Invisible urban poor: The pavement dwellers of India


By Vishesh Gupta 

Pavement dwellers include people living on the pavement, under the bridge, flyover, bus stop, near the railway station, in parks or under the open sky in any public place in the metros and urban areas where public facilities like public toilet are provided. Some of these people migrate from small villages looking for employment opportunities as there are not enough employment opportunities in their village or small towns.There are 2 main reasons for migrating. Firstly, economic reason.

People are homeless due to financial problem, natural calamities, lack of employment opportunities. Secondly, Social reason. The pavement dwellers are considered to be the poorest of the poor[1]. They live in kucha house made of plastic, polythene, cardboard, straws, bamboos etc. They try to settle themselves near the place they work.

They are deprived of basic amenities (food, potable water, toilets, clothes) and have a low standard of living[2]. As they live on footpaths, public nuisance is created. Blocking of footpaths and creating unhygienic conditions add on to public nuisance. India is home to more than 20 million pavement dwellers[3].

Major chunks live in Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi.There has been an increase in the population of pavement dwellers in all over in India.The term came into being as a population category in anthropological studies on famine, rural-urban migration, refugee problem and poverty.

In these works, the pavement dweller represented the migrants.[4] Pavement dwellers are the most deprived and isolated among the urban poor and have the least organisational and political skills[5].These group of people consist of employed, unemployed and self-employed people. Some work for construction companies or for The State for constructing of roads, highways etc.

Self-employed workers start their own tea stalls and small street food stall. Some usesentertainment to earn livelihood. Their major business is street vending, hawking, petty shop keeping and selling handicrafts.Some of them are differently abled or are too sick to work.The increase of homeless people in urban areas is as “an inevitable outcome of the urbanisation process[6]“.Urbanization process is the shift from rural areas to cities for better economic factorand thus, when there is no opportunity of earning livelihood in rural area, people migrate to urban areas.

Surviving in a world in the conditions in which pavement dwellers live, it is inevitable that they face difficulties each and every day. 

Difficulties faced

Safety – Pavement dwellers live in temporary houses under all weather conditions be it monsoon or summer. Living in a temporary house does not provide safety to the residents. In case of heavy rains or winds, they don’t have strong walls to protect them. Also, pavements are not safe to live as the occurrences of dangerous accidents like rash driving endangers the life of these dwellers. A recent case of rash driving killing 3 pavement dwellers which included one pregnant woman[7]. They have to be alert, all the time. During the day, kids might carelessly run in the middle of a road and get hurt by vehicles.

Even in the night when they sleep, they had to be alert of different crimes like robbery, murder and death. As they are exposed in the open environment, they are more prone to diseases than a normal human being.Even Among all the urban poor (Pavement dwellers, slum residents etc), pavement dwellers are more prone to diseases.In a survey in Mumbai, they have the highest percentage of chronic disease i.e. 32%[8].A study conducted in Aligarhhas showed that higher incidence of environment related diseases occurs in poorer families than in non-poor[9]

Poor Living Conditions – Basic amenities like water, food, shelter, clothes, toilets are not available to thembecause they cannot afford it. They live in unhygienic surroundings which attract diseases[10].Unavailability and inaccessibility of hygienic water lead to Cholera, Typhoid and Dysentery. Shortage of food leads to malnutrition. In that state of body no one can work and earn livelihood. With no toilets, people urinate in open, which makes the surroundings polluted and it attracts more diseases.

About 30 per cent of pavement-dwellers in Mumbai responded that they discharge their waste in water drain which pollutes the water.According to UN, urban population has grown to 6.8% and pollution in urban cities has increased rapidly. No proper clothes according to the weather leads to illness like cold, fever, viral. Their basic source of water is municipal stand post.

Identity They do not have any social identity. They are considered the poorest of the poor and are not considered equal by other citizens. Duringthe Commonwealth Games, the pavement dwellers were temporarily shifted to faraway places because of a beautification drive of the city.They are discriminated because they are poor. They don’t have equal opportunities in the field of education and job opportunities.They are not considered to be the part of the entitlement network to which the government provide basic amenities.

In 1976 they were included in the census for the first time with an objective of bringing them into the policy network of the state[11]. The state had never censused them because it viewed them merely as intruders or encroachers of private or government property. Even though they lived on the pavements of the city, they remained invisible and ignored for almost 26 years after independence. A case of a pavement dweller being killed on a Sunday morning in Pune wherehe was killed by a man who abused the beggars outside temples just because he stood up to him to stop him[12].

