Mumbai, India: Pavement-dwellers’ movements and their struggle to define citizenship in a city striving to achieve “world-class” status

Maria Cristina HARRIS, 2009

Since 1986, pavement dwellers in Mumbai have struggled to achieve recognition in public policy and not solely be considered temporary and invaluable urban citizens. Although it has been a continuous process, three organizations have managed to achieve significant improvements in defining their status as active citizens wanting to secure their right not only to adequate housing but their right to the city as well.

Mumbai, India’s largest city and the country’s financial and commercial capital, is home to approximately 12 million inhabitants, of which 50 percent are slum dwellers and another 10 percent pavement dwellers. In contrast to slum dwellers who inhabit vacant pieces of land, pavement dwellers literally reside on the pavements or sidewalks of the city and build their homes depending on the width of sidewalk they possess. People settle on sidewalks not because of a desire to live on them but because of the lack of choice they have to gain access to adequate land and housing in close proximity to their workplaces. Although slum and pavement dwellers make up more than half of Mumbai’s population, they are often not recognized as formal inhabitants who contribute to the city, but are rather thought of as transitory and of little value to the economy.

Community-based organizations, Mahila Milan and the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF), alongside the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC), have been working together since the mid-1980s to improve the housing situation of pavement dwellers in Byculla, an area in central Mumbai. When these three organizations came together to form what is known as the Alliance, pavement dwellers were amongst the worst off inhabitants in the city. Although physically quite visible on the streets, pavement dwellers were entirely invisible in public policy. They could not obtain ration cards, which are identity cards that grant citizens the right to schooling and access to subsidized food