Mumbai or ‘Bombay’ is quite well known for being the ‘City Of Dreams’. The city has seen a diversity of migration constantly taking place for better jobs, better lifestyle and a fulfillment of a long awaited dream. While travelling to Bombay, one must observe the concrete jungle where people from all the socio-economic strata are co-existing, balancing and adjusting with one another. The distance between the sky and the land, and the moments before touching the ground, one can see the spatiality from above and that there is no separation of societies but everything cramped up together. From the fascination with Shah Rukh Khan’s house to the exoticisation of Asia’s biggest slum, Dharavi, this city gives multiple lenses to be looked through.
This is the general description of Mumbai that we usually find in books and movies where the city is a big umbrella of a homogeneous society that gives shelter to all. But in reality, this homogenisation doesn’t really exist. In addition to several social factors like class, caste, religion etc., the pandemic too has ripped off the band-aid to show how there are people who are completely alienated regardless of anything, which is proven by- the existence of the homeless, extreme poverty and of people who are not even a part of Dharavi.
A 2009 report prepared by the AIILSG (All India Institute Of Local Self Government) in association with the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) revealed that the quality of life in Mumbai has built a wide gap between the rich and the poor where even though the existence of both the rich and the poor are together (merged up with one another), both the societies live completely different socio-economic lives. It is ironic, that even if they share the same geographical space, there are vast differences in the living conditions. For example: The big bungalows of Bandra are co-existing with a cluster of slum houses just on the opposite side of the road, against the banks of the Arabian Sea. As luxurious as the sea-facing bungalows of the rich are, the slums on the very same side of the street have sanitation issues with improper bathrooms and sewage systems.
The 2011 census stated how there are 57,411 homeless people in the city of Mumbai alone. The approximate number of the homeless people is alarming because the number of existing shelter homes for the homeless are much less than the total number of homeless people. As much as Mumbai monsoons are romanticised, they have been disastrous for the homeless community. While the rich are enjoying the rain from their balconies, the alienated people on the roads find themselves afflicted with diseases such as pneumonia, for instance. The irony is that, the homeless people are everywhere on the roads, as much as they are found on the busy platforms of the trains, they are also seen on the roads of the posh Bandra locality, and yet, they are invisibilised by the society, as majority remain undocumented by the census report.
“The Indo Global Social Service Society, conducted a survey in 2019 across the states of Maharashtra, Bihar, Tamil Nadu etc and found out that more than 80 percent of homeless people belong to the Scheduled caste. Around 41.6% of the homeless have no access to any sort of health services, even though 45% of the homeless live within one km of a clinic/hospital, as per the 2019 survey.“ Scroll reported.
This constant lack of recognition towards the homeless has further led to many crimes of rape, abuse and violation of the poorest of the poor. Every homeless person in Mumbai has a backstory of what led them to the streets; some ran away from abusive households, some were abandoned on the streets, some lost their home and work, etc. A lot of women who were subjected to domestic abuse fled away to the streets of urban spaces looking for a better life but in turn, they are exposed to more sexual assault and abuse considering the lack of security and shelter homes.
In 2019, as per the Indian Express, an eviction drive by the Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) where most of the people who belonged to Pardhi tribe were evicted from underneath the Amar Mahal Flyover where they lived for almost 20 years. They do not have proper homes but built a small community within that area and their mode of living was through sanitation work, daily wage labour such as making flower garlands, etc. The MMRDA did not just evict them from their homes but under the pretense of getting rid of garbage, they burned down their personal belongings, food, school supplies and most of all, their government authorised identity cards (which they had already attained after a lot of struggle). The issues of representation can be evidently noticed in this particular instance where Pardhi, being a part of the DBA sections, was illegally evicted from their own community without taking into consideration the aftermath of the displacement, especially with the scarcity and low-maintenance of shelter homes.
The Central Government as well as the State Government of Mumbai have failed to build proper shelter homes that can accommodate a decent number of people and due to such negligence there are so many people on the streets, helpless and ‘begging’ for survival.
Another important issue is the ‘Bombay Prevention of Begging Act’ which basically looks at homelessness as a criminal offence. Under this Act, many homeless people who use begging as their only option for sustenance are often arrested and mistreated. Initially the law was passed to keep the streets clear off the homeless people and also to make the masses believe that the government is providing proper food and lodging for people on the streets. It was a strategy used by the government to make the city of Mumbai look poverty-free. Movies like Slumdog Millionaire portrayed the issues of homelessness with ‘beggar rackets’ whereas the truth is that, majority of the people on the streets are deprived of basic necessities – no food, no shelter, no proper clothes. Hence, begging becomes their way of earning a living.
Homelessness is one of the biggest issues of this country that needs immediate attention. The Census 2011 states that there are 1.77 million homeless people in India that comes around to about 449,761 homeless households/families. Issues pertaining to poverty and homelessness, especially in the light of the atrocious Bombay Prevention of Begging Act, require to be revisited. Especially because it is socially unethical of the privileged to be completely oblivious towards the existence of people who don’t even have the basic minimum. The Bombay Prevention of Begging Act is discriminatory, casteist and classist. It takes away the agency of the people in poverty and snatches away the only means of dignified earning, like selling roses or pens on the street in return for some basic survival necessities. It penalises people for trying to earn a living without actually providing them rehabilitation or alternative forms of employment.
The Act dehumanises people in the lowest strata of the society whereas our duty should be to uplift them while making them feel seen and acknowledged. Begging is not a crime but a way of living for the ones who are struggling to survive each day.
Debosmita is a cat parent and a fierce intersectional feminist with a Master’s degree in English and Communication Studies. Currently stumbling through life while obsessing over Peri Peri Fries and trying to smash patriarchy one step at a time. She can be found on Instagram.
Featured image source: Hindustan Times