So many people live on the margins of society.
Some leave their distant village huts and come to the cities to make their fortune. They land up as daily labourers, bringing in less than the bare minimum. Not being able to afford a sleeping berth, let alone a room in the city, they end up on footpaths. Children from extreme poverty-stricken backgrounds, often single-parent, run away from home. They start living a high-risk life on the streets and city footpaths, often doing heavy manual labour for one insuffiicient meal a day. Old people, abandoned by their family, also land up on the streets. Having no energy for work, they lie in street corners, huddled up in tattered clothes or a kantha, with their worldly possessions in a small bundle, and beg.
How do the lives of these different people look like? How do they really get by from day to day? What hope, if any, do they have, that motivates them each day to get up and live another day? What are the struggles of life on the footpaths? How do they cope with the extremes of different seasons? They live on the seamy side of life, certainly, with diseased bodies, sores, malnutrition, stinking, open drains, flies and garbage heaps all around, literally walked over by busy heels all day, lathi charged at by the police in their city-cleaning sprees. In the monsoons when the Ganga river rises and floods, the adjoining slums are submerged in dirty-germ-infested water. There is no end to these problems. But despite All these, is there any element of beauty in their lives also?
The journalists decided to find out the footpath stories in their own neighbourhoods. Coming from marginalized backgrounds themselves, yet not deprived to this extreme, they are both insiders and outsiders in the situation. What follows are their first-hand accounts and perceptions.
Rahul told us that writing about footpath dwellers was his idea, as he wanted to do something about the plight of these people. There is no future for these people. He interviewed someone called Kangalima who is 70 years old. She started as a maidservant and had a house to live in at one point of time. Her husband took to drinking and this led to loss of money and finally she had to give up home, come out and live in the streets. People keep asking her to die. Her son Bhola who drives a van sometimes bears her expenses, sometimes not.
Nobody wants to leave their homes and live on the footpaths. But some lack or deficiency pushes him/her to make the footpath a home. Debi Shau lives on the footpath, eats and sleeps there. She is about 50-60 years old, an oldish lady. She sells vegetables in Koley Market. Things like ginger, garlic, onion, chillies, greens. The money she gets from selling these is her only means of livelihood. The footpath is her home as of now.
She doesn’t have any relatives in the world. Even if some of them exist, nobody knows where they are. No one has looked for her whereabouts in all these years. She had a distant uncle but even he has passed away. There is no specific place which she occupies every day to sell her vegetables. She sits down wherever she manages to make space. To get a specific place everyday, she would need to pay, which she can’t afford from her meager earnings.
Everyday she worries about her sales. If sales doesn’t happen properly, what will a daily wage-earner like her eat? Often she cannot afford two meals a day, making do with one. Like this, she fights for a living every day. She knows she will have to go on facing the challenges of living out in the open in different seasons like summer, winter and the rains.
In the rains, the pavements are often swept away by water, causing her a lot of problems. Apart from this, people are always walking on the footpaths. She has to live with them walking all over her space. But she is compelled.
A woman called Bhabani lives on the footpath of Bowbazar’s Raja Rammohon Ray Sarani with her mother and her son. They have accepted their lot, living with the vagaries of nature. I think that footpath dwellers live a very painful life. In summer, esp. in the afternoons, the scalding sun heats up the footpath. The nights offer a little comfort. In winter the whole day and night are spent shivering with cold in the open streets. The rainy season is very difficult. You can neither sit, nor lie down, nor eat. Apart from this, footpath dwellers who are daily wage earners have to go out and work hard in storms and bad weather, exposing themselves to the harsh conditions of nature. There is no place to sleep. Some people who have trolley-like vans make these double up as beds in the night. They sleep on these after laying down a plastic sheet on top. There are many other insoluble problems. Often out of the blue, police cars come to dismantle them from their pavement homes. Then they try to hide their possessions as best as they can to prevent them from being confiscated by the police. If once they are taken away, you need to pay money to retrieve them. Some people living on the footpaths in cities often have dwellings in their villages. Those who don’t have these faraway village homes literally have no place to go to.
(Jyotsna spoke about how we see things only from a distance but when taking the interview she actually got to hear the truth and see it for herself)
My name is Simanto Das. Earlier I used to stay in Jongeepur. There I had a grocery store. I had an earthen two-storey house and the shop was in the ground floor. I did not lack anything.
One day a flood happened and swept away both my home and my shop in its wake. Myself, my wife and son survived somehow but lost our house and shop. We came to Kolkata then. I had thought of sending my son to a good school but that didn’t happen. I did not have money so I sent my son to work in a big hotel. When we first came to this city, they were asking for very steep rates for rooms, so we couldn’t get one, but had to take shelter in the footpaths. I run my household from my earnings, driving a van. I have been here for the last three years. My son married a year back and moved away. We had been three, now we are two.
I had never thought that life would take such a turn. We face so many problems living here, but still we are forced to. We have no place to stay except the footpaths.
Footpath dwellers live in a lot of problems since they have no other place to stay, no shelter, their lives are like the stray dogs on the streets. During storms, they look for shelter in different places just like the street dogs. Most of them live from hand to mouth. Some beg, some steal. They can die from accidents any day, since a lot of big vehicles run on the streets and if accidentally any of them sidesteps up on the pavements, they can run over the pavement-dwellers. If these people fall ill, they have no money for treatment, nor do they receive help from anyone. Their past, present and future – all are dark. They have never been able to stand on their own feet and get settled in life. Boys living on footpaths often do lot of addictions which are very harmful for their health.
People living on footpaths are truly in a lot of trouble. Little children die from starvation. They sit in the blazing heat on the footpaths day after day, getting kicked by pedestrians while begging or just due to careless walking. Some people die from overexposure to the sun. In this terrible heat, they beg on the pitch-covered roads. They don’t have shoes to protect their feet. Even if they have clothes, they are torn. Their life is like death. In the rainy season, they have to spend their time drenched. Under such circumstances, neither can the sit nor can they lie down. Due to some government schools coming up, some kids can now go to school. They come back to their footpath homes, drenched. Due to such reasons, they incur a lot of diseases, which often cause deaths. In the winter they lie under cloudy skies and cold gusts, on the open footpaths. Helpless children go to school barefeet, without warm clothes. Still in the face of many problems, they try to eke out livings by opening small stalls selling chowmein, fries or chapatti-tarka. How many people think about the challenges that these people face? We would know only if we had lived on the footpaths ourselves.