Proximity and Intimacy in the Lives of Pavement Dwellers in Mumbai

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Along many of the tree-lined side streets that radiate away from one of Mumbai’s main railways stations are rows of tiny, painstakingly assembled dwellings perched on the pavement, a hairs breadth away from swiftly moving vehicular traffic. Some of the dwellings are two storeys high, fabricated from bits of corrugated metal sheets typically used for roofing, but the vast majority are one storey dwellings built out of bamboo scaffolding, bits of repurposed metal and tarpaulin. I am visiting Mehrunissa who lives in one of these dwellings. Her dwelling occupies approximately one and half square metres of the pavement and houses eight people, three generations of her family.  At night, five of them, arrange themselves Tetris-like inside the dwelling while Mehrunissa and her two granddaughters sleep on a single-sized cot that they pull out on to the road.

All along the road, the pavement dwellings spill out onto the road at nightfall and shrink back in, atop the pavement, at day break. It is in these tiny dwellings that families cook, sleep, eat, confide and work. Children do homework, while women wash clothes squatting on the edge of the road so that the soapy water drains away into the gutters. A public tap further along the road is where men and young boys bathe themselves. These intimate scenes of a family’s life unfold in full public view. The fragrant smells from the food being cooked waft along the road, the colicky, squalling baby is heard by passersby as they deftly navigate past barrels of water and wet clothes.

 Yet this proximity of sight, smell and sound belies any sense of civic connection between those who live on the pavement and the community who live and work in the buildings lining the street, buildings whose outer walls form the back of these roadside dwellings. Proximal living alone, as Thiranagama (2019) points out is not a sufficient condition for the recognition of others as neighbours.  In fact, the compulsion of the pavement dwellers to live their lives inside-out, engaging in the quotidian, intimate activities of social reproduction in full public view, contributes to the repugnance that the building dwellers’ feel to these proximal others who everyday transgress their bourgeois sense of propriety.

When the municipality’s demolition squads show up, Mehrunissa tells me that the ‘building people’ have no qualms about refusing to shelter the belongings of the pavement dwellers from the vengeful violence that marks each eviction drive. Some, she said, will even lean out of their balconies to point out to the demolition squads where the pavement dwellers had stashed their belongings in anticipation of the eviction.

Even when proximity is not structured by the hierarchical relations between building residents and pavement dwellers, as is the case of Zaitoon, whose dwelling is adjacent to Mehrunissa’s, neighbourliness is not a given.  I was puzzled to hear Mehrunissa and Zaitoon say that they did not know each other, despite living within an inch of each other, until they both became a part of Mahila Milan, an association of women who lived on the pavement who mobilized to collectively challenge the evictions they faced.

What did this ‘not knowing’ mean given that they were each privy to the sounds and smells of each others’ lives through the fraying pieces of tarpaulin that separated their dwellings? In their explanations they pointed to the numerous evictions that punctuated their lives, sometimes facing as many as three evictions in the course of a month. The evictions were violent operations that not only destroyed their homes and possessions, but also robbed them of the conditions whereby they might come to know and care for each other as neighbours.

While some pavement residents managed to stay on, rummaging through the debris to find what might have escaped the Municipality’s demolition squads and rebuild, others moved away, sometimes returning after a few months to try and reclaim their spot on the pavement. The evanescence of their proximity, they argued, had forestalled the cultivation of relationships by which they could know each other; a temporally mediated knowledge through which their identities as neighbours might have emerged.

On several occasions I was informed by Mehrunissa and other women who lived on the street of the of the harassment they routinely faced by the policemen from the police station located some 200 metres from their dwellings.  Their husbands and sons would often get picked up at night by the police for loitering and put into lock-up, released the next day after the family coughed up money.  The police knew well who these men were and where they lived but that did not stop them booking them as ‘loiterers’ when all these men were doing was coming home from a day’s work. At other times the vending carts that they used to sell wares moving from area to area or the handcarts they used to move merchandise from one area to the next, that they typically parked outside their dwellings, would be confiscated by the police. A fine would be paid and the handcart returned to its place on the street.

