Homelessness in Mumbai

How shall I go in peace and without sorrow? Nay, not without a wound in the spirit shall I leave this city.

Long were the days of pain I have spent within its walls, and long were the nights of aloneness; and who can depart from his pain and his aloneness without regret?

Kahlil Gibran The Prophet

My days in Mumbai are numbered. Strictly speaking, all the days of our lives are numbered. I will soon be saying goodbye to the city that has epitomized to me all that is wrong with India. I know there are people who swear by the city. I think that they are in a minority. But then, one might say that even minorities in Mumbai are pretty large numbers.

Numbers. That is reason number one for my discomfort with the city. Metropolitan Mumbai has about 12 million to call its own. There are European countries with fewer people than Mumbai. Indeed, about 60 percent of Mumbai’s population lives in an estimated 37,000 slums. That is, 7.5 million people live in Mumbai slums, about one and a half times the population of Finland. Finland, a country that I have a very soft corner for, has around 5 million people living in about 384,000 square kilometers. Mumbai’s 7.5 million people are not as fortunate; Slum dwellers occupy only 14 percent of the residential land in Mumbai, which I estimate amounts to about 140 sq. km. Imagine that: a piece of land about 12 kilometer square and then pack one and a half times the population of Finland into it.

I find it absolutely unbelievable. There are more people living in slums in Mumbai than there are people in Finland. A rough calculation leads me to figure that the population density of Mumbai slums is about 500 30,000 times that of Finland. And the income of a Finn is perhaps about 100 times that of a Mumbai slum dweller.

Mumbai is an astonishing metropolitan city where the so-called first, second, and third world co-exist. I call it The Triple Point of the World at Zero Degrees Humanity. You see affluence co-exist on top of the most degrading poverty. I wish I could erase from my memory all the awful sights of very little children — some as small as toddlers — begging on the streets and on local train stations. It is said that living in California makes you soft because living is so easy there. I guess I had grown soft with my over two decades in the San Francisco Bay Area. I hope that the year and a half in Mumbai has not hardened me. I want to retain the humanity that makes me flinch at the sight of suffering.

I feel for the unfortunates in Mumbai. I don’t mean to imply that I alone feel that empathy nor that my empathy is worth particularly much. I have a visceral hatred for the system that creates so much misery so thoughtlessly. I wish those who created, sustained, and continue to control this sorry place did not have the intelligence of scum and the ethical and moral sensitivity of cold tar.

About 10 days ago, they bulldozed 3,000 hutments and reclaimed 8 acres of slum-land, leaving 12,000 people homeless. In the last two months, 120 acres have been reclaimed after 67,000 dwellings were destroyed. [Source: BBC News] I suppose that means about a quarter of a million people who had homes — however modest — do not have a home now. The powers that be have stated that they will remove the slums from 375 acres of government land. In all, I expect that will make about a million people homeless in Mumbai.

A million additional homeless people in Mumbai. About the same number as the total population of Helsinki, Finland.

I grant you that enchroachment is a problem and needs to be dealt with. But why is it that the powers have to wake up so late in the day. Could they not have prevented the problem years ago? How do they justify turning people out of their homes after they have lived there for years, built up their lives around their abjectly modest dwellings, bred children, found employment and built human associations?

There is a lot of breast-beating and wailing and moaning when a natural disaster like the tsunami leaves people homeless. But why the absolute silence when a million people are similarly uprooted by government decree? Losing one’s home to a bulldozer is no different from losing one’s home to a wave, is there?

Why do I feel so strongly about this? Perhaps it is because I am myself a “homeless” person since I don’t have a permanent home and every now and then when I move, I get a feeling of rootlessness and insecurity. But it is more than that. I see this problem as merely a symptom of a larger problem that pervades India. That is the problem of over-crowding arising out of over-population.

A person living in a Mumbai slum finds, at the margin, that living in a crowded slum is preferable to living elsewhere in India. So, unless people systematically err in deciding where they live, for the people living in Mumbai slums, the pain of living elsewhere must be at least as much because there are no barriers to migration in India in the long term. The implication is that the dire situation in Mumbai slums is a good indication of how desperate the situation is around the country. It is that realization that makes me despair about the situation in India.

The existence of slums is a sympton of a deeper problem. Merely addressing the symptom can never solve the problem. One can clear the slums every so often and maybe even build decent low cost housing. But there are more people where the present slum dwellers came from. No sooner than you have moved the present millions of people into decent housing, the slums will reappear as soon as the land is cleared. Indeed, building decent housing for slum dwellers would encourage more to migrate to Mumbai and only worsen an already intolerable situation.

The fact is that slums are just an effect of the unsustainably large population of India and unless we wake up to that problem, we will continue to treat people worse than animals. I think that the powers that be need to live in over-crowded slums for a bit to really appreciate what the population problem is all about.

Author: Atanu Dey


15 thoughts on “Homelessness in Mumbai”

  1. The reason they take down the ghettos (and that too, only after local,state,federal elections are a long ways off) is to make sure some builder will get the rights to build a pathetic 10-20% for old slum dwellers. The builders then sell the other 80-90% and share some of the moolah with all the political parties concerned.

    How do you think a politician can afford to spend crores? They literally spend upwards of $1 million USD on a election.


  2. Maybe, this is too old a thread to comment on? But, still…

    Being another “homeless” person in Mumbai, felt like leaving a note. The housing problem in Mumbai… I talk about this at least twice everyday with my friends. Where do all the homeless stay? After their temperory homes are blown away, where do they hide? Any clue?


  3. We seem to be busy in our cosy homes with our cosy lives and pretend not to know what’s happening around us. We take a moral stand of not being able to fight the system and feel better about ourselves. When politicians, business tycoons or the so called rich talk about spending 1,100 or 1000 crores on projects, I feel like shaking them and asking them to look around. How can anyone be so oblivious to the misery around them ?


