Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Homeless Migrants in Mumbai: Life and Labour in Urban Space

Manish K. Jha and Pushpendra

(Manish K. Jha - manishj@tiss.edu and Pushpendra -pushpendra@tiss.edu are with the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai).


Labour migration from rural to urban areas is a persistent feature in India, where a substantial chunk of the migrants belonging to working classes in cities have no access to dignified housing. They conform to the definition developed by the United Nations considering a homeless person as one having no place as shelter or whose housing fails to meet basic criteria including security of tenure, protection against bad weather and personal security, as well as access to sanitary facilities, potable water, education, work, and health services (Speak and Tipple 2006). On the other hand, at least half of the migrants have become indispensible to the city’s economy by filling-in cheap labour-oriented and unskilled jobs (Mumbai Human Development Report, 2009). Owing to precarious financial conditions, poor migrants in cities are pushed to impoverished lives and homelessness.
The social cost of making Mumbai a global city is starkly evident in rising social inequality, making the disadvantaged sections of the society more vulnerable, and dispossessing the poor in the process (Banerjee-Guha, 2009). The neoliberal state apparatus is coupled with ‘bourgeois urbanism’ (Chatterjee, 2004) that informalises labour, legitimizes low wages, sharpens socio-economic inequalities and institutionalizes displacement, eviction and homelessness for toiling masses. This short paper looks briefly into the issues and experiences of homelessness in the city of Mumbai through empirical studies in different locations.

Life in a Slum: From Dispossession to Illegality

The Shivajinagar slum in M-East Ward has been an abode for evictees, displaced and relocated since 1975 and its majority comprises of victims of urban developmental projects (Bjorkman 2014:43). As an urban periphery, its swampy boundary, juxtaposed Deonar dumping ground and nearby slaughter house made their abode difficult. Indira Nagar, one such illegal settlement, is located adjacent to the dumping ground. Here, makeshift shelters built on marshy lands and garbage heaps are characterized by tarpaulin sheets, tin shades, crowded and filthy lanes, overflowing drains and the overpowering stench from the dumping ground. 
Shafina, a Muslim migrant from UP, lives here with her family in a room of 10 x 12 ft. A single room, unventilated with no electricity connection, serves the purposes of a big family while most of the household tasks are done outside. The family gets water from corporate-run business and pays Rs. 2 for every single use of private toilet. The anti-encroachment drive on an otherwise non-inhabitable land is a customary routine of BMC that demolishes shanties and confiscates all belongings. Facing constant threat of eviction, these shanty dwellers have now been organized against demolitions by NGOs. For them, demolitions and atrocities by Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) along with a lack of basic amenities are major issues in their everyday lives. Here, the urban subjectivities are produced on the backdrop of processes of capital accumulation and production of urban space.

Conducting Private Life in Public

Binod and Neela, a migrant couple in their 50s, live with their family on the pavements of Mahim railway station. For them, living in full public gaze was incomprehensible earlier, but their habitation and struggles made it routine. This required integration into the “homeless street culture” (Hodgetts et. al. 2012) which exhibits living private life in public and ignoring public gaze. Rajni, a homeless at Cross Maidan, explains her sense of home and homelessness “I am here since the time I was born…the government or the people would look at us as homeless and so we are we are known as homeless.” For them, access to basic facilities is expensive, limited and comes with huge financial burdens. They have to visit nearby ‘pay and use’ toilets and developing networks with shopkeepers and guards as strategies. Urinating is done at public places and they use temporary cloth curtains to cover themselves while taking bath. Rajni explains this to be a normal, non-embarrassing experience. However, if someone stares at her, she shouts and ensures her safety.
For years, Rajni and others on the pavement have kept up the fight to keep it clean. Neela mentioned, “Many a times, drunken men try to molest women. Sometime we catch them and ensure beating but it is difficult to lodge a police complaint because of our ‘illegal’ habitation and it might lead to our insult and humiliation.” Neela’s explanation of two generations on the streets points to the structural aspects of their marginalization that is rooted in the materiality of their social existence.

Homeless Workers of Multinational Brands

The category of homeless migrants is mostly engaged in vulnerable employment, generally characterized by uncertainty and economic insecurity. Typical conditions of precarious employment are low wages, poor protection from termination of employment, lack of access to social protection and benefits, and limited or no ability to exercise human rights at work (ILO 2011). The link between precarious employment and poverty is evident in India, where about 92% of a workforce of 457 million is estimated to be in unorganised sector (Ferus-Comelo, 2014).
A study of a garment manufacturing unit in Dharavi reveals how work, workplace and shelter conjoin to extract the maximum labour from a worker and, at the same time, keep the worker homeless and precariat. The unit takes up work for multinational and big national brands and operates from a two floor chawl. Rooms are of approximately 7 x 5 feet, with walls on three sides and a shutter to lock at night. The staircase, a narrow straight iron ladder, to the upper part of the unit was through a dark, narrow lane which was very difficult to climb. After a few steps a thick rope was found hanging from the roof so that the climber could hold it for safety. The hot and humid room with no ventilation had six workers working at that time in their undergarments.
One end of the room had stitching machines while the other end had folded beds, rolled mats and personal items. This arrangement enabled the workers to use the same space for working as well as living as all of them were poor migrants unable to rent separate living quarters. The Dharavi unit is an example of how present capitalist production relies on supply of cheap labour from the rural sector. Coming from a subsistence sector they lack the capacity to bargain for fair wages and decent working conditions. However, this is hardly an issue for the state in neoliberal times which has unleashed labour reform measures in the interests of capital. Migrant labour unfailingly provides a fertile field to understand the nuances of precariety, insecurity, and struggles in the urban.


Following the economic liberalization and control by economic elites, there has been withdrawal of state from generating employment, providing housing and basic services to many and it has restricted access to affordable housing, services, work spaces, social welfare and participation that can undermine the daily living experiences of these groups and their legitimate access to city spaces. They have been further branded as encroachers, illegal, and defined as the ‘other’. Illustrations through explorations expose the homeless migrants’ everyday encounter with structural violence, which appears as a lowering of basic needs below what is potentially possible (Galtung 1990:292).


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Ferus-Comelo, A. (2014). Migration and Precariousness: Two Sides of the Contract Labour Coin. Economic and Political Weekly, XLIX (36), 39-47.
Galtung, J. (1990). Cultural Violence. Journal of Peace Research, Vol. 27, No. 3 (Aug., 1990), pp. 291-305.
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Mumbai Human Development Report 2009 (2010). Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai and New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Speak, S. & Tipple, G. (20060. Perceptions, Persecution and Pity: The Limitations of Interventions for Homelessness in Developing Countries. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 172-188.

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