PanaJournal – There are slums in Mumbai and then there are the homeless, a word that seems too benign for their condition. Under the broad flyover, connecting Chembur with Ghatkopar, is their home, an uneven ground strewn with pebbles, scattered with chicken feathers and trash. The traffic is blaring deafening horns from all directions. The air is full of dust and the smell of rot.
AS SOON AS we reach this settlement, the women surround us excitedly, “Last night, they came in a taxi. They tried to drag out our daughter. We beat them and then they ran away.”
They showed us a copy of the police report they had filed.
“This is quite common,” says Shashikant Bhalerao, a social worker with Alternative Realities, a not-for-profit organization. “Sometimes, strangers lie down next to a sleeping couple and try to fondle the wife. Sometimes, there is gang rape. The women here can’t even shower with some dignity. People surround them and keep looking. Sometimes, strangers come and throw stones on sleeping women. These people think that the homeless have no dignity and will put up with anything.”
There were five families settled under this section of the flyover. All these families are related to one another. They had all come from Sholapur, seven hours bus ride from Mumbai. One the other side of the giant pillars, there is another set of families. According to Alternative Realities, there are 150,000 homeless in Mumbai. This population is highly fragmented as small groups tend to settle around where they can find jobs or restaurants distributing away leftover food. Most of the homeless are migrants from other parts of Maharashtra, the same province containing Mumbai.
Rati, an elderly woman, says, “I have been like this for more than 40 years. I have seen my husband die here, four of my children died here. I saw with my own eyes one of my girls get squashed by a truck right here. We just buried her near that pillar.”
She hadn’t yet lost her capacity for tears. Shanti, a middle aged woman, relieves her of the memory.
“Most of us have been around for more than 20 years. Many came as very young. We keep moving. When the government will throw us away from here, we will have to move again. We had no land back in Sholapur. How could we have survived there?”
It seems almost impossible to get out. And I find it unimaginable to live in such conditions. Humanity seems to have completely failed these people.
One family has a tattered mattress for a bed. The others are just using old plastic sheets. Every family has to do their own cooking, managed by burning some wood. A young couple has dug in four poles around their sheets and hung old sarees around these to get some privacy.
“My sister got married to one of the men here. They just went to the temple and came back,” says Shanti, with a smile. I get lost wondering if anything could be more beautiful and more tragic than a wedding under such poverty.
“Here, have some tea!” a teenage girl hands me a small plastic cup. I am startled at this unexpected hospitality.
“Please sit down,” one young mother with a baby on her lap, invites me to sit on the only mattress they have in their settlement. I notice their meagre belongings, all wrapped up in three cloth bundles, next to the mattress.
I ask them how they manage when it rains. “We just move our sheets and the mattress to the spots where there is no water.” But, it is common for the homeless to die from Pneumonia and Tuberculosis, particularly during the rainy season. Life expectancy is abysmally low and infant mortality rates are high.
At that time of the day, the men had all gone away to work, day jobs: pasting Bollywood posters, digging roads, fixing gutters, cleaning streets; all jobs that the city needs to be done by someone. The women often work as domestic help, if they don’t need to take care of the children. Some are exemplary entrepreneurs, making baskets, charms, brooms, anything they can produce with their meagre means.
Abhishek Bharadwaj, the founder of Alternative Realities explains, “In this city of glitz and glamour, the image of the homeless doesn’t fit in. Most people have a negative perception of them as drunkards and lazy beggars. The reality is that they have to work very hard to make a living. And their situation is extremely precarious. The unorganized nature of their jobs, the unlimited pool of cheap labour always available to replace them, the general perception of being unwanted and the continuous fear of being evicted; all these leave them with little bargaining power.”
Anant is the only man around at that time, “Many days I don’t get any work. On a good day, I can get 200 Rs. Some days, I just get 50. Look at my fingers.” They were all bloodied from old wounds. “I get them from pulling ropes to carry baskets full of chicken over my head.”
Suddenly, a truck appears and parks itself in this settlement of the homeless. Shantha, a teenage girl explains, “This truck parks here every night. It carries around chickens during the day. It is so smelly at night. See all these feathers here. There are many rats too. Some young babies had their fingers bitten off by the rats.”
There was an abundance of babies and young children. The very young ones were on their mothers’ laps or inside makeshift cradles hanging from the iron beams of the flyover. One of them had caught jaundice. “No, I didn’t go to the doctor,” says his mother, still in her teens, “I just got this charm as a necklace.”
I am distracted by the kids who have begun swinging from the clothes hanging from the flyover’s beams. Each one of them, in their attempt to outdo the other, grab me and pull me to applaud their swing as the most daring. Some bring kittens for me to see. I get the attention of Nakul, a boy of five or six, “I don’t go to school. There is so much work. During the day, I have to wash all the dishes and also bring water.”
Nearby, a young mother sighs, “I want them to study and get out of here. But sometimes, I have to send them to ask money from people stuck in traffic.” Alternative Realities is working to encourage such families to send their kids to state run Anganwadis, centres for providing basic pre-school education and health and nutrition services. They have also built homeless libraries in a few settlements from donated books to arouse curiosity and inculcate a habit of reading.
Jyoti, the girl who had handed me the tea, laughs, “You are holding your cup as if it is such a precious thing. You can throw it anywhere. There is so much trash around anyway.” She had been born under a flyover and had never known any other world.
One lady approaches us to show her photographs, “These are for my ration card application.” She shows all of them one by one, 15 identical photographs. The ration cards, identity documents required to buy subsidized food under a state scheme, are prized possessions of the homeless.
“The society needs to acknowledge its need for such people,” says Abhishek, “They are fully capable of sustaining themselves, unless they are disabled, mentally unstable or too old. But we need to ensure that they have proper documents like ration cards, election cards, etc. so that they can access the public support schemes for the urban poor. We are also campaigning for the city’s planning to consider their existence and their needs and accordingly provide for shelters or affordable housing. Finally, we need to change our negative perception of them. We tend to dismiss them so easily but once you meet them you understand how wonderful these people are and how their aspirations are not very different from ours.”
The sun is setting. The women are patiently waiting for their men. The youngest baby is being cuddled by the elders. The children, who rarely hear a kind word from the outside world, are still swinging. The teenage girls are sweeping the area around their sheets, trying to keep it as clean as is possible in this setting. The traffic intensifies. Mumbai is dreaming of becoming Shanghai, hoping for more towering skyscrapers, neat boulevards and exclusive public spaces. The homeless are dreaming of a ration card, a small shelter, a night without fear of molestation and an escape for their children from under the flyovers. Will the city’s dreams carry along theirs too? ***