As Mumbai settles in for the night and the bustle abates, Abhishek Bharadwaj starts off on his walk. Bharadwaj will roam down the alleyways of Mahim, lined by the homeless of this city. Founder of Alternative Realities, which works for the rights of the homeless, Bharadwaj has found that night is the best time to reach these people, and help them open up.
Over cups of tea and snacks, he hears out individuals from different parts of the country who have found an abode on Mumbai’s streets.
Bharadwaj says, “Considering the odd jobs these people are involved in all through the day, it is easiest to hold a conversation with them during the night as they are available at their shelters. The comfort of the night also means they can indulge in genuine conversations about their problems.”
These outreach programmes, carried out by Bharadwaj and others like him, are aimed at achieving more than just a dialogue. They help prevent abuse that the homeless are most vulnerable to during the night time.
Bharadwaj recalls an incident in Mahim when a taxi driver stopped by a family sleeping on the footpath and tried to abduct their eight-year-old daughter. When the his attempts were foiled by locals, he drove off, only to return and drive over those standing at the spot. Due to the involvement of one of the night outreach parties in the area, police and medical help could arrive quickly.
“The fact that they are on the road presents a distorted idea of them being “available” to the minds of other people, such as the taxi driver in this case” Bharadwaj says.
Substance abuse, too, is most rampant during the night and the presence of volunteers from NGOs allows direct intervention. Alternative Realities involves itself in a number of workshops to address such abuse, and the night-time interactions facilitates this.
A census of the homeless and drives to provide them with identification papers, which comprise a collaborative effort between organisations such as Alternative Realities and government agencies, are also carried out during night time.
The night presents the best period to synchronise the efforts of NGOs and the police to resolve long-standing problems of the homeless.
This sort of activism has translated into a review of the Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, which has long subjected such communities to the questionable treatment of rehabilitation centres.
As a rebellious teenager who ran away from home to become an actor, Bharadwaj spent several nights on the streets of Delhi and has witnessed abuse meted out to the homeless, which led to his founding Alternative Realities.
As each day marks a battle for existence for these invisible communities, the night continues to offer aid and succour with people like Bharadwaj by their side.
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