Treatment from the State They are under the constant threat of being evicted as they are not legally allowed to erect structures (houses) on pavements[13]. They don’t have any other place to live because of financial conditions or non-availability of land. For almost 3 decades, the state ignored them and when they finally got recognition through census, the state approached them by dislocating them, by demolishing their houses and by keeping them away from entitlement network.

Because of demolition, the dwellers suffer financial losses and also have to go through torment as the act of demolition terrorises the family.In some cases, loans were given from bank but with a contingency of getting land from the state government which the state government were delaying[14]. This also proved to be a burden on the pavement dwellers.

The policies/laws applied by the state

The Homeless Pavement Dwellers (Welfare) Bill, 2016[15]: The bill provides welfare measures for the homeless citizens living on the pavements in the urban and metropolitan cities. It is still pending in Rajya Sabha.

Section (2) – welfare policy may provide for-

  • Right of the dwellers to live on pavements without any interference from Government (Police and civic authorities) till alternative shelter is made available to them.
  • Humanitarian approach towards their homelessness and acute poverty by the state.
  • Construction of sufficient number of night shelters or Rain Baseras.
  • Access to necessary healthcare with free check-ups includingmedicines through dispensaries.
  • Accesstosanitary and potable water.
  • Facility of mobile toilets with bathing facility.
  • Facility of bed sheet and Durry once a year for each and every person.
  • Facility of blanket and woollens for each person during the winter season.
  • 2 times food per day.
  • Free distribution of mosquito nets to avoid diseaseslike malaria, dengue and otherdiseases.
  • Free education to the children of dwellers with access to free books, stationery dresses, shoes and hostel facilities.
  • Provide support/assistance in cash or in kind and advice for self-employment of the dwellers.
  • Pull out of begging and other crimes and reforming them.

Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (Urban)(PMAY-U)[16] – It was launched in June 2015 with the objective of providing affordable housing to all the urban poor with an aim to build 2 crore houses for urban poor in urban areas till 2022. The state also promised to provide 6.5% subsidy on loans. In the year 2018, total 39,25,240 houses has been approved.

Basic services to urban poor(BSUP)[17]-It was initiated in 2005 under JNNURM with multiple objectives:

  • Development of urban poor through developing shelter and providing other amenities.
  • To improve the quality of life of the urban poor and connecting all the urban poor with municipal networking.
  • Ensure better education.
  • Access to improved livelihood which helps in reducing poverty.
  • Better governance

Result – 27,925 dwellings have been approved in Bangalore and Mysore. 26,707 dwelling units have been completed and all the basic amenities are provided.

It is no longer in force. It was in force till 2014.

Nehru Rozgar Yojana (NRY)[18]-To alleviate the plights of urban poor, a centrally sponsored programme – Nehru Rozgar Yojana – was launched at the end of the Seventh Five Year Plan (Oct1989) with the aim of providing employment to the unemployed and underemployed poor. The NRY consisted of three schemes:

  • Scheme of Urban Micro Enterprises (SUME)- 25% of the estimated cost of micro-enterprises is given as subsidy while remaining 75% of the cost is given as loan through the commercial banks.
  • Scheme of Urban Wage Employment (SUWE)Employment is provided to poor unemployed by taking development works (Construction or improvement of roads and highways) in urban areas.
  • Scheme of Housing and Shelter Upgradation (SHASU)25% of estimated cost of the expenditure on house construction/improvement is given as subsidy, remaining 75% of the cost is made available as loan.

State of Maharashtra constituted a study group known as Afzakpurkar Report [19]This committee was set for looking into slum rehabilitation in Mumbai. For the first time, it included pavement dwellers in the purview of Urban poor.The recommendations were:

  • All people living in pavement settlements as of 1st January 1995 are eligible to be a part of Slum Redevelopment Scheme.
  • Pavement dwellers will be relocated on nearby vacant land.
  • Legal title of the land won’t be transferred to individuals, but to cooperative societies and organizations of pavement dwellers.
  • Land provided will be of 225 square-foot units and will be of free of cost.

