Category Archives: Mumbai

When Home Is A Dump

Life in Baba Nagar, a slum in close proximity to the city’s main garbage disposal site, is far from pretty. But for its residents, that’s the least of their concerns.

Text by Tarishi Verma
Photos by Anand Gautam
Cover photo by Vishal Langthasa

Wherever you stand in Baba Nagar, you cannot escape the gut-wrenching smell of garbage. Even if one meticulously covers one’s mouth and nose, one still ends up gagging. A swarm of flies leads one through the narrow lanes of the colony perched at edge of the Deonar dumping ground, ostensibly Mumbai’s largest garbage dumping site. Chicks waddle past, children defecate in corners of the lane and a tune from nearby radio set catches the ear. A girl silently sits and sews sequins to a beautiful black blouse seemingly unaffected by the putrid smells that engulf the whole area.

Running since 1927, the Deonar dumping ground is the primary site for disposing off the city’s garbage. Reports suggest that Mumbai generates 9400 tons of municipal solid waste and 1000 tons of debris waste daily, a number that is constantly on the rise. People have built their homes around the dumping area in Shivaji Nagar, Rafiq Nagar, Baba Nagar and Matti Ward among others. These areas fall under Mumbai’s M-Ward, which is the most neglected ward of the city.

According to the M-Ward Transformation Project, initiated by Tata Institute of Social Sciences in 2012, development in M-Ward is worse than the whole of Mumbai. About 77.5% of the population in the M-Ward is slum population as opposed to 54.1% in the rest of the city. While the city’s infant mortality is 34.75 per 1000 lives, M-Ward’s infant mortality is 66.47. Baba Nagar, located right next to one part of the dumping ground, is one of the worst affected. Although it is an extension of Rafiq Nagar, locals call it Baba Nagar. According to an independent study conducted by the students of Disaster Management at TISS, Baba Nagar, with a predominantly Muslim population, is one of the most contaminated areas because of its close proximity to the dumping ground.

A mix of kaccha and pakka houses, Baba Nagar is situated right at the edge of the city largest dumping ground.
A mix of kaccha and pakka houses, Baba Nagar is situated right at the edge of the city largest dumping ground.

In the area where the houses and roads are still pakka, Maqsood,* Rafique and Shabnam sit chatting. “That dumping ground is our rozi-roti. How can we have a problem with that?” says 37-year old Maqsood, born and brought up in Rafiq Nagar, who collects scrap from the dumping ground. So what is the most difficult thing about living here? “Our main problem is water and electricity,” says Rafique who has lived here for 15 years and does odd jobs for a living. Every morning, drums of water are delivered from Ullhasnagar to the neighbourhood – each costs Rs. 30 and every house requires at least two drums. “With all the scrap dealing, I’m able to earn about Rs. 9000 a month. Out of that, Rs. 2000 goes in buying water. How do I run a house with the remaining amount?” asks Maqsood.

The complete lack of electricity meters causes major problems. “Half the things work with stolen electricity that we get for an hour or two,” rues Maqsood. The residents are also worried about the lack of schools for children. “I send my children to school but I don’t know till when I can do that. Gundas are always around making life hell for us,” says Shahbudhi Khan, mother of three. There are hooligans who trouble the women around here and most cases of molestation and rape go unreported.

Shabnam, a middle-aged woman who sews designs on clothes for a living, is also concerned for the women of the neighborhood. “There are goons around who trouble women,” she says. With lack of police enforcement, goons are able to have their way. Rafique says, “There is an increase in harassment of women and crime in general and no measures to keep a check on them.” For toilets, they pay Rs. 2 per visit.

Immune to the hazards of dumping ground, children loiter around freely, more prone to being without a home rather than a disease.

Jyoti Thakur or ‘Nani’, one of the oldest residents of Baba Nagar, says, “Forget hooligans, even the young boys of the locality are doing drugs and nasha and creating a nuisance for all.

