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At home on the streets

Published : Apr 25, 2016, 3:46 pm IST
Updated : Apr 25, 2016, 3:46 pm IST

An ongoing exhibition at Kitab Mahal is giving a glimpse of the city’s homeless.

(Left to right): Carlin Carr, Brijesh Arya, Sunil Thakker, Rajeev Thakker. (Photo: Shripad Naik)
 (Left to right): Carlin Carr, Brijesh Arya, Sunil Thakker, Rajeev Thakker. (Photo: Shripad Naik)

An ongoing exhibition at Kitab Mahal is giving a glimpse of the city’s homeless.

There are lakhs of people who call Mumbai ‘home’ but few mean it as literally as the ones who embrace its streets as their only dwelling — sometimes for years, decades and even generations. And ‘home’ for them constitutes tattered tarpaulin sheets, a nook under a flyover or a shredded piece of sari. While official statistics (2011 census) put the number of homeless in the city at 57,416, activists estimate the real size of the population to be anywhere between 1,50,000 to 3,00,000. An exhibition in the city titled ‘Without Walls’ is offering a glimpse of the living conditions of these street dwellers at Kitab Mahal. Organised by a city-based researcher Carlin Carr, it is in collaboration with an urban research space, run by Columbia University's GSAPP, Studio X and Pehchaan, an NGO that fights for the rights of the homeless population. On display are photographs, audio interviews and maps of street dwellings in South Mumbai. In 2008, while volunteering at a shelter for children, Carlin got inquisitive about the mothers of these kids. “People always thought that homelessness in the city was about single male migrants but that’s not the case. I was shocked to see that many families have been here for multiple generations,” she says. “Very few people know that they have no connection to any village or semblance of a home outside Mumbai. They were born and raised right here, on the streets. They aren’t begging, but working. It was necessary to have a different outlook towards people who we walk past everyday and fail to notice,” she adds. Curator of the exhibition Rajeev Thakker from Studio X says, “Affordable housing and homelessness go hand in hand. No one actually considers this as a problem in the city,” he asserts. A messiah for the homeless in South Mumbai, Brijesh Arya has been working towards their welfare for seven years now, through Pehchaan. “We are also trying to highlight a 2010 Supreme Court order that mandates the government to build 125 shelters for the homeless. Currently there are shelters for women and children but nothing for families to stay together. They are not going to split up. They won’t go to shelters provided if they have to go alone. At present there are nine in the city and none for families,” he says.

Anita Kharva Anita Kharva, 22, has lived her entire life on a footpath near Mumbai Central Station too. She earns her daily income through buying and selling old clothes. “My younger sister has a two-year-old daughter. I have been looking after her. I want to make her life better than mine. I don’t want her to be the way I am. I’ll teach her good English and make her self-sufficient. I’ll make garlands, do the dishes — do what it takes to get her a better life. I want her to know that even if her maasi (aunt) was illiterate, she didn’t allow her to be one.”

Sangeeta Ramesh Vaaghri 32 -year-old Sangeeta Ramesh Vaaghri has been living near Mumbai Central Station all her life. Speaking about the challenges of living off the streets, she rues, "Sometimes there are drunkards that roam around our place at night. We swear at them and chase them away, but sometimes they are extremely drunk and it gets difficult to tackle them. I can’t sleep until 2 or 3 in the morning because I have to look out for my sister and me. If not shooed away, these men will come and sleep right next to us. So we have to stay up.”

Radha Rajput A native of a village near Ahmedabad, 55-year-old Radha Rajput has been living on the streets near Charni Road for more than 50 years. Her paternal grandfather stayed at CP Tank initially, making garlands, until taxi drivers protested and authorities chased them away. “My grandfather used to stay here and now we are too. My grandfather did not know what a ration card was, so they just put up a tent and stayed here. We used to keep loitering around in search of a place to sleep. We used to wait for the shops to shut down so that we could go there and sleep. There was no garden here. It used to be very secluded, but things are different now. I was married here and I know that I will grow old here as well.”

Nasneem Mohammad Shah 35-year-old Nasneem Mohammad Shah was born and raised on the footpath near JJ hospital. “My husband is a daily wage labourer and I have been residing here all my life. My father stays with me too and we are 10 members in the family. My kids go to school, but I’d love for them to have a place to keep their books, bags and uniforms. I work as a maid during the day and when officials shoo us away at night, we go to the shopkeepers nearby and sleep there. During monsoons, it’s all the more difficult because the plastic tarp is very costly.”

On April 28, Studio X will host a panel discussion with Hilary Silver — Professor of Sociology and Urban Studies at Brown University; Brijesh Arya, Founder of NGO Pehchan; Carlin Carr,Founder, Megapolis India, Manish Jha, Dean — School of Social Work, TISS and Abha Singh, Lawyer