In Mumbai, there are slums, and there are slums, and then there are the homeless; a word that seems too benign for their condition. Under the broad flyover connecting Chembur with Ghatkopar, is one such settlement. This ‘home’ is 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 show 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 organisation. “Sometimes, strangers lie down next to a sleeping couple and try to fondle the wife. Sometimes, they are gang-raped. The women here can’t even shower with dignity. People will surround them and keep on looking. Sometimes, strangers throw stones at sleeping women. These people think that the homeless have no dignity and will put up with anything,” Bhalerao said.
Five families have settled under this section of the flyover. They are all related to one another. They have come from Sholapur, which is a seven-hour bus ride from Mumbai. On the other side of the pillars supporting the flyover, lives another set of families. According to Alternative Realities, there are 1,50,000 homeless in Mumbai. This population is highly fragmented as small groups tend to settle where they can find jobs, or near restaurants distributing leftover food. Most of the homeless are migrants from other parts of Maharashtra, the same state of India where Mumbai is located.
Rati, an elderly woman, says, “I have been a homeless for more than 40 years. I have seen my husband die here; four of my children died here. One of my little girls got squashed by a truck, right here; I saw it with my own eyes. We just buried her near that pillar.”
She hasn’t yet lost the ability to cry. Shanti, a middle-aged woman, adds, “Most of us have been around for more than 20 years. Many of us came when we were very young. We keep moving. When the government evicts us from here, we will have to move again. We had no land back in Sholapur. How could we have survived there?”
I find it unimaginable to live in such conditions, but it seems almost impossible for them to escape the situation they currently find themselves in.
One family has a tattered mattress for a bed. Others are just using old plastic sheets. Every family has to cook for themselves, using wood as fuel. A young couple has erected four poles around their sheets and hung old sarees on them 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 am lost wondering if anything could be more beautiful and more tragic than a wedding in 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,” says one young mother with a baby on her lap, as she invites me to sit on the only mattress they have in their settlement.
At the time of my visit the men had gone to work. Day jobs include pasting Bollywood posters, digging roads, fixing gutters, cleaning streets, selling pirated books at traffic signals; mostly jobs that the city needs to be done by someone. The women, if they don’t need to take care of the children, often work as domestic help. Some are exemplary entrepreneurs; making baskets, charms, brooms, and anything else they can produce with their meagre resources.
Anant is the only man around during my visit. “Many days I don’t get any work. On a good day, I can get ₹200 ($1 is about ₹60 ). Some days, I just get 50. Look at my fingers,” he looks at them. They are all bloodied from old wounds.
“I get them from pulling ropes to carry baskets full of chicken over my head,” he reveals.
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 perceive them as lazy—drunkards and beggars. The reality is that they have to work very hard to make a living, and their situation is extremely precarious. They work in the unorganised sector where an unlimited pool of cheap labour is always available to replace them. In addition, the general perception of being unwanted and the continuous fear of being evicted leave them with little bargaining power.”
Suddenly, a truck appears and parks itself by the settlement. Shantha, a teenage girl, gets agitated, “This truck parks here every night. It delivers chickens during the day. It is so smelly at night. See all those feathers here. There are many rats too. Some infants had their fingers bitten off by the rats,” she complains.
There are many babies and young children in the group. The infants are on their mothers’ laps or inside makeshift cradles hanging from the iron beams from the underbelly of the flyover. One of them has been infected with jaundice. “No, I didn’t go to the doctor,” says his mother, still in her teens.
“I just got this charm from a priest; he asked me to put it around the baby’s neck…,” she says.
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.”
Born under a flyover, she has never known any other world.
“Society has 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 public support schemes for the urban poor. We are also campaigning for the city’s planning to consider their existence and needs and accordingly provide for shelter or affordable housing,” he tells.
The excerpts have been taken from Shivaji Das’s book, Angels by the Murky River, with permission from Yoda Press.
Angels by the Murky River is a collection of travel narratives of people who would not typically attract a tourist’s attention – homeless people in Mumbai and Seoul, ageing anarchists in Melbourne, the crew on board a container ship, poverty-stricken diamond miners in Indonesia, and Filipino women boxers and beauty pageant specialists, to name a few. Pages 262; ₹453.