Of no fixed address: Mumbai’s street-dwellers are neither beggars nor destitute

Once night falls, the pavement is their home, intruded upon daily by the city that zips by. Mumbai’s street-dwellers are neither beggars nor destitute, but people who have taken a chance on the city, and are looking for a way out.

Written by Kavitha Iyer | New Delhi | Published:May 31, 2015 1:00 am
Rakhi Jadhav (in yellow) at her home on the Churchgate pavement (Photos: Prashant Nadkar) Rakhi Jadhav (in yellow) at her home on the Churchgate pavement (Photos: Prashant Nadkar)

Rakhi Jadhav lives barely 700 metres from Mumbai’s Marine Drive. Her three children, and the three sons of her alcoholic brother, all love the sweep of the seafront. But the last time they went near the sea was on a Sunday morning, the day of Mumbai’s annual marathon, to collect hundreds of plastic bottles discarded by runners.

Tonight, as the shouts of the streetside vendors and the din of traffic finally subside, Churchgate’s clammy night air is thick with the mingling smells of bhelpuri and sweat. Jadhav, a 33-year-old woman, hurries the children to “bed”, an assortment of plastic chatais, sheets and a mangy mattress spread out on the pavement between Churchgate station’s heritage headquarter building and Cross Maidan.

Why not take the children for a stroll by the sea every evening? “This here is our city, I guess. Not that there.”

That is atypical diffidence from a firebrand woman who, having been born to pavement-dwellers, last year achieved what remains a dream for millions — a flat in Mumbai. It’s a tiny home in the grubby suburb of Govandi, but it’s hers, and it’s not a government freebie.

homeless2 Basanti Parmar makes dinner for the family on the pavement outside Mahim station as her husband Ramu watches

Jadhav got back on the Churchgate pavement three months ago with the rest of the family because a distant relative visiting Mumbai for chemotherapy needed a place to stay. Her family’s clothes and documents are in large blue plastic bags hanging from the spokes of the Cross Maidan fence, just as they were before they moved to Govandi. Groceries and small quantities of rice, pulses and flour are in a plastic drum, away from roaches, rodents and Gundi, the stray mongrel.

Jadhav’s relative prosperity is a rare story among the estimated 1,50,000 people who live on Mumbai’s streets and pavements, who do not even have a shanty to call home, who have a sheet of tarpaulin to separate them from the vast open sky. Her journey from the Churchgate pavement to a flat and then back give her a unique perspective. “All we need is opportunity, the right advice and the discipline to put aside savings,” she says. “The municipality hounded us almost daily for years, even knowing we have nowhere to go. Somebody likened us to dogs, I heard. That’s why we live as invisibly as we can.”

The city administration puts the number of Mumbai’s homeless as 36,000, a gross underestimation according to housing rights activists. But even the latter admit that the government’s approach has turned slightly more nuanced in recent years. Demolition drives continue in slums, but judicial intervention on the subject of inadequate night shelters has meant that driving away those squatting on roadsides and pavements leads to inconvenient questions on the absence of basic services.

Few have the luxury of living in the same spot for decades— as Jadhav and her family did. Across the city, other homeless communities emerge only in the darkness, after work. A few hundred sleep along the edge of the Reti Bunder beach in Mahim, a few dozen families use the crannies between the Fashion Street stalls as night-halts. Girgaum Chowpatty, the pavements outside office complexes, bus stops, the steps of bakeries — these are sleeping places for thousands with the barest of belongings.

homeless3 Rakhi Jadhav with her family on Marine Drive, a short distance away from her home on the Churchgate pavement. Prashant Nadkar

“Thirty six thousand is the number arrived at after a single-night enumeration conducted as part of Census 2011,” says Abhishek Bharadwaj, a TISS alumnus who runs Alternative Realities, an organisation dedicated to solutions for homeless families. The headcount was a one-night exercise which ended at 6 am, and as a result, was limited in its scope. “But the exercise busted the myth that all street-dwellers are beggars,” Bharadwaj says. “They actually work the hardest and get paid the worst.”

