At the end of 2015, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai cleared a proposal for cow shelters, intended to house homeless cows in the city. While this proposal was made with good intentions, it raised quite a few eyebrows.

This is because in 2012, the Homeless Collective, a coalition of various non-governmental organisations and community-based organisations working with the homeless in Mumbai, filed a public interest litigation asking the municipal corporation to provide shelters for the homeless as per the standards set out by the Supreme Court in 2010, and the National Urban Livelihood Mission guidelines of 2013. But it was only on January 16, after three years of litigation, that the MCGM finally agreed to build 13 shelters to add to the seven existing ones in India’s financial capital.

The municipal corporation claims the lack of space in the city is the biggest stumbling block for developing shelters for the homeless. But we, the Homeless Collective, disagree. It is not the lack of space that is the biggest challenge, but the fact that the issue of homelessness is not treated with the seriousness it deserves. This article attempts to highlight some insights on the condition of the homeless in Mumbai.

According to the 2011 census, Mumbai has over 57,416 homeless residents, but the actual figure could be many times over. For these homeless people, each day is a struggle for identity, citizenship and dignity. And the night? It’s just a long wait till dawn amidst screeching vehicles and flickering streetlights.

Work and the homeless

Contrary to the popular urban, middle-class belief that people living on the streets are thieves, beggars, drug addicts and miscreants, the homeless are deeply tied to the informal economy of Mumbai. It is their contribution in the form of cheap labour that makes the city what it is. The homeless people are predominantly from Maharashtra, but there are substantial numbers from other states too.

Most women are employed as domestic helps, cooks, ragpickers, and waste pickers earning a meager Rs 60-Rs 70 per day. Men work as construction labourers, helpers in shops and garages, contractual conservancy workers or in the waste recycling industry. Their work is largely informal, irregular and seasonal in nature with no assurance of a fixed daily income and never enough to save for emergencies. The monsoon season is the worst. With almost no work and no savings, many families don’t eat sufficiently for days. On an average, a homeless household with two earning members earns around Rs 150 a day – barely enough to make ends meet.

Living on the street

The homeless live in nondescript public spaces, ranging from bus and train terminals to commercial junctions and places of worship. For them, each location has a memory associated with it, be it the porches of shops that sheltered them in the rain, or busy pavements where they have lost loved ones.

Over the last few years, the drastic transformation of the city in the form of various development projects mean that the homeless have been subjected to increasingly frequent evictions, demolitions and displacement. Furthermore, as urban governing bodies increase restrictions on people dwelling on the streets, the homeless are forced to keep their belongings packed at all times just to save their bare essentials from being confiscated.

For many, homelessness is a state induced by improper implementation of policies for pavement dwellers. Approximately 70% of pavement dwellers are still on pavements despite the Mahatma Gandhi Pathkranti Yojana, a scheme introduced in 2006 by the Maharashtra government to provide the homeless with housing. This is primarily because the cut-off date of the rehabilitation scheme makes them ineligible.

For many homeless, the streets are closest to home. They may be homes without safety, without privacy, without roofs to protect them from heavy rains and without walls to keep the winter winds at bay, but homes nevertheless.

Despite the Supreme Court directive to provide shelters for the homeless in all big cities, Mumbai’s local governing bodies have failed to shelter most of the homeless. According to census data, of the 57,416 homeless residents of Mumbai, not more than 200 have access to night shelters.

Evictions: A daily calamity

Life on the streets means frequent eviction, confiscation of bare essentials and identity documents like ration cards, voter identity cards, clothes, cooking utensils and even schoolbags of children. It is imperative that we view these evictions as daily man-made calamities that push these communities back into the vicious circle of deprivation. Constant confiscation of the goods they own, the destruction of their identity papers and other important documents sets them back by years. When they approach the municipal body to get back their confiscated belongings, officers ask them to pay a fine of Rs 1,200 per person. To demand such an amount from those who cannot even afford a roof over their heads is ruthless.

Evictions have been carried out for the most arbitrary reasons. In the past, even visits by a Union minister to areas with homeless populations have led to evictions. More recently, evictions have also been carried out under the banner of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan. Along with the cleaning of streets and pavements, many homeless communities inhabiting such spaces were evicted.

Today, the homeless live a life bordering on the illegal. They are frequently detained under the archaic Bombay Prevention of Begging Act (1953) and harassed by municipal authorities and the police. This is a classic case of the law being misused against the poor, leading to more marginalisation and exploitation. Young children of homeless families are also easy targets for the police – they are frequently subjected to arrest or detention during emergencies or high-alert situations. This is merely a glimpse of the human rights violations the homeless face due to an insensitive political and police system.