Each of these scenes of proximity, marked by the unfolding in public view of the quotidian intimacies through which families make themselves daily, is an outcome of the violent spatial politics of encroachment and eviction through which the city is made. In each instance we see the intimacies that make up the lives of pavement dwellers doubling up as an index of the distance and isolation experienced by pavement dwellers even as they live and work in dense, congested locations across the city.

Proximity as Place

The challenge to the sense of not knowing one another came in an unlikely form: enumeration exercises.  In 1985, in the wake of a city-wide effort to evict all pavement dwellers and ‘deport’ them back to rural India, the NGO SPARC, along with the National Slum Dwellers’ Federation and Mahila Milan, the latter an association of pavement dwelling women, produced a report called ‘We, the Invisible’ which meticulously reported the living conditions and working lives of all the pavement dwelling households in one ward of the city (SPARC 1985). While the primary purpose of the report was to provide information about a population on whom no systematic information had been produced what was discovered in the course of producing the report was the powerful way in which enumeration could create a space where pavement dwellers produced knowledge of each other, not just to inform the state, but more fundamentally, for themselves (Menon 2010).

As pavement dwellers went house to house, collecting information from each other about family size, migration histories, daily income, and livelihoods they created the epistemic conditions by which their proximity engendered neighbourliness. The report collected information from 6000 households and in doing so provided ways for previously isolated households to learn about each other, to exchange stories of departure and arrival, to trace points of connection and spark recognition of familiar struggles. They drew maps of their streets and identified where each family lived, these maps were then shared and cross-checked by other residents, a process that put in motion a series of interactions through which people came to see each other as fellow residents of a particular street bound together by a shared set of circumstances.

The acts of data-gathering, map-making and cross-checking catalysed forms of recognition whereby individual pavement-dwellers became visible to each other and made possible forms of sociality that the daily anticipation of evictions had foreclosed.  They collectively strategized how to negotiate and manage eviction drives so that the damage to their personal belongings was minimized, they began to negotiate for electricity connections and ration cards, and on Raksha Bandhan, the Hindu festival where sisters tie rakhis on the wrists of their brothers to remind them of their duty to protect, Mehrunissa and the other women from the nearby pavements walked into the police-station and insisted that the police let them tie rakhis on them, attempting to recalibrate their fraught relationship with the police.

Intimacy: From injury to community mobilization

In lives that are compelled to live inside-out, where the intimate acts of daily living are denied privacy and have to be enacted in public view, intimacy has been a source of individual and collective injury. In the observations that preface the Supreme Court’s ruling on the landmark Pavement Dwellers’ case (Olga Tellis & Ors. Vs. BMC & Ors., AIR 1986 SC 180), the judges remarked that “They cook and sleep where they ease, for no conveniences are available to them. Their daughters, come of age, bathe under the nosy gaze of passers-by, unmindful of the feminine sense of bashfulness” (p. SC 183).

The image thus conjured effectively constructing the pavement dwellers and their living conditions as the Other against which the bourgeois conception of the site and subject of the public is constructed and must be protected from. The enumeration exercises conducted by pavement dwellers sought to challenge such constructions by creating the epistemic conditions for a recovery of subjectivity among populations rendered abject through routine indignities and vast structural inequalities that denied them any notion of privacy.

Through the careful recording of the shape and tempo of the lives of those who lived on the pavement, these community driven enumerations quietly but deftly crafted a shared subject space that enabled repair and recognition in the face of unrelenting dehumanisation.  In doing so, they created the affective contexts in which the intimacies of daily life were not just sources of injury but also moments around which connections were brokered and collective agency was experienced, as filaments of care emerged to bind together precariously positioned lives as neighbours.



Menon, Gayatri A. (2010). Recoveries of Space and Subjectivity in the Shadow of Violence: the Clandestine Politics of Pavement Dwellers in Mumbai, in Contesting Development: Critical Struggles for Social Change, edited by Philip McMichael.  Routledge.

Olga Tellis and others Vs. Bombay Municipal Corporation and others, and Vayyapuri Kuppusami and others Vs. State of Maharashtra and others, All India Reporter 1986 SC180.

SPARC (1985). We, the Invisible: A Census of Pavement Dwellers. Bombay, India: SPARC.

Thiranagama, Sharika (2019). Respect your Neighbor as Yourself: Neighborliness, Caste, and Community in South India, Comparative Studies in Society and History 61(2):269-300.

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