Dispensaries and hospitals are not readily available in M-ward with the nearest hospital (Sion Hospital) being about nine kilometers away. “I lost my six-month old daughter even after I managed to arrange money for her treatment. If an immediate service was available, she’d still be here with me,” says Maqsood. Even though the dumping ground poses a huge health hazard, residents rarely complain about that. “We don’t have diseases because of this dumping ground. We are used it. If you were to stay here for a long time, you will definitely fall sick. We all are immune,” Maqsood smiles and adds, “A lot of my food comes from the garbage dump. I’m fit as a fiddle.”

Though they don’t grumble as much as they should about the actual site where they stay, clearly there is anger at how they have been abandoned by the state in almost every way. “Yahan avam ki koi nahisunta (no one here listens to be the people),” Maqsood says angrily. They also believe that they are not given any priority in water, electricity or other basic amenities because they are a Muslim community.

The houses built earlier are owned by the people living in them. “We had access to land and material, so my husband and I built this together,” says Shahbudhi about her house at the dumping site. “Now at least I have the comfort of a home.” But that sense of security is false as in actuality there is no security of land tenure for most families here.

“They can come anytime…but they can demolish all they want, we will build back our houses again and again…it’s not like they are giving us an alternative.”

Going deeper into the lanes, the sound of the television, fans and sewing machines fades away and the road gets kaccha.  A piercing silence fills your ears in this part of Baba Nagar.

“My house has been demolished twice,” says Mohammad Khan, a middle-aged man who lives at the edge of Baba Nagar, where one side of the dumping ground starts. “See that notice there? Now my house is going to be demolished for the third time,” he says with a smirk. Khan has been living there for ten years moving around in the same area. He works with metal scraps but has stopped his work because the demolition can happen anytime. The houses are completely makeshift, made of tin sheets and covered by blue tarpaulin sheets.

Saira Shah’s house has been demolished once in the five years that she has stayed there and she is very scared this time round. “What is worse is that the notice was given to us on 23rd February when it actually came out on 20th February. The delay in the notice reaching us does not let us save our belongings,” she says about a demolition notice given a few months ago. In an act of protest the residents tore down that notice and no one has come to demolish the houses – yet. “They can come anytime,” says a worried Khan. “But they can demolish all they want, we will build back our houses again and again,” he says resolutely. “It’s not like they are giving us an alternative.”

Residents tore the notice out in anger but they know they need greater resistance.
Residents tore the notice out in anger but they know they need greater resistance.

A few meters from there, some people are playing cards in a tent. But I’m warned not to go there and speak to them. “Those are the house mafias,” says Irfan Khan, whose house was once snatched by them. “They demand houses at will and can throw you out anytime. The local politicians support them and we are powerless in front of them,” he says.

Most people’s homes are also their workplaces but because of the fear of demolition, they can’t start anything until they are sure it won’t be uprooted. These lives have no surety, no comfort and no relief. Yet, as I leave the place, three children are laughing without a care in the world. In the stench that fills the silence, humanity may seem to be dead but hope is still lurking around.

*Name changed on request

A Forgotten Childhood

As a whole generation of children grows up on the streets of Mumbai, it’s time to ask why we allow that to happen.

Text and Photos by Shreya Sachan

Main toh Superman, Salman ka fan . . .” sings ten-year-old Raghuveer, or aspiring ‘Krrish’, as he begins his story about his home – a slice of pavement near St. Andrews’ Church in Bandra West. When he grows up he wants “to save people and live in a house like the one Salman Khan lives in.” Rahul, an 11-year old who lives on the famous Bandstand, is proud of sharing his name with the screen-name of Shahrukh Khan but at the same time he doesn’t want to associate with it when he grows up and becomes a “big man”. He wants to be an engineer and make Lamborghinis.

These are just two of the many dreams that the children on the streets of Mumbai have for their future. The city of dreams, studded with reel if not real stars, leads them to believe that anything is possible. But will their dream ever find fruition?

Raghuveer also calls himself chhota don because no one can catch him or defeat him.

