October 12, 2022. A day like any other day in post-monsoon Mumbai. Muggy, cloudy, a brilliant evening sky.

But also a day when hearts, hearths and homes were cruelly broken.

Let me backtrack. I live in a mixed neighbourhood in Mumbai. It has buildings with government officials, private buildings with a mix of rich and middle-income families, a large enclave exclusively for Parsis, and an even larger, in terms of population, urban poor settlement where a mini-India jostles for a limited space.

There are some private gardens, such as those exclusively for the government officials, and a short distance away public gardens for the rest of us.

There are also shops, a police chowki, a Hindu temple, a mosque, and a Buddhist shrine. The road leading up to the neighbourhood is narrow, but on one side, it has something resembling a pavement.

For at least two decades, I have observed a family that consisted only of women and children living on the side of this road opposite the pavement. They are waste pickers, originally from Tamil Nadu. Sometimes, I saw a man, but mostly the women – an older woman and her daughter. In the course of time, the daughter gave birth to a little girl and thereafter to two boys.

The girl, Uma, grew up before my eyes. She was toddler, then a little girl with neat plaits who would wind her way up the road to a municipal school. I bumped into her on most mornings when I went for my walk. She would beam up at me, her eyes luminous. Over time, I saw her grow into a statuesque young woman, clearly conscious of her beauty.

Then the entire family moved across the road, to a spot in front of the closed gate of the government officers’ colony. They spread themselves out. The older woman told me they had the contract to collect the dry waste from the government colony. They seemed confident that they would not be asked to move.

I noticed at one point that the younger woman, Uma’s mother, looked ill. She seemed to be literally wasting away. They said that she might have tuberculosis but were not sure. One day, I saw that she was not there anymore. She had died. Of what, I asked Uma’s grandmother. Not sure, I was told.

So now there was the grandmother, her grand-daughter and a couple of boys.

Then another family arrived at the same spot. The man had been around. I had seen him as he collected dry waste from our building. But the woman and her daughter were new. They were also from Tamil Nadu. The daughter’s name was Pooja.

The two families were uneasy allies – united in their homelessness and yet competing for contracts from the buildings and colonies in the neighbourhood. The man managed to hustle Uma’s grandmother out of the contract with the government colony. She found something else.

They fought often, but also shared a basic level of camaraderie. Pooja was friends with Uma who was considerably older than her. When her mother was out collecting waste, Pooja hung out with Uma and her brothers.

One day, I saw Uma with an infant in her arms. Whose? I asked. Mine, she said, her eyes gleaming. Then, by way of an explanation, she said, the father did not want to marry me. Uma was 16 years old then (although later she insisted that she was 18).

Another child of the street, Uma’s little girl is almost four years old now. They call her Karooramma. She is cheerful, waves to the people she knows, keeps busy playing with whatever is lying around. She imitates her mother and great-grandmother by pretending to wash clothes or the dishes. Sometimes, she goes off on her own to the tea stall at the top of the road where she is given a cup of tea, more like a thimbleful, and a biscuit.

Credit: Kalpana Sharma.

Over the years, both families followed a pattern. During the rains, they would stretch out a tarpaulin over their belongings and sleep under it. Once the rains were gone, so was the temporary cover and they slept in the open.

On October 10 this year, the municipal corporation descended on this little settlement of two families and demolished their shelter. It was still raining.

For two days, they somehow continued to occupy the spot, which had now been “beautified” with large potted plants. They kept their belongings behind these pots and slept on cardboard spread out on the pavement. The little girl slept under an umbrella.

I asked them what they would do now, as living this way was clearly untenable. Could they not find a room in one of the many urban poor settlements scattered in the area, including the one nearest to us?

How is that possible, asked Pooja’s mother. The rents start at Rs 7,000 and more for a small room. Then there is a deposit as well, of at least Rs 50,000. Where will we get that?

Then on October 12, the municipal van came again – the “chor gadi” as it is called. It took away most of their belongings – pots, pans, mattresses, almost everything. To get them back, they would have to go to the ward office and pay a fine, I was told.

When the clean-up operation was being conducted by the maintenance department of the municipality, I asked the man in charge why they had to confiscate their belongings when they had already destroyed their temporary structures? We have had complaints, he told me. In any case, it was evident he was not going to stop. He had his orders and he was following them.

I want to record this moment because it illustrates the heartlessness of a big city like Mumbai where there is no place for the poor. These families are poor, but they earn their living by providing an essential service. Yet, the city can make no place for them.

For the people living in the area, the majority would only see them as the dirty poor “spoiling” their neighbourhood. I can bet that even the woman who complained about them has never spoken to them and has no idea what they do for a living.

This moment also tells me how the entire system is stacked against the poor. Little Karooramma, for instance, cannot get an Aadhar card because she has no birth certificate. She was born, literally, on the street. Hence, even the municipal school will not admit her. For the state, she is invisible, as is her mother and her great grandmother. They are not even a statistic.

When I passed Karooramma on October 12, she smiled at me, even as the municipal men were confiscating their belongings. “BMC aya,” she told me solemnly. “Sab le gaya.” The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation came, it took everything. Then she waved and said her usual “bye”.

The locked gates of the plot where the two families were staying. Credit: Kalpana Sharma.

This anecdote from one day in Mumbai represents a larger challenge that the city has faced, but failed spectacularly to address.

Thousands of families have occupied pavements in the city for decades and continue to do so. They do this despite knowing that their shelters can legitimately be demolished any day by the municipal corporation. They know they have few rights. This precarious existence is not by choice. It is the consequence of having no other choice but this.

The poorest of the urban poor live on pavements, families like those I have described above. The pavement they choose to live on is closest to their place of work. Given their levels of poverty, travel costs would eat into their meagre earnings.

Like the waste pickers, most pavement dwellers work as temporary labourers close to where they live. The women often work as domestic workers in the residential colonies nearby. Waste pickers, collect and sort the dry waste in the neighbourhood. In the past, many of them were given identity cards by the municipality.

After the Supreme Court’s ruling in the famous Pavement Dwellers’ case – Olga Tellis vs Bombay Municipal Corporation – in 1985, when the court acknowledged their right to life, but not their right to continue to live on pavements that provided public access, several surveys of pavement dwellers were conducted. One of them, titled “We the Invisible” by the Society for Area Resource Centre showed that most pavement dwellers had occupied the same spot for two or three decades.

In 1995, when the Maharashtra government, then ruled by the Shiv Sena in alliance with the Bharatiya Janata Party, announced the Slum Rehabilitation Scheme, pavement dwellers were recognised for the first time as deserving of an alternative if their houses were demolished.

Since then, although several colonies of pavement dwellers living along Mumbai’s arterial roads have been resettled – as part of a World Bank funded project where such resettlement was required – others continue to lead precarious lives. They can be displaced at any point and the State does not consider it essential to provide them with an alternative.

Also, although there was a time when pavement dwellers had organised and fought through the courts for compensation if their personal belongings were stolen or damaged during a demolition, that too is followed in the breach. As the woman I have written about above told me repeatedly, “No one listens to us when we go to the ward office. We are pushed out. And we can only get our belongings if we pay.”

Mumbai is a city that has changed and is changing. But the reality of homelessness that millions of its residents face even today, remains unchanged. The story of the October 12 demolition is yet another reminder of that.

Kalpana Sharma is an independent journalist. Her books include The Silence and the Storm: Narratives of Violence Against Women in India.