji Ali:
“Who would like to live a life of unknown and wretchedness? Simply because we cannot pay the rent of houses in Mumbai and we have no other option, every dream seems out of way for us. We just want to feel like any other human beings, like you, but alas our compulsion has pushed us in this state and we are compelled to be like this because of our homeless tag.”
Survival strategies on the streets
A common and often use mechanism is usage of abusive language. Drinking, doping, drug addiction is also common while their motivational level is probably kept high by gambling or playing cards during the periods of unemployment or redundancy.
Aren’t we all responsible?
While the city needs the labour of the homeless for its growth, it is not willing to take the responsibility of their basic survival need of shelter. The dark cover of anonymity which surrounds the homeless makes them most vulnerable among the urban poor and dehumanizes them by snatching away their basic rights. Even right to have a dignified life is a distant dream for them.

Sadly, this reductionist way of looking at things by the government machinery, wherein the problem of “migration” is treated as the problem of Mumbai alone and not of the entire country, has made the homeless people a liability, fit only for rejection and denunciation. The administration persists in using the ‘íron’ hand in dealing with them and maintains that they must be sent back.

But the continued negation of the homeless community as human beings by the mainstream has created a wide gap between the so-called civilized society and the most marginalized section of the urban poor. It is only when we accept that they are an integral part of society and without them the economy of the city will suffer immensely can we seek a solution to their plight.
The writer works on the issue of ’Right to Live with Dignity’ with an NGO - ’Alternative Realities’ in Mumbai
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