As per a census conducted by the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in 2013, there are 37,059 children on the street in Mumbai. Professor Mohua Nigudkar of the Centre for Equity and Justice for Children and Families at TISS explains that the terminologies to refer to these children have now changed. While earlier ‘street children’ was an acceptable term, now in order to avoid ‘labelling’, these children are called ‘street connected children’ or ‘children living on the street’.

With no proper facilities for sanitation or housing, deprived of their basic rights of protection, development and participation, these children are trying to make do with whatever little they have. A little further down the road from the church, near the traffic light at Lucky restaurant lives Dilip, father of two children. His son, twelve-year-old Aakash wants to study and get a decent job when he grows up. Unable to attend school, the only education he gets is when he goes back to his village once in a year. But he manages to make time for self-study at night while doing odd jobs during the day. “Ye sab sapne, sapne hi rehjayenge (All these dreams for a decent job will remain a dream only),” Dilip says with a sad smile.

Sharing his name with Shahrukh Khan’s popular screen name, Rahul has big dreams for himself.

They are a group of ten to fifteen people which includes about eight children under the age of 15. They live together as a family. Although the police understand their problem, the neighbourhood is apprehensive of them. However, they once helped the police track down a robber who broke into the building they get their water from. They manage to scrape together one meal for the day and live on whatever they can scavenge for the rest of the day. The children who go to school attend the Pali Chimbai Municipal School from 12 in the afternoon till 6 in the evening.

Raghuveer’s mother, who sells gajras on the streets, tells me that they have lived next to St. Andrew’s Church for as long as she can remember. “We stay there until 1 o’clock in the night and after that when the food outlet, Zaffran closes down, we go and sleep on its steps,” she says. They arrange for water from the church and for bathing they go to the Bandstand.
Rahul lives with his crippled grandmother because his parents abandoned him and his elder brother, Sagar, and left for the village. He has no idea where they went. “I am unable to get any job, because all vendors and shopkeepers send me away since child labour is illegal,” he says. He is now forced to beg for money from the people who visit Bandstand. They are also harassed by local policemen and have faced beatings from some regular joggers.

“When children don’t want to study or be institutionalized we conclude that they are disinterested. But actually we don’t show them a better alternative.”

But in this rough life, Bollywood keeps their spirit alive and star-studded Bandra aids in it. Rahul points me to the celebrities’ houses and tells me very proudly that he has seen all these stars in real life. He goes to the chawls every morning to watch movies and to listen to songs.

Raghuveer cannot get enough of singing Salman’s super hit songs out loud. His mother tells me that he doesn’t miss a single Salman Khan movie. “He once saw him on a bike and has dreamt of driving that bike in the same way ever since,” she laughs as Raghuveer breaks into another Salman Khan song. Apart from wanting to be Krrish to save people, Raghuveer also calls himself chhota don because no one can catch him or defeat him.

Things are rather solemn in Marine Drive. Seven-year-old, Ravi, youngest of his five siblings comes up to me and asks for alms. I ask him what he needs it for. “A vadapao,” he says. I offer him some snacks. He looks at them for a long while but takes a bite of them eventually. When asked where he lives, he says Churchgate but ask him where exactly in Churchgate and he has no answer. Meera, his 12-year-old sister, comes along and tells me that they live on the street. She recounts the time when a policeman slapped her so hard that she fell down, just because she was loitering around Victoria Terminus. Many children interviewed recounted stories of everyday harassment on the streets.

Standing strong through toughest times: Dilip and his family.
Standing strong through toughest times: Dilip and his family.

“We all have an image of children and if they appear ‘not so vulnerable’ and assume adult like roles, we assume that they are bound to be a part of anti-social activities. What we don’t realise is that it could just be pure survival instinct,” explains Nigudkar. She adds, “When children don’t want to study or be institutionalized we conclude that they are disinterested. But actually we don’t show them a better alternative.”