Fourteen km away from Rakhi’s house, Ramu Parmar is seated under the harsh 2 pm sun, slicing 12-feet long bamboo poles into strips thin enough to weave. The 57-year-old basket weaver has lived on this pavement outside Mahim station since 1984 and over the years brought his family along. His eight children were all conceived right here. “Delivered in the village, lekin saare idhar hi hue,” he says with a grin.

A kuccha homestead in a village off Abu Road, Rajasthan, is technically their native home. But for all practical purposes, this patch of Tulsi Pipe Road is home, with its daylong din of honking cars and a train every four minutes. The routine road accidents and the one bomb blast on a train in 2006 are now as much a part of their family history as the photograph hanging from a nail on the railway boundary wall. The photograph, with a sandalwood garland, is of Aggar, his eldest born, who died of breast cancer five years ago here on the pavement.

“I don’t expect people to realise that they’re honking into our homes, just four feet from their cars. But the pavement is indeed our home, the site of our work, food, sleep, love and squabbles,” he says. Nobody likes living on the roads, dealing with the nightly drunks, says Basanti, his wife. “But this is where our skill fetches us enough to live by. Even the Prime Minister says skills are good, right?”

The Parmars have, over the decades, added to their repertoire cane lamp-shades, knick-knacks and furniture, making their corner of Mahim one of Mumbai’s go-to spots for inexpensive cane items. Similar street-dweller specialisations are taking shape elsewhere. Anyone looking for semi-skilled construction labourers goes to Vashi Naka where several hundreds gather each morning from street homes nearby; the cricket bats carved by migrant Gujaratis living on the streets of Thane are increasingly popular; much of the lemon-chilli strings sold to suburban motorists to ward off the evil eye are made by pavement dwellers in Malad, Malvani and Mankhurd.

About 10 years ago, rows of shanties on either side of Tulsi Pipe Road were demolished, and some families with proof of having lived there since before 1995 got homes under a rehabilitation scheme. The Parmars didn’t have adequate paperwork then, though they’ve now collected voter ID cards, Adhaar cards and more. “Even today, if somebody helps us with some space where we can do our business and tap this market we have built in Mahim, why will we not move off the streets?” Parmar says.

In the absence of state intervention, hundreds of pavement dwellers have found a way out with some grit and a helping hand. Finding one person committed to their welfare is what Mumbai’s homeless really need, says Jadhav. Over the years, she has grown into a positive force for the 25 families sharing her Churchgate pavement. She ensures the children go to school, insists on a twice-daily bath for her own brood of six and is obsessive about some things: stay snot-free, ask god to show you the right path, say hello and thank you, no begging, no stealing.

Ask her how she turned into an inspiration for others and she credits Hamara Footpath, an organisation started over a decade ago by three friends. It continues to work with children living on streets, holding weekly classes, assisting with school admissions, paying fees wherever needed, planning mother-toddler classes and more, all through a network of volunteers. One of the three founders is Taha Jodiawala, 29, who calls Jadhav a sort of godmother for all the children on that street. “She’s exceptional,” he says. “How many people with three kids will also take on the responsibility of a brother’s children and do it all so positively?”

Completely unlettered herself, Jadhav is determined to make sure her children don’t live on the streets, especially Bhagyashree, her nine-year-old daughter. “I let my sons go to municipality-run schools, but not my daughter. I put her in Dolours,” she says, referring to Our Lady of Dolours, a Diocesan school in Marine Lines. The fee was Rs 850 a month, nearly a third of their total earnings in some months. Hamara Footpath now pays the school fees for all three children as well as for several others. It was on their advice that Jadhav put Bhagyashree in a hostel, run by the Seva Sadan in Grant Road.

After two years in hostel, Bhagyashree, now home for the summer holidays, likes to practise her English, and is in general the brightest spark around Cross Maidan. “My name is Bhagyashree, what’s yours?” is her winsome opening line. Her favourite subject is English.