Task Force 1983 by Planning Commission 

Actions from SPARCIn 1995, they made a task force and created a policy in Maharashtra under which pavement dwellers received equal status as slum dwellers. They designed the Mumbai Urban Transport Project II (MUTPII) relocation policy based on principles and practices developed for pavement dwellers. In 2005, the State Government of Maharashtra and the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai developed the Mahatma Gandhi Pada Patha Wasi Yojana (Scheme for Pavement Dwellers) and has since relocated 10,000 of the 30,000 households in the city[20].

Mahilamilan was initiated when SPARC started working 500 Muslim women of pavement dwellers for credit activities. ‘We, the invisible’, the report published by SPARC, is not a conventional census document. It provides data on pavement dwellers and tries to develop a bigger picture pertaining to their lives and livelihood.SPARC has also demolished many a myth/prejudice concerning the most marginal people in the city.

Contrary to the common belief that pavement dwellers are a transient and mobile population the census pointed out that a majority of them lived on the pavements for years. Another myth that the pavement dwellers are a burden on the city, it was also found to be false. In reality most of them walked to their places of work. It further pointed out that these people constitute an important source of cheap labour in the city as the majority as they work below the minimum wage level. The report also talked about the importance of good governance. 

Olga Tellis and Ors v. Bombay Municipal Corporation[21] is one of the landmark Judgement that led to the inclusion of right to livelihood under the purview of right to life in Article 21 of Indian constitution.

Facts- Chief Minister of Maharashtra, Shri A.R. Antulay, made an announcement for forcibly evicting all the pavement dwellers in Mumbai and driving them out of Mumbai. Bombay Municipal Corporation was given orders to demolish the pavement dwellers.

The decision to demolish the dwellings was challenged by the petitioners before the Supreme Court on the grounds that this decision violated their fundamental rights protected under article 19 and 21 of the Indian Constitution. They also asked for a declaration that the provisions of sections 312, 313 and 314 of the Bombay Municipal Corporation Act, 1888 are invalid as they violated Articles 14, 19 and 21 of the Indian Constitution.

Reasons for demolishing

Pavement dwellers do not have any legal right to encroach upon any place over which the public has a right of way.

  1. Adverse effect on the public by the hazard of health and safety.
  2. These dwellers indulged in illegal activities which lead to increase in crime rate
  3. Their daily activities cause difficulties in repairing roads and drains.
  4. increases the risk of traffic accidents and disturbs the free flow of vehicular movement.

Contentions from the petitioner:

  1. They had a right to live under article 21 of the Indian constitution which included right to livelihood.
  2. To earn livelihood, they have no option but to migrate to big cities. This is due to lack of employment opportunities in villages.
  3. The right to life can only be abridged only by a procedure established by law. It has to be fair and reasonable. The procedure prescribed by Bombay Municipal Corporation was arbitrary.
  4. Under article 19, they have to right to reside in any part of the country.

The Supreme Court held that:

  1. Even though Article 19(1)(e) gives the right to reside in any part of the country, still it does not give the right encroach and trespass on public property.
  2. No deprivation of life by eviction of pavement dwellers from public places.
  3. The Municipal corporation is under obligation to remove any obstruction on public places.
  4. The eviction should take place in a humane processand the pavement dwellers should be provided alternative land
  5. It was ordered not to evict these people for one month after the conclusion of the monsoon season.

It was observed that the municipal corporation did not completely follow the orders of the Court[22]. Demolition was not done in humane way and alternative land was not provided. Adding to this, during demolitions, the officers confiscated the belongings of the poor and sold them. Pavement dwellers used to come back to the demolished place after some time and set up their houses again. The Bombay Municipal corporation dug those places up and constructed brick plant bed to

Yojana (Scheme for Pavement from both the State and the society is required. The author suggests some restrict them.Pavement dwellers filed petitions against the actions of the BMC. The legal cost incurred was funded by SPARC.Their cases were rejected on the basis that they (pavement dwellers)were not credible.

It can be observed that, even after being considered as the poorest of the poor, there aren’t sufficient and effective schemes or policies for providing better living conditions to the pavement dwellers. All the schemes and policies are more directed to slums rather than pavement dwellers even after pavement dwellers are more prone to risk. The one bill that talks about solving the problem of pavement dwellers has not been passed yet.

There is no unified law or bill for pavement dwellers that has been passed by the parliament. Pavement dwellers are considered as encroachers of public land and in most cases, gets evicted. Previous and current laws are not found adequate to protect pavement dwellers. Even the policies and scheme are not exclusive to pavement dwellers. Most of them are based on slums and there is no mention of pavement dwellers. Even though the pavement dwellers come under the category of Urban Poor, still it is too broad of a category. Till 1976 no recognition was given to pavement dwellers. For the first, time these people were considered under urban poor in the Afzulpurkar report.