Government institutions are often not an adequate answer for these children. Shamili Syed, a counselling psychology student at TISS, mentions the deplorable conditions of the Government Observational Home at Dongri in Mumbai where she worked as a counsellor for a year. The home takes in runaway children, children who were forced into child labour and children in conflict with law. She recounts the case of a 12-year-old girl, a runaway from Kolkata, who had been raped 12 times. Her mother was a sex worker and she told Syed how her mother had to work in her brother and her presence.
“There were two sections in the observational home,” describes Syed, “a boys’ ward and a girls’ ward. The children were divided into groups and were made to do chores not meant for them.” She further throws light on how the toilets, especially in the boys’ ward, were never cleaned. There are no adequate medical facilities, no proper cooking conditions neither do appointed teachers give time to their education and learning. “Had the facility not been in such a bad condition, the counsellors could have made a difference,” says Syed.

Dilip asks me if I would be able to get a job for his little child, if I would be able to get him admitted to a good school and hostel where there would be accommodation and food, through this article. How satisfying it would be, if someone does notice the plight and dreams of these people and does something to give them a better future where they can realise these dreams.


1098 is a toll-free helpline for children all across India. Pioneered in Mumbai by Childline Foundation India in 1996, it developed with the support of Government funding. Sudhish from Childline Foundation India It’s a 24 hour helpline that caters to the needs and problems of all children, not just the homeless. According to Sudhish of Childline Foundation India, the grievances of these children range from child marriage, sexual abuse, drug addiction to cases of missing children and runaway children. The Foundation aims at providing children with help at the earliest. It is perhaps the most significant public-private partnership in the development sector. The message is simple: tell children to dial 1098 whenever they need help.

Atithi Devo Bhava?

The ‘Incredible India’ tourism campaign stresses on our guests being equivalent to God. But is that really how we treat foreigners who make Mumbai their home? Here, a Chinese visitor talks of humiliation, an American woman reports molestation and a Nigerian man speaks of repeated experiences of being thrown out of a house.

Text and photos by Vishal Langthasa

Cheng Wei has lived in Mumbai for more than two years. Enough time to give him a perspective on real estate brokers and landlords in the city. “I have now drawn the conclusion that to most Indian people, ‘foreigner’ equals ‘millionaire’,” says the 31-year-old single man from Beijing who works as a media correspondent in Mumbai.

Wei recently moved into a 2BHK rental apartment at Mahalakshmi. It wasn’t difficult for him to strike a deal for the South Mumbai apartment as he commanded a good budget. But the problem was in dealing with the landlord and the agent. He was told that the apartment was semi-furnished but on arriving there it was bare. After much deliberation, the landlord agreed to provide him with a dining table, curtains, chimney and so on. He thought the flat would be ready for him on the agreed date but nothing was in place when he moved in. “I feel like they are just waiting for me to lose patience and buy all these furnishings myself. I do not care about the money,” says Wei. “I just feel humiliated being treated like this. They even played little tricks with the rental agreement to save more money. All I want to do is continue with my work.”

“I feel like they are just waiting for me to lose patience and buy all these furnishings myself. I do not care about the money,” says Wei.

Increasingly Mumbai is attracting more and more long-stay foreign guests from across the globe. Many of them now wish to stay long-term in the city for work, business or education. They expect differences and challenges in negotiating food, language and culture – but progressively it is finding a house to live in that is causing most foreign visitors much distress.
But it’s not just the initial struggle of locating a suitable place (in a suitable neighbourhood) and negotiating the rent and amenities with landlords that many foreigners find daunting. It’s also real experiences of being cheated by real estate brokers and harassed by building societies that dismays them.

Alex Tsakiridis, a 25-year-old student from Greece, however, had it easier. Pursuing a masters degree in Mumbai, he found a room through a broker who sat near the university premises. “I only think of it as something temporary because I don’t know where I will end up,” he says. Charlotte Smith*, a student from USA, took a month to find rental accommodation close to the school she was teaching at in the outskirts of Mumbai. While part of the difficulty was her being a foreigner, the other was “being unmarried”, she says. “I was about to move into a flat when the people in charge of the apartment complex suddenly said that they were uncomfortable renting to a single woman. But then my friend convinced them that since I was a teacher, I was a nice person,” says Charlotte with a giggle. Soon she was being called “Charlotte didi” in the area and her next-door neighbours almost adopted her “treating me like their daughter”.