Now that the family will return to Govandi soon, the boys will go to OLPS School in Chembur, one of the suburb’s best schools.

Across the city, in Andheri, ask 20-something Jyoti Indulkar and Deepak Zade if a degree can erase the shame that seems to singe all those who live on the streets. They agree whole-heartedly. Both are products of Sneha Sadan, a 52-year-old organisation which runs 13 homes for homeless children. Jyoti was three when her nine-year-old sister, fed up of the daily beatings from the maternal uncle they were living with, decided to take her little sister and run away. Her mother had burnt herself alive earlier after a major quarrel at home, and her policeman father did not so much as acknowledge their existence. “Somebody took us in for the night, and a few days later we landed at Sneha Sadan,” says Jyoti, who would go on to spend 16 years there, completing her Bachelor’s in mass media. “I was fortunate. Because I was so young, they felt I could learn English and admitted me to St John The Evangelist School,” says Jyoti, now a content assistant with a travel company’s portal. She lives on rent in an Andheri flat with two friends from Sneha Sadan. Her sister found a job as a receptionist, fell in love, got married, and is now on maternity leave.

Deepak’s tale mirrors Jyoti’s — a father with an alcohol problem and tuberculosis, a mother who committed suicide by burning herself in their village in Akola, a trip to Mumbai, days on the streets, a chance meeting with a social worker from Sneha Sadan, followed by long years when “many angels touched my life”. Deepak now works with the HR department of Tata Consultancy Services, and is pursuing an MBA.

Back in Churchgate, Rakhi Jadhav recounts her own back story, nothing short of an epic. She was born delivered in nearby Cama Hospital and brought to a shanty inside Cross Maidan as a scrawny, day-old baby. That was long before Cross Maidan was spruced up and its residents banished to the pavement.

Her three brothers and she were brought up by her mother Parvati, who sorted garbage for a living. Parvati came to Mumbai one summer holiday as a child of three or four, and got lost in a crowd. Unable to find her parents, a group of Tamilian street-dwellers raised her as their own. “They told her she actually spoke Gujarati in her first few days here, but we are all proper Tamilians now,” Jadhav says with a giggle.

Parvati was later married off to a man named Kale who was looking for a second wife. Despite the Maharashtrian surname, Kale was actually Tamilian — the name stuck because of his skin colour.

Jadhav’s father died young, but she remembers the drunken beatings that Parvati got. “Dragging the women by the hair, a few slaps and a kick, foul abuses, fights for the entire footpath to hear, these are routine here. I’m lucky. He has no money, but my husband is a good man. I thank god for that.” A good husband is what you really need if you want to give your children better opportunities, according to Jadhav.

The children asleep, the adults finish dinner which is a success, pulao made with “chuttan” meat. That’s street talk for parts of an animal indistinguishable to most but the butcher. Some of it is offal, some a literal cutting of corners off the good parts that are feretted away and sold in vaatis or fist-sized piles for Rs 10 a vaati. A Rs 20 purchase makes for a meaty meal. “It’s a long way from eating the sambar-pav discarded by Cafe Bharat at the end of the day,” she says, furrowing perfectly threaded brows.

She remembers the Nineties clearly, when every morning brought a renewed threat of losing their belongings to a municipal van. If the Parmars had to gather bamboo poles and race across four sets of railway tracks every time a municipal van approached, the Jadhavs would rue a pot of still-hot sambar turned over in the melee as they scampered in different directions. Those days taught Jadhav a valuable life lesson. It was’t the value of goods lost to the municipal van that hurt. “It was disbelief, anger that they thought we would stop existing if they took our stuff,” she says. “I learnt that the bigger loss was of self-respect, they were treating us like animals.”

She may not live in Churchgate much longer, but Jadhav won’t hesitate to salvage food from garbage bins in the future even if her children don’t have to. “We shouldn’t forget worse times,” she reasons. In that promised future, when the children would have hopefully found good jobs, when this shame is behind them, even when that glittering city by the sea would become theirs, she would not forget her life on the street.

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