  4. I come to Mumbai every so often for business. Today I had a walk around and a young man insisted on shining my shoes for two rupees. I agreed but grudgingly like you tend to do in these situations. But in the five minutes with this man of 20 years something clicked and he ended up showing me all around the city. During those hours I asked questions about him and he answered. He and his mother and two younger sisters have no home and live in the Bandra train station. I could feel that this was a good man who had simply gotten bad luck. His dad had taken to alchohol and so was left by his mom. His mom and two sisters beg while he goes around shining shoes. If all goes well during the day he earns 30 rupees. He has no license however and so is always under the threat of imprisonment. He dreams of saving 900 rupees to buy a shoebox and municipal license needed for doing that work. I gave him ten thousand rupees which is not a fortune for me but for him it is very significant because he can now rent a small abode for a year for himself and mom and sisters. And maybe he can send one of his two little sisters to school. It costs 4 thousand rupees to enroll. Whoever is reading this: Don’t think I am tooting my horn here thinking I am someone special. I just got touched by a fellow brother today who needed a hand and I gave him one. Nothing more than that. I didn’t “save the world” I just helped a brother get back on his feet. I would like to help a second brother now. The feeling is good. I admit. It feels good to help a brother or sister. If anyone is listening I would welcome your opinion. There are quite a few sisters and brothers in this city who need a hand. I am writing this now still in Mumbai before I fly back to Europe in the comfortable jet and then forget all about my brothers and sisters here.


  5. The labouring poor in slums in Mumbaiare much more rational and productive than we are told to believe. They are not a drain on the city, but subsidises the formal sector in diverse ways.A macro economic modelling of what is going on in this sector is the need of the hour for policy success.The role of the poor in development is neither completely understood nor properly acknowledged.


  6. I have just returned from a business trip in Mumbai. During the trip I celebrated my birthday. I must have been one of the very few people celebrating in what I can only call hell. My daughter Andrea worked as a flight attendant for 5 years and often used to tell me what it was like. But of course she was blowing things out of all proportions, nothing could be as bad as that. My God !! What the hell is this world coming to. The people of the world and certainly the government of India are a disgrace to allow this to continue, Thousands upon thousands of homeless people living a stones throw from an international airport, and millions in Mumbai alone. How the hell do the leaders of other countries live with these pathetic sights when they visit. Or am I being cynical when I suspect they leave BOM international by helicopter. I could sit here all night giving examples of the awful sights I saw during my time in Hell, but one will be with me for ever more. When I got out of my big posh Merc at 23.00 at the airport I was approached by 5 girls, the oldest about 11 the youngest about 4. They very politely asked for 1 ruppee each (just over 1p). I honestly had no cash at all just credit cards. That was 41 hours ago. I have seen those girls a million times since. I wish they would go away and let me live my good life but they wont. They got into my mind and wont leave. There are 2 options.
    1. Live with the 5 girls and their 8 million freinds.
    2. Do something !!
    Its easy, option 2. Dont know what yet but I am going to bed one night soon and not thinking about the poor little souls. Next time I fill in my travel aurthorisation destination will say HELL. If my boss has a problem signing it I am not going.

    Anyway back to the good life…until they come back again.


  7. To Prayas Abhinav re: where do the homeless go??? where do they hide??

    As a 1st time tourist to Mumbai I witnessed thousands of thousands of the sleeping homeless driving in from the airport at 3:00AM. I don’t know where we were so I cannot give account of location. But from a taxi window I was aghast at the numbers of people sleeping in the streets. We passed them for it seemed at least 10 or 15 minutes, a sea of bodies asleep. After a bit the numbers seemed to sprinkle down from masses of bodies to just a sprinkling….then after a few minutes it began again. At 1st, just a few then more and more and more. Masses and masses of them only this time they were all little tiny bodies…..the women and childrens section I guessed. I have no answers…. only shock for this daunting suffering. I left the next night.


  8. In April 2003, as a second year student of TISS, I wanted to experience the much touted ‘nightlife’ of Mumbai and so I ventured out in the night. That is how I witnessed hundreds of homeless populations wandering in search of livelihood at various places in Mumbai. In the days to come, two of my friends joined me in my night-out mission and we teamed up with an organization named Action-Aid Mumbai. Clocking in hours of such interventions with face-to-face encounters with the people sleeping on the streets, night-outs and individual interactions taught me a lot about the issue of homelessness in Mumbai.

    I met so many youth who eke out a life daily, without proper food for days, with lost hopes and shattered dreams…homeless beings who are victims of police atrocities, women taking refuge in sex work to meet their basic needs, old citizens languishing in the streets in search of security, children succumbing to juvenile delinquency, extreme misery and want.

    The homeless get beaten up mercilessly by the police who mark them as criminals. They are denied access to basic facilities like medicine, education, water and so on. Even though the homeless constitute a large portion of Mumbai population, they are invisible for the general populace. Yet they are optimistic and I do believe that their reality can be changed. They can be empowered to change their lives so that they enjoy a life of dignity.

    Now Homeless citizens of Mumbai have started coming together against injustice and initiated a campaign to get their “Right to Live with Dignity”. We have established an organisation called “Alternative Realities” and working to influene policy in favour of homeless citizens. – Abhishek Bharadwaj, Founder President of “Alternative Realities”


  9. When I walked the streets and byways of Mumbai for the first time (1979) I was amazed at not only the homelessness there, but of the high intellect and spiritual awareness of those who were homeless. And also of the unity of the people there.
    As a student of
    Gurdjieff and Ouspensky my path led me there with few expectations, but resulted in many realizations.


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