How far can a woman go for her protection?
How far should a woman go to feel safe?

While life eventually got rosier, what did not change for her was the constant sexual harassment she faced on the streets and in public transport. Once in a shared autorickshaw from a local train station, a man in the auto started molesting her, egged on by his friends. She shouted at the driver to stop but the driver paid no mind. Worse was when she tried sharing her experiences she was told that it was her fault as she “gave off the demeanour of an easy prey.”

In comparison to the others, the struggles of a Black person with a slender budget seem more amplified. David Frank, a 33-year-old father of three, came to Mumbai from Nigeria in 2009. He has often had to move at short notice from rental apartments and several times he has been cheated by fraudsters. Before moving in to his current 1BHK flat in Thane, Frank, who left his family behind in order to do business in the apparel industry here, lived with his brother, already engaged in business here, and his three friends.

They were forced to move from one flat to another three times within a year on some excuse or the other. Once when he was staying on Yari road in a 1BHK flat with his brother and friends, they would pay the monthly rent through the agent. However, four months later the landlord appeared for the first time and claimed that no rent had been paid to him. Proper communication could not be established as the landlord did not understand English and they did not know how to speak Marathi or Hindi. Eventually the landlord gave them just two days to vacate the flat.

“Every time they give all kinds of reasons to make us move from the place. Sometimes they said, the police don’t want Black people in the building; sometimes they say the building society does not want Black people…”

Frank mentions the other time he was cheated while looking for a room in Koparkhairane, a place where a number of African people live and attend the Christ Embassy church run by a Black pastor. He went to see a flat with an agent recommended by a friend. The security guard handed them the keys to the room. After checking it out, Frank came down from the building, signed the agreement and handed Rs 70,000 in cash to the agent. The agent took the money and asked him to wait for a few days. “He never came back. My money vanished. I kept calling him but his phone was switched off. The security man who handed him the keys refused to recognise him too,” says Frank.

“Every time they give all kinds of reasons to make us move from the place. Sometimes they said, the police don’t want Black people in the building; sometimes they say the building society does not want Black people; one time they said they were giving the flat to their daughter who was getting married and most of the times, they asked us to vacate by telling us that the flat is sold,” he adds. What disturbs Frank the most is the blatant discrimination against Blacks. According to him, if “in a locality, one black guy is found making a mistake, then all the black people in that area are asked to vacate. We are asked not to drink, not to bring women into our rooms. I personally do not drink. But then I see Indian people drinking everywhere. Why doesn’t the same rule apply to them? They count every penny and make excuses to ask for more money but as foreigners we cannot afford to create any problem with them.”

Other long-stay foreign visitors mention problems in dealing with bureaucracy and paper work for something as simple as a cooking gas cyclinder. Still, people like Frank maintain that they like Mumbai because though it is challenging, “it has lots of opportunities.”

Finally Wei sums it up. He recalls an incident at the Mumbai airport when he had first arrived. His luggage went missing at the airport and he was politely soliciting help from the airport staff. “Two Taiwanese women heard of my predicament and told me that I should shout and force them to get my work done. I was astonished and told them, I cannot be rude to these people. Before they left, one of those women turned to me and said, ‘You have not lived in Mumbai long enough’,” says Wei. “Now, I understand what they meant.”

*Names changed on request.

Totally Fishy Business

The residents of Sion-Koliwada have waged a long battle against builders usurping their land under the guise of ‘slum’ redevelopment. But does anyone care about their fate?

