No place to call home

May 29, 2013, 05:54 IST | Hassan M Kamal

Mumbai's homeless are not only looked down upon as a burden, but also as a taboo that lives in fear of being thrown out of the city's limits. They remain the invisible force that runs the metropolis as Hassan M Kamal discovered, when he scoured three different corners of the city to find out how unaccounted labour survives against the odds

Opposite the Lower Parel Railway Station in Mumbai, a small group of Marathi-speaking families have made the pavement their home.

Everyday, they travel to Khar Naka, outside the Khar Railway Station to work as daily wage labourers. While the men work in the construction industry, the women are head loaders; the children sell gajras or beg in local trains.

Roughly three lakh rag-pickers, a majority of them homeless, help segregate the 6,500 tonnes of waste that Mumbai generates everyday. Representative pic. Pic courtesy/AFP

Each member earns between Rs 150-Rs 230 per day. “It depends on luck,” says 24-year-old Rohin, one of the members of small community, migrants from Osmanabad, a district in central Maharashtra.

A homeless family who uses the pavement above Lower Parel railway station bridge as their home

City and survival
For this small community, coming to Mumbai has been a necessary tradition for four decades. They arrive in November or December and return in June when the monsoon in Mumbai makes it hard to live on the pavement. “We don’t have any land back home, so we can’t depend on agriculture either,” he reasons.

Sanjay Patil, social worker, with SPARC India. He was a homeless kid, working as a delivery boy, met with an accident and was later rescued by an NGO; now, even he helps the homeless.

The savings from these eight months helps them survive for the rest of the time, adds his brother Ravi as he looks at the eldest member of the clan who enjoys his bidi, seated on the Lower Parel flyover. “He’s been here for the last 40 years,” he tells us.

Members of Alternative Realities help the homeless opposite Chembur’s BARC flyover to register for their Voter ID cards. Pics/Hassan M Kamal

According to NGO Alternative Realities, which works for the upliftment of the homeless, Mumbai has over 1.5 lakh homeless, and almost 3/4th of these fall in the 16-35 years bracket. The NGO conducted two surveys, first in 2004 and second in 2012 in E-Ward (Byculla, Chinchpokli and Bombay Central). “The government looks at the homeless as beggars, but they are not. During both our surveys we found 98% of them working in a variety of sectors.

A majority of them fall within the working age group of 16-35 years,” informs Abhishek Bharadwaj, founder of Alternative Realities. The study traced 55% of the homeless to villages in Maharashtra, followed by Uttar Pradesh (13%) and Jharkhand (6%); one-third lives on pavements while the rest under overbridges or railway stations. When the monsoon arrives, they return to their villages.

Not catering to the homeless
But for kids like Suraj, aged 16, overbridges and pavements outside the Churchgate Railway Station are home irrespective of the season. Suraj found employment in the catering industry for a daily wage of Rs 150-300 where he cleans utensils and tables, loads and unloads material.

“They call it low-status work, something no one else wants to do,” says Sanjay Patil, a social worker with SPARC (Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres) India. He was homeless too, working as a delivery boy, before he met with a motorcycle accident. Patil was rescued by an NGO, and over seven years, he has helped rescue homeless children from forced labour.

According to Patil, 90% of the catering industry uses services of homeless kids. “While most kids work on a daily wage basis, there are a few who work and live at hotels. Most kids are promised work, food and shelter with pay, but a majority end up working for free,” adds Patil.

Rag pickers’ plight
Sagar and Akram, who share the pavement with Suraj, work as rag pickers, earning between Rs 150-R200; they collect any recycle-able object -plastic bottles or cola cans that will fetch income.

According to various estimates, Mumbai has over three lakh rag pickers, of which over 30,000 are children. They earn from Rs 150 to Rs 200 a day depending on the nature of the recyclable material, and are a major source of recyclable material to Dharavi’s over 700 recycling factories. “We don’t realise but rag pickers complete one of the most important part of garbage management - segregation. If not for them, the city would have been struggling to dispose 6,500 tonnes of garbage it generates daily,” admits Bharadwaj.

Already, Mumbai has overused its landfills - with two closed and the third in Deonar nearing a similar fate, garbage management remains one of the biggest problems. According to reports, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) spends about Rs 300 crore annually, on garbage collection; between 2007-2008 to 2010-2011, the total expenditure incurred by the Sewage and Waste Management (SWM) department of BMC, doubled from Rs 692 crore to Rs 1,219 crore.

Potholed challenges
In Mankhurd alone, roughly 68 homeless families, who live opposite the BARC flyover, carry out most of the works inside Anushakti Nagar that houses the scientists at Bhabha Atomic Research Centre. Men and women from this small community are employed by six-seven contractors to do odd jobs like cleaning, sweeping, electric fitting, pothole filling, road construction and gutter cleaning. “They say we are dirty, we encroach their land, but don’t see the gutters that we clean, the potholes that we fill, daily,” remarks Ramchander, one of the members of this large homeless community. While men earn Rs 200 a day, women earn R130 a day. Ramchander and his neighbours have been facing daily challenges of the pavement for 25 years, without access to drinking water or sanitation facilities and with evictions by municipal authorities.

“The city needs the homeless. They do work that no one else wants to do; the least we could do is recognise their efforts,” says Brijesh Arya, director of Beghar Adhikar Abhiyan, and conveyor, Homeless Collective, a forum, which recently filed a PIL against the state government, challenging the existence of the seven shelter homes that it claims to have built. His words resonate the truth: “In 2010, the Supreme Court of India directed every state government in the country to build shelters for the homeless; (Mumbai, as per the rule, should have 120) but the government has failed to build even one new shelter home for the homeless.”

Bollywood’s extras too
Apart from BMC contractors, the catering industry and the city's bustling construction industry, even Bollywood uses the homeless to play extras in crowd scenes. They come cheap too -just Rs 100-200 per shoot.

55% of the homeless are from Maharashtra, followed by Uttar Pradesh (13%) and Jharkhand (6%)
90% of the catering industry uses services of homeless children.
30,000 ragpickers are children; the youngest being five years old.
Sources: Alternative Realities, Suraksha Foundation

120 the number of shelters that Mumbai needs, as per the 2010 Supreme Court of India order

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