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Chasing dreams in unwelcoming land

It’s not much to look at, but the cavernous lobby of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) is where dreams come true — for some, Zara Murao writes.

mumbai Updated: Oct 11, 2009 01:25 IST
Zara Murao

It’s not much to look at, but the cavernous lobby of Mumbai’s Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) is where dreams come true — for some.

Every day, between 15,000 and 20,000 people from across the country arrive at the train terminus. Most are tired of waiting for life to start in their villages and small towns and have come to the metropolis looking for work, excitement, life. Tales from those that came before haunt them — stories of how you will be mugged or plain burgled the moment you land, how the city outside is full of people who wish you weren’t here.

“When I first came to Mumbai eight years ago, I was so frightened that I hid my money — a total of Rs 400 — in my sock,” says Shamshukh Husain (23) of Kannur in Kerala. Shamshukh is now a confident street vendor with a swagger and a ready smile. “I live in Colaba (south Mumbai) now,” he says proudly. “Life is better here, the money is better here.”

The 2001 Census categorises 43.7 per cent of Mumbai’s 18 million people as migrants — defined as those born in other parts of Maharashtra or India. And every so often, anti-migrant sentiment bubbles to the surface in the form of violent protests. The Shiv Sena, which came to power in the state in 1995, was formed by Bal Thackeray over four decades ago with the main agenda of reclaiming the country’s commercial capital for ‘sons of the soil’. Now, the breakaway Maharashtra Navnirman Sena (MNS), founded by his nephew Raj, has appropriated the anti-migrant plank — and its ire is directed at ‘north Indians’.

According to the Mumbai Human Development Report 2009 prepared by the National Resource Centre for Urban Poverty, though, most of Mumbai’s migrants are not from the north, but from other, neglected parts of Maharashtra. While Maharashtra accounts for 37.4 per cent of the city’s migrant population, Uttar Pradesh accounts for 24.3 per cent.

Subburao (21) of Nalgonda in Andhra Pradesh came to Mumbai three months ago. A farm labourer back home, he’s already got his business going here, selling socks (Rs 20 a pair) in the CST subway. He hopes to migrate to shirts (Rs 60 a piece) soon. “Once I am well-settled, I’ll call my brother here too,” he says in faltering Hindi.

In the crowded Gothic terminus above him, a group of eight women and six men, duly segregated as per the norms back home in Udupi, Karnataka — is gathering its belongings and preparing to step out into the city. “All the fields back home were flooded,” says Hari Govind. “We’ve come here to look for work.”

“Mumbai has space for everybody,” says Chandrashekhar Prabhu, urban development expert and former president of the Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority. “But every city has a carrying capacity and this needs to be considered.”

With the state election just days away, dealing with the influx of ‘outsiders’ is a key issue. “It is also a real issue now, with the stress on the city mounting,” says Mumbai-based political analyst B. Venkatesh Kumar. “And, with most of our migrants coming in from across Maharashtra, the new government will need to look at the state more holistically.”