Text by Priyamvada Jagia
Cover Photo by Javed Iqbal*

 “Why should I tell you anything, what will you do for us?” These are the first words flung at me by an old Koli woman in Sion-Koliwada. As I ask more questions about the recurrent demolitions in the area and the purported land grab by aggressive builders, I realize that the harshness in her tone is not entirely misplaced. It possibly stems from feeling repeatedly abandoned by those who came before to question and investigate. The Sion-Koliwada story is complicated and long. Behind the grave mush of its details lies bare the protracted struggle of the indigenous Koli community of Sion to protect the land that has been inhabited by them since 1939.

When the Slum Rehabilitation Act (SRA) came into being in 1995, private players got a big role to play in slum redevelopment. The Act, which was initiated to rehabilitate the slum dwellers living in adverse conditions, gave developers easy access to the land occupied by slum dwellers in various parts of Mumbai. The slum dwellers were to be shifted into vertical housing built on the same land as their slums but with better living conditions. The people of Sion-Koliwada allege that since their land is part of an original fishing village (Koliwada) of Mumbai, it does not fall under the purview and conditions of the SRA. Their contention is simple: we are not a ‘slum’. Unfortunately, private developers choose to interpret the law differently – reminding us of the arbitrariness of the definition of a slum given by the government.

Resident Prathamesh Shivkar, a student and an active participant of the protests in the area says that builder Sudhakar Shetty of Sahana Developers (who also owns the TV news channel Jai Maharashtra), who is interested in acquiring redevelopment rights for the land in the area, offered his community one-room apartments, in buildings. These buildings would be built on land that would be acquired after demolishing the existing chawls in which they live. As the SRA allows builders to make a profit out of the remaining, undeveloped land, Shetty would also get similar benefits in the open commercial market. In fact, activists feel that this is just one more attempt in the city to gentrify a poor neighbourhood by building over-priced housing units for the middle-class and marginalizing the original residents.

The people of Sion-Koliwada allege that since their land is part of an original fishing village (Koliwada) of Mumbai, it does not fall under the purview and conditions of the SRA. Their contention is simple: we are not a ‘slum’. Unfortunately, private developers choose to interpret the law differently – reminding us of the arbitrariness of the definition of a slum given by the government.

The residents of the Koliwada rejected the proposition for newly built homes at once. An elderly lady outside a temple in the area said, “The developer has been trying to fool us. We do not like the project and what is being offered to us in exchange. It is a trap.” She refused to be named.

An important condition under the SRA is for the builder to get the consent of 70% of the residents of the slum – a condition that deterred Shetty to acquire land in 1995. Prathamesh continues, “He failed then but he came back in 2006.” Despite people’s disagreement, the builder managed to get possession of the land. “This time he gained the consent of 70% of the people by forging signatures of residents or by threatening weak families. This was evident when the builder was discovered to have documents with the signature of Eknath Koli, who had died many years before,” says Mahesh, another resident. “Some people were forced to sign but when they demanded to read the agreement, they were denied that access,” adds Prathamesh.

These kinds of tactics of forgery are a common practice in various SRA projects across Mumbai but this community was not powerless and was not ready to throw away their livelihood into uncertainty and darkness. Soon members of the community filed an RTI case against the builder.

Kolis are believed to be the first inhabitants of the city and are spread across it.
Kolis are believed to be the first inhabitants of the city and are spread across it (click on image to enlarge).

Once the matter was in the court, the developer was ordered not to proceed with the project. But shockingly on May 29th 2012, the developer entered the premises with bulldozers and brought down a number of houses. In defiance, local people then attempted to rebuild one of the houses. “We then sat for the next two days outside our homes in a peaceful protest until 31st May when a police force interrupted our protest,” says Mahesh. The rebuilt house was demolished and 25 residents, mostly Koli women, were arrested for 14 days under various false charges.

“When the protests started being organized under the leadership of prominent activists like Medha Patkar, this struggle received full media coverage. After Medha Patkar’s meeting with the Chief Minister Prithviraj Chauhan, he ordered a stay on demolition drives on six rehabilitation projects across the city where residents like us had alleged fraud and forgery by the builders,” says Prathamesh.