This commission was not set up by the central government instead it was set up by Maharashtra government.Sometimes, giving respect to these people, considering them as equal is all that these people want. Biggest mistake of the state was and still is, the denial of the existence of these people. Often, we as the society expects the State to do something about this but forgets that we can at the grassroot level do something ourselves for pavement dwellers. To bring change, contributions has to be made to shelter the un-sheltered.


  1. There is a need for one unified law/scheme/policy for the whole country whose aim should be to protect the interests of pavement dwellers with inclusion of provisions such as providing these pavement dwellers with alternative land rather than being brutally forced out of the city.In 2005, the State Government of Maharashtra and the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai developed the Mahatma Gandhi Pada PathaWasiDwellers) and has since relocated 10,000 of the 30,000 households in the city. This example shows that how effective is the state if they interfere for protection of someone’s right.
  2. Non-government organizations role is pivotal – Even in the Afzulpurkar report, the role of NGO was mentioned. NGO’s are essential for protecting interests of these people as they can help them without any major contribution from the government. Funding from citizens, spreading awareness about these people, their plights, their usefulness, representing them in any matter and providing basic amenities can really uplift their status in the society.
  3. One way of stopping these atrocities against pavement dwellers is to create employment opportunities in villages and small towns. The main reason for migrating to urban cities is for earning livelihood. If they can earn livelihood in their villages, the rate of migration will decrease. Even over-population in urban cities will be reduced.
  4. Employing these people in construction of public places like roads, highways etc will help them earn their livelihood. The contractors can also provide temporary settlement for the duration of a particular work.
  5. Woman of pavement dweller understands the importance of education andkeeps education for their children as their first priority. SPARC initiated some education program for the children of pavement dwellers.Butthese programmes can be extended to the men and women as well.
  6. Shelter training Program[23]– Developed by SPARC and women pavement dwellers for all the pavement dwellers. Public meetings were informally arranged where serious issues were discussed. This program was spear headed by the women. The problems of demolition and eviction were discussed with the possible total monetary loss. This led to an exploration of possible alternative responses to impending demolitions. Actions taken by them were, Women went to police stations and municipal corporations for understanding the clear process of demolition. With this information they had a game plan for facing eviction.The problem of non-availability ofland which was shown by the contractors was broken. Vacant stretches of land were located (on the Development Plan of the city, and from professionals in the relevant departments of the state government). Visits were arranged to inspect these sites. The training programme included the gathering of information and using it for the benefit of these people.
  7. Involvement with Local Government- In 1993, a woman who lived on the pavements with her group build a community toilet. Since then 6952 toilets are present in Mumbai[24] thanks to Mahila Milan, National Slum Dweller Federation and SPARC. This was the big opportunity to engage more constructively with the Local Government.


Each state has its own municipal laws and even those focus on rehabilitation of slums and not pavement dwellers. Pavement dwellers are considered to be the encroachers of the public places and a source of public nuisance. As they don’t get enough employment opportunities in villages, they migrate to urban cities to earn livelihood. Present Government policies are more focused on rehabilitation of slums.

For Example, Slums along the railway line got relocation through a policy that the alliance had been recommending for pavement dwellers almost 15 years before a policy for pavement dwellers came into being[25].Even if the word used is “Urban Poor”, pavement dwellers are pushed down to the bottom. They are considered the poorest of the poor and are most vulnerable to risks, accident and diseases (annual diarrhoeal cases are about 614 per thousand population).

They are the least educated of all in the urban poor[26]. They are treated as criminals rather than victims and still is not the priority of the state or even treated equally. The policies, schemes, laws need to be distributed to each category of Urban Poor equally. The State needs to execute these policies, schemes, law quickly and effectively so that it reaches all. If it does not reach equally to all the urban poor, it will have adverse effects on the society such as increase in crime rate, increase in pollution etc.The future is in welfare for each and every category of persons in the Urban Poor.Not only Government but support from private institutes and individuals is important for achieving welfare for the pavement dwellers.


[1]Law Commission of India, 138th Report on Legislative Protection for Slum and Pavement Dwellers (1990).

