Jamli Pawar doesn’t remember her age. It could be 16 or 18 years, she says. Despite the eight-month pregnancy bulge and her infant by her side, her puny frame belies her age.
But as far as she can recall the Amar Mahal junction in Chembur has always been home to her and 50-odd people from the Pardhi tribe of rural Maharashtra. She wearily recounts how a fortnight ago a drunken tempo driver rammed into the wide divider underneath the flyover, where many of them were sprawled out, and ran over her left foot severing her toes. By the time she was rushed from one public hospital to another, she lost her entire foot and her extended family’s collective savings from road construction work.
She is lucky to be alive, says her mother-in-law Phulabai Pawar. “Just a year ago, my seven-year-old grandson was playing on the edge of the road when he was hit by a speeding car. Since it was late at night, we didn’t realise what happened until he was run over by a couple of other vehicles but by then his body was dismembered beyond recognition,” she said. Flanking their flyover is the Santacruz Chembur Link road, the city’s first double–decker flyover, which after being a work-in-progress for 11 years, was inaugurated last year. With the city’s east-west connecting link road now functional, the neighbourhood is gradually getting gentrified.
The slums across the street have given way to under-construction super-luxury high-rises with sky villas and duplexes that not only offer landscaped gardens, swimming pool and acupressure walkway for its residents but also promise a dog park, pet crèche and salon for their furry friends.
“Of late, the threats of eviction by cops have increased. They say that once the building is complete, we will have to go find someplace else to live,” said Alka Shinde, who ekes a living by selling flowers at traffic signals. Outside the corrugated tin sheet boundary of the upcoming hi-end residences, Alka and others share their space and food with more than a dozen stray dogs. “We feed them and let them sleep with us. They keep us safe like the other day when they barked and ran after this man who tried to whisk away my little girl when we were all asleep,” she says.
While much noise has been made on the sorry plight of homeless battling extreme weather conditions in the capital city of Delhi, those living on the fringes in country’s financial capital have continued to remain invisible until the recent judgment in actor Salman Khan’s case made it part of the national discourse for all the wrong reasons.
Worse off than 41 per cent of the total 12.47 million population that lives in Mumbai’s many slums, the homeless have lived, sometimes for generations, along the city’s pavements without a roof over their heads or any access to education, healthcare, water or sanitation. Even an official acknowledgment of their existence came only when the 2011 census figures pegged the number of those are not living in a ‘structure with a roof’ at 57,416, a figure much disputed by activists who peg their numbers at anywhere between three to four lakh.
Despite its inadequacies in providing shelter, Delhi still has 184 shelters that can accommodate 14,584 people. That would be almost 90 per cent of its 16,000 homeless population as estimated by Delhi government or just 31 per cent if one goes by the Census 2011 estimate of 46,724 homeless people in Delhi. Mumbai has only seven ramshackle structures that the BrihanMumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) masquerades as shelters. These collectively accommodate 200-odd inmates, mostly under-18 boys, accounting for not even one per cent of the city’s homeless population. A December 2011 National Report on Homelessness prepared for the Supreme Court pointed out that besides West Bengal, Maharashtra, which has the second highest number of homeless persons at 3.40 lakh people, is the only state that has failed to set up even a single homeless shelter. Going by SC directive of one permanent shelter per 1 lakh population, each with a capacity for 100 people, Mumbai requires 125 permanent shelters in addition to several temporary and night shelters.
“In 2012, after Maharashtra failed to comply with the SC order we filed a PIL in the Bombay High Court holding the state and BMC responsible. The BMC immediately went about painting signboards outside these age-old NGO-run shelters for children just to show the court that they has provided shelters for homeless in Mumbai,” said Brijesh Arya, from Homeless Collective. One of these NGO-run shelter is in Bandra, the suburb that is home to most Bollywood A-listers. About 1.5 km away from here is the American Bakery where those sleeping on the pavement were run over by Salman Khan’s vehicle 13 years ago.
The shelter is a dingy 120 sq ft room next to a BMC dog pound office. It contains nothing but lockers, a table, chair and a wash basin to which the BMC has provided no water connection. With neither any bedding nor toilet, it houses three teenage boys. Another one under the railway foot-over bridge near the Wankhede stadium in tony South Mumbai is actually a three-decade-old 24×7 home for children. From its youngest inmate, 6-year-old Arbaaz Shaikh to its newest Ajay Kumar (11), the 24 inmates here have been found abandoned. So were the two caged parakeets, both named Mithu, that Arbaaz and his friends brought in after they found them fallen off the trees, lying on the street outside. Parts of the ceiling have fallen off exposing the rusted iron beams that precariously hold together the decrepit structure. “The children sleep on mats stretched out on the floor but during rains it gets flooded. So we bought these narrow wooden benches for them to sleep on,” said caretaker Gopal Sharma, who until last year worked at a similar shelter near the crowded Dadar railway station until it was demolished by the BMC to create space for pedestrians.
Nobel Peace prize nominee Jockin Arputham, whose NGO SPARC runs two of these shelters, points out that BMC gives no facilities, not even subsidised drinking water or food, to run these shelters. “We have to pay a monthly lease rent to the BMC to keep the children here. Night shelters are meant for all roofless people irrespective of their age but the BMC had done nothing to provide for the homeless,” said Jockin.
In its affidavit filed before the Bombay High Court, the BMC, the country’s richest civic body, has said that it has borne all expenses for setting up the seven shelters terming these them ‘model night shelters’ that meet all requirements.
A February 2015 court commission report, accessed by The Indian Express, has called the BMC’s bluff and pointed out that none of these receive any financial support from corporation or the state but are run entirely by NGOs. Of the seven, only two have mattresses while four provide food. Many are without basic amenities such as ventilated rooms, water or toilet facilities. The commission found that only one shelter allows men above the age of 18 years while just two — in the red light district of Kamathipura and in Byculla — allow girls, mostly children of commercial sex workers. The report categorically states that none of these are accessible to homeless families in the vicinity.
The policy blindness is reflected in the draft housing policy which is set to be released by Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis soon. While it has provisions for redevelopment of slums and for creating rental and affordable housing, there is no mention of measures for providing shelter, temporary or permanent, to those living in absolute poverty. “These people are so poor that they cannot even afford to rent space in a slum. However, the BMC is in denial about its homeless population. In its affidavit before the High court, it has listed the state’s many schemes for slum dwellers as its contribution towards resolving the issue of homelessness,” said Abhishek Bharadwaj, an activist who works with the homeless.
Five years since the SC order, the BMC has identified a grand total of five tenements, each 225 sq ft in size, at Mahul, a settlement along the periphery of Mumbai, as shelter for the homeless. “We will abide by the SC order. These five tenements are just a beginning. With land being limited, we have to devise better housing instruments to tackle the issue of migration to Mumbai,” said SVR Srinivas, BMC’s additional municipal commissioner.
For Jamli, a shelter home is a distant dream. Her immediate worry is the impending threat of displacement from the only home she has ever known. “With my foot gone, my earnings from road work has also ceased,” she says as the listless summer night draws out residents from their tattered cloth tents on to the garbage-strewn pavement opposite for a good night’s sleep. Around midnight, a car pulls up next to them and a couple of men step out bearing food. Children snuggled close to the stray dogs are woken up. They have had an arduous day after being detained at the state-run Children’s home for begging at the junction, but right now they have to be fed their only proper meal for the day.