But even after the intervention, the construction of buildings by Shetty has continued as have attempts to demolish more houses. Police harassment has also continued. The police patrols the area almost every day, restricts media organizations or any other activists from speaking to the residents. Local municipality officials hardly pay any attention to their pleas. No wonder then the people of Sion-Koliwada feel besieged and now trust few outsiders. Foolji Saroj, a paan-shop owner in the locality says, “The developer is breaking houses despite the stay order on the demolitions by the court. This is because the developer is a powerful man. He has probably bribed higher-ups involved and keeps getting the case extended or delayed.”

The rebuilt house was demolished and 25 residents, mostly Koli women, were arrested for 14 days under various false charges.

Presently, the Koliwada youth are fighting the battle through a legal process. They have formed the Shiv Koliwada Welfare Adivasi Association, which handles the legal documentation and paperwork of the case. They have started a web portal ( to gather support for their cause. With many media schools and channels documenting their struggle for interests of their own, this community decided to make a short video about their struggle. This allowed them to represent themselves not as powerless victims but as strong survivors who are protagonists in their own story.

Mumbai’s rapid surge towards unchecked development and urbanization has put the homes and livelihoods of the city’s oldest inhabitants at stake. Loopholes in the SRA, unaccountability on the part of the government and its distaste in even listening to its marginalized residents has created fissures not just in Sion-Koliwada but across the city. Unless, Mumbai hears the voices of its poor, marginalized and dispossessed citizens and recognizes their right to their homes, it cannot become the great city it so desires to become.

* Noted photographer Javed Iqbal, much of whose work has focused on the poor and the marginalized, took this photograph in mid-2012 when the residents of Sion-Koliwada faced severe police brutality for opposing the redevelopment project. 

Map by Vishal Langthasa

Live and Let Live-In

In a country obsessed with marriage, couples who choose to live-in are viewed with suspicion and prejudice. As the numbers of such couples in Mumbai rise, we bring you some of their stories.

Text by Swati K
Photos by Arjun Chavah

When in early August 2015, an overzealous Mumbai Police force rounded up 40-odd couples from hotels in Madh Island and Aksa and charged them with public indecency, the media was aflutter. Amid discussions about the illegality of the raid and the application of a law that did not cover private spheres, many pointed out that the city’s cops are obsessed with all things moral – the couples were unmarried, you see!

Couples in Mumbai who live together without matrimony encounter such prejudices while looking for a home. For the longest while, Kamini*, a 38-year old artist and her partner Sharad couldn’t get an apartment in the city as most building societies judged them to be immoral. Many housing societies have an unsaid protocol of not renting flats to unmarried couples. Kamini describes her experience as one marked by frustration and peppered with offensive judgmental statements from complete strangers. “I had a prospective landlord reject us on the grounds that there was no guarantee that my partner and I wouldn’t have loud parties and trouble the neighbours. His rationale was that married couples with children sleep early, don’t have late night parties and don’t generally disturb their neighbours while live-in couples are the opposite,” she said. “For some reason, he seemed to believe that teenage college kids and unmarried couples have the same characteristics and lifestyle. It was absolutely absurd.”

Some flat owners were subtler, and they shrewdly insisted that the couple provide a marriage certificate as a pre-requisite to signing the rent agreement. After many failed attempts to negotiate with brokers and landlords, Kamini and her partner ended up renting a friend’s place in Chuim village, Khar. ff

Interviews with some real estate brokers revealed that many of them were hesitant to take live-in couples as clients on the grounds that they make for “flighty and unreliable tenants”. Manish, a 35-year old broker who arranges rental accommodations in Mumbai, said that certain popular Bollywood films which glorify live-in relationships inspire young couples to live-in together- even when they may not be ready to take such a step. “These youngsters get inspired by Hindi films like Salaam-Namaste and Dostana and want to live together just for fun. So these relationships end very quickly, often over small issues. When a couple leaves the apartment abruptly before the agreed time period, we brokers suffer as we have to scramble to find new tenants and sometimes we even lose out on our commission,” he says.