Distant dreams

Living without a roof of one’s own also means no access to water and toilets, leaving the homeless with no choice but to avail of the pay-and-use toilets in the city. A homeless person has to spend about Rs 20-Rs 25 each day to use the toilet and bathing facilities at these units. A family of five will need close to Rs 100 every day to use the toilet and to bathe. Though the homeless have been urging the municipal corporation to provide them with a family toilet pass, the request has not been sanctioned yet. If to save money, the homeless use toilets at railway stations, the fear of getting caught, the threat of a hefty fine, and the humiliation by the police is such a concern that most of them would rather cut down on food and drink than use the toilet facility.

Durga, who works as a domestic help, resides under Tilak Bridge in Dadar. She lives in constant fear of being caught by the railway police for using the toilet and the subsequent embarrassment. "Do roti kam kha lungi… par yeh fine aur thane ki lijjat se bachna hai (I'll eat two rotis less, but I just want to be saved from the police)," she said.

That such women reduce their intake of food and water, risking their health and lives, speaks volumes about the conditions they are forced to endure. If they don’t have money to pay, women don’t access toilets or wait till the evening for the cover of darkness. Is this what the city prides itself on – forcing its most vulnerable citizens to choose between one square meal a day and using toilets at the risk of being fined and shamed publicly?

The poorest among the homeless communities in the city – who have no cash to spare – are even forced to defecate in the open. Some of the homeless work under contract with the municipal corporation as sweepers. It is ironic that those employed to clean the city under the Swachh Mumbai Abhiyaan are not even provided with a toilet pass.

For water too, whether for drinking or for cooking food, the homeless are dependent on nearby chawls, residential buildings, restaurants, and the kindness of security guards. At most places in the city, homeless women rise at 4 am as they begin their daily struggle to collect enough water to last the entire day from various sources, walking at least a kilometre with water-filled vessels so that they can cook and conduct household chores. The MCGM does not supply them with water even after the 2011 census confirmed their existence as a considerably large group. “Right to water” along with the right to a dignified life is denied by arbitrary acts and laws.

The Public Distribution System, which provodes subsidised foodgrain to the poor, still excludes a vast majority of the homeless population because of the inability of many of them to provide proof-of-address documents required to obtain a ration card. The small minority, which has access to subsidised foodgrain, complain of inedible quality, insufficient quantities and other irregularities, forcing them to often buy food directly from the market, burning a large hole in their pockets.

A good night’s sleep

Homeless women and young girls, with or without families, are vulnerable to physical abuse and harassment and denied a very basic right to lead a dignified life. Incidents of sexual harassment are very common as these women and children are out on the streets all through the day and night. Women very often find themselves in the middle of fights on the streets, protecting themselves and their children from anti-social elements. With frequent cases of children being kidnapped, women are forced to tie their infants to their bodies, ensuring they don’t lose them.

The daily ordeal of homeless women begins with getting water. Cooking, sending the children to school, working throughout the day and then spending the night in fear of being physically or sexually abused or of their meager belongings being stolen and children being kidnapped are just a fraction of the difficulties they face.

Women narrate incidents of eviction when municipal officials have thrown away their utensils with cooked food, leaving the family with nothing to eat for the day.

For these women, shelter is synonymous with protection from abuse and harassment, and the hope for a better future for their children. Laxmi, a homeless person in her early 30s, on being asked what her dream is, thought for a while before answering: “My only dream is a good night’s sleep.”

Government failure

As Mumbai awaits a slew of development projects that will take it up the ambiguous hierarchical ladder of smartness, it is systematically leaving out sections of society that are invisible simply because they lead a life not suited to a city that claims to be the premier financial centre of the country.

The response by the municipal corporation and state government has been lax – the homeless in Mumbai have been systematically denied identity documents, and even if they manage to get some essential documents made, they are denied the services and access that other comparatively privileged sections of society enjoy, living the life of second-class citizens. It is a matter of irony that the poorest, most vulnerable sections of society are paying exorbitant rates for services like basic sanitation and water – issues under the domain of the local body.

The National Urban Livelihood Mission, encompassing the scheme for Shelter for Urban Homeless, has detailed guidelines for all state governments to build homeless shelters. As of today, under this scheme, more than Rs 160 crore remains unutilised by the Maharashtra government, and Rs 70 crore lies with the municipal corporation. As a result, despite policy guidelines, the homeless in Mumbai have been compelled to sleep without shelter for many years now.

The daily life of the homeless in Mumbai is reflective of the nature of urban spaces in our times – the poor and vulnerable are pushed to the perilous margins of the urban landscape, to pavements, street corners, railway platforms and spaces underneath bridges and flyovers, always struggling to survive with dignity, constantly experiencing harassment and living in uncertainty and fear. More than 57,000 people in Mumbai live without shelter, not because they choose to, or because they deserve to, but only because they are forced to do so.

Pooja Yadav is co-convener of the Homeless Collective. Deeksha Chaudhary is a Master’s student in Social Work at Tata Institute of Social Sciences and a student volunteer at YUVA (Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action).

All photographs courtesy Aravind Unni, member Hamara Shehar Mumbai Abhiyaan.