Thousands of people live on Mumbai streets through the monsoon. When the skies open up, they have nowhere to go

Sangita Komari slides out silently, hoping the rustle of the plastic sheet under her won’t wake her children. She leaves ‘home’ -- blue tarpaulin sheets forming a truncated tent on the pavement, a few metres away from the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre in Mumbai where she will work during the daytime. Right now, she walks in the dark, bucket in hand and finds a quiet spot for her ablutions. It is 4 am. She does that every day, but it’s different this time of the year. She can get drenched and often is.

The 25-year-old has just lived through July during which Mumbai got over half its annual rainfall. Sangita and countless thousands like her have coped with much of that in the open. It isn’t easy, being homeless in Mumbai’s monsoon. That too, during its heaviest month.

“The pay-and-use toilet block is 15 minutes away and we have to queue up for half an hour. If we use the toilet, we have to pay. If we urinate on the road, we are fined,” says Sangita. About 20 families from different villages in Andhra Pradesh have settled on Mandke Road for over 20 years. Most of this group work as petty labourers at India’s premier nuclear research facility

In this city, the homeless are everywhere you look - on the pavements of Mankhurd, along the railway tracks of Dadar, under the Andheri flyover or Santa Cruz skywalk. Their lives are contained in just that space required for their bodies. Their “homes” are cramped, flimsy and dismally dark. The only source of light is often the lamp that burns in a small corner created for idols of the gods they continue to repose faith in. In another corner a pot simmers over a sputtering fire. Sometimes, there is a tiny mirror on a wall. Quite a few of them have probably been lifted out of poverty by the Planning Commission’s latest numbers - but they don’t know that. They wouldn’t believe it if they did. The homeless, as veteran social activist Baba Adhav defines them, are those who have the sky for a roof and no ground beneath their feet.

The 2011 Census shows Mumbai as having the largest absolute population of people living in slums: 41% of its 20.5 million people. But what about the homeless? That year, a need was felt for a separate Census for those without identity cards or a pucca roof over their heads. The BMC says that it counted 35,408 people as being homeless on the night of February 28, 2011, a figure that draws derision from experts. The Census figure on the subject is yet to be released.

On June 25, Lakshmi Kale (40) and Sonabai Pawar (70) who eked out a meagre living selling corn on Girgaum Chowpatty died after getting drenched for three consecutive days. On July 1, Sunita Kale (25) who lived under the Amar Mahal flyover in Chembur died of tuberculosis and jaundice. Her two-month-old daughter, Ranjana, had died in April.

“There are not less than 1.5 lakh homeless people in the city,” said Abhishek Bharadwaj, founder of Alternative Realities, an NGO that works with the homeless and has been mapping them ward-wise. “Mumbai is unique in that it has more homeless families than individuals,” says Mr. Bharadwaj. “The Juvenile Justice Act enables the Child Welfare Committee to separate children from parents deemed as “unfit” for parenthood and send them to the remand home in Dongri.”

Even those amongst the homeless working many hours a day are often assumed to be beggars. Which means they can get carted off to the Beggar’s Home in Chembur. A 2005 survey by Alternative Realities showed that more than 75% of the homeless population is in the working age group of 16-45 years. They are mostly casual labourers at the lowest end of the scale in construction, or cheap domestic help, or in catering, petty business and waste disposal.

What does it mean to live without a home in a city lashed by such heavy rains? “We try and get some sleep when it stops raining. We live in fear of a tree falling on us,” said Deepa Waghri. Her “home” near the Mahalaxmi Race Course, is alongside a large banyan tree. Deepa has a three-month old daughter whom she named Khushi. This Kutchi community from Gujarat state has been taking precarious refuge on this 100-metre stretch for over a decade.

Coping with the elements is one part of their struggle for survival. In the first week of June, at 3 am, the police forcibly evicted a bunch of homeless people from their makeshift shelters in Charni Road. “At 7 am the police returned with the BMC and our shelters were torn down and belongings confiscated. A 6-year-old child fell and broke his hand.” says Mariyam Shaikh. In 2010, the Supreme Court ordered that shelters for homeless (one shelter per one lakh urban population) be set up in 62 major cities of India under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission. “Homeless people are subject to continuous violence and abuse. Living in the open with no privacy or protection for even for women and children, is a gross denial of the right to live with dignity,” said the SC order.

Subsequently, the BMC allocated Rs 2.40 crore for night shelters and told the Court it had 11 shelters for the homeless that were being run by NGOs. In truth, the NGOs including SPARC, Shelter for Street Children, Salaam Baalak Trust have been running shelters for street children for over two decades. They were not set up in response to this court order. In May, a Shelter Fact Finding Committee comprising members of civil society found that none of these shelters had space for the homeless as they were already occupied by street children.

“We are in the process of building three more shelters. The problem is that residential complexes resist night shelters.” said Prachi Jambhekar, Assistant Municipal Commissioner, Planning.

Activists are furious over the deaths-by-drenching that have occurred. “Instead of taking steps to construct shelters, the government has been evicting homeless people from their temporary refuge,” said Brijesh Arya of the Beghar Adhikar Abhiyan. Meanwhile, nutrition, water, sanitation, education and medical facilities are out of reach for them.

Basanti Ashpe conducted her daughter Reshma’s wedding on the road where she lives - outside Mahim station. “We called the priest from our village. Reshma, unfortunately, lost both her children, soon after they were born. Sometimes, I wonder why I left my home in Rajasthan to come here, seeking something better.”