Another reason why landlords in the city say they are nervous about renting property to unmarried couples is the fear that these may be runaway lovers, which could lead to legal and police complications for the landlords. Flat owners we spoke to argue that their refusal to rent a place out to couples in live-in relationships is nothing more than a way of avoiding a host of potential problems. Interestingly, the same justification is used for refusing accommodation to a group of bachelors, single unmarried women, and people from minority communities.

Part of the problem is that the legal status of live-in relationships is ambiguous. As per the fundamental rights granted under Article 21 of the Constitution of India, all citizens have a right to life and personal liberty. This could thus apply to couples in a live-in relationship. Section 114 of the Indian Evidence Act, 1872, reads that where independent evidence of solemnization of marriage is not available, it will be presumed to be a valid marriage by continuous cohabitation between the parties unless the contrary is proved. The Domestic Violence Act 2005 also includes within its purview live-in relationships by citing that a woman having “a relationship in the nature of marriage” with a man can go to court if abused. Since this covers economic abuse, it affords women protection in case of a violation of their financial rights.

She believes that brokers and landlords who rent places out to such couples are complicit in promoting a “sinful lifestyle”. By giving these couples a place to stay in, they enable them to continue with a lifestyle which she firmly believes is, “a Western product, it isn’t Indian.”

Advocate N.Sonwane, 32, who lives in with his partner in Andheri, points out that currently there is no law for live-in relationships in India, but that on November 28, 2013, the Supreme Court had held that a live-in relationship is neither a crime nor a sin, while asking Parliament to frame a law for protection of women in such relationships and for children born out of them. “If two sound-minded adults of the opposite sex decide to live together without getting married, the question of a criminal offense does not arise. However, since there are no particular laws to protect live-in couples we can’t do anything specifically in courts when they are thrown out on moral grounds,” he says, adding that as per the law, the children of such couples are considered ‘illegitimate’. However, lawmakers are now fighting to give them legal status. “The law will help but it won’t make a difference unless mindsets are changed,” says Sonwane.

That does seem to be the case with Leelaben Patel, a 58-year old flat owner in Ghatkopar. “Laws have their own place but society also has some other rules which everyone must follow,” she candidly says. She believes that brokers and landlords who rent places out to such couples are complicit in promoting a “sinful lifestyle”. By giving these couples a place to stay in, they enable them to continue with a lifestyle which she firmly believes is, “a Western product, it isn’t Indian.” She wonders how these brokers and agents help these couples, because ,“unmarried boys and girls should not be allowed to live together and do whatever they want”. According to her, some housing agents are so focused on getting rent that they fail to take a moral stand against the dissolute activities of such couples.

Still, the growing number of live-in couples in the city is a sign that obviously some landlords and brokers are receptive to the concept. As Ranjit, a 57-year old flat owner in Dadar explains, “This is purely a business arrangement and that’s why most of the brokers I know don’t bother about the religion or marital status of tenants, as long as they keep paying their rent on time.” Ranjit says he would not mind renting out his house to two unmarried people in a live-in relationship, even if they belonged to different religious faiths. He seems to sympathise with them when he says, “It’s difficult enough to find a place in Mumbai what with so many migrants looking for affordable flats and rooms on rent. Why should I make it worse for any of my customers by forcing them to adhere to unnecessary rules and standards? They are my tenants, not my children.”IMG_0129

Shruti and Rohit, both 40-something lecturers who stay in Bandra, have been living together for the past 15 years. They shifted to Mumbai seven years ago and before that they lived together in Pune for eight years. Their experience of Mumbai has been positive as they find it to be a city that accommodates offbeat lifestyles quite easily. “Mumbai gives you a kind of anonymity that you won’t find anywhere else in India. People are busy here and no one is interested in your personal life,” says Rohit. “Even our neighbours, who would earlier threaten to complain to the police about us, have now become used to living next door to a live-in couple!”

Perhaps in the future, that will mean many more such happy endings for unmarried couples in the city.

*Names of all the couples have been changed to protect identity