[2] Sunil Kumar Karn, “Living Environment and health of Urban Poor A Study in Mumbai” 38 EPW 3575 (2003)

[3] Anupam Das, ”Demography, Migration and Economic Condition of Pavement Dwellers – A Study of Most Marginalized Urban Poor in Central Business Areas of Kolkata, West Bengal” 5 IJSR 1496 (2016).

[4]Ritajyoti Bandyopadhyay, “Politics of Archiving: Hawkers and Pavement Dwellers in Calcutta” 35 DA 306 (2011).

[5] Meera Bapat and Sheela Patel, “Shelter, Women and Development Beating a Path towards Women’s Participation” 28 EPW 465(1993).

[6]Verinoque Dupont and Dhananjay Tingal ,“Residential And Economics Practices Of Pavement Dwellers In Old Delhi”, IEG 4 (1997).

[7]Drunk-Driving-Kills-Three-Pavement-Dwellers,-India,-available at: ( Visited on Nov 15, 2018).

[8] Sunil Kumar Karn, “Living Environment and health of Urban Poor A Study in Mumbai” 38 EPW  3581 (2003).

[9] Sunil Kumar Karn, “Living Environment and health of Urban Poor A Study in Mumbai” 38 EPW  3575 (2003).

[10] Sunil Kumar Karn, “Living Environment and health of Urban Poor A Study in Mumbai” 38 EPW  3576 (2003).

[11] A. R. Desai and S. D. Pillai’s A Profile of an Indian Slum (1972) makes us aware of the problem of data regarding the slum dwellers of Bombay.  Evidence used for the 1960s in the book is computed largely from the data supplied by the Bombay Municipal Corporation. The report prepared by Dinesh K. Afzulpurkar (Programme for the Rehabilitation of Slum and Hutment dwellers in Brihan Mumbai) 1995 mentions about the 1976 census of the slum dwellers in the city.

[12] Pavement Dweller killed in Pune’s Koregaon Park, India, available at: (Visited on Nov 15, 2018).

[13] Meera Bapat, “Bombay’s Pavement-Dwellers Continuing Torment”, 27 EPW 2217(1992).

[14]Meera Bapat, “Bombay’s Pavement-Dwellers Continuing Torment”, 27 EPW 2219(1992).

[15] The Homeless Pavement dwellers (Welfare) Bill, 2016, No 10 act of parliament, 2016 (INDIA).

[16]9th Five Year Plan, India, available at: (Visited on Oct 2, 2018).

[17]9th Five Year Plan, India, available at: (Visited on Oct 2, 2018).

[18]9th Five Year Plan, India, available at: (Visited on Oct 2, 2018).

[19]Afzulpurkar, D K (1995) Programme for the Rehabilitation of Slumand Hutment Dwellers in Brihan Mumbai. Report of the Study Group appointed by the Government of Maharashtra for therehabilitation of slum and hutment dwellers through reconstruction, 20th July 1995.

[20] SPARC Annual Review 2010-2011, India, available at: (visited on Nov 15, 2018).

[21]Olga Tellis and Ors v. Bombay Municipal Corporation (AIR 1986 SC 180).

[22] Meera Bapat, “Bombay’s Pavement-Dwellers Continuing Torment”, 27 EPW 2217(1992).

[23] Meera Bapat and Sheela Patel, “Shelter, Women and Development Beating a Path towards Women’s Participation” 28 EPW 468(1993).

[24]How-India’s-Slum-Pavement-Dwellers-Made-Sanitation-Affordable,-India,-available-at: (visited on Nov 15, 2018).

[25]SPARC-Annual-Review-2010-2011,-India,-availableat: (visited on Nov 15, 2018).

[26]Sunil Kumar Karn, “Living Environment and health of Urban Poor A Study in Mumbai” 38 EPW  3579 (2003).

2 thoughts on “Invisible urban poor: The pavement dwellers of India

  1. On reading this very extensive and informative article,I am ashamed to be Indian.While Netas and Babus,the real Servants of the people live in luxury,plenty of perks,high salaries etc,the people who are the Real workers live worse than animals.What was the need to buy billion dollar planes for Fatted VIPs,waste money on billion divas on the water while polluting Mother Ganga,billion dollars on a new parliament building.Bloody whitened sepulchers.Nothing less.Hypocrites!!The immediate solution is to declare Emergency and enforce population control.Nothing else will work and can get very dangerous as the Civil riots in France killed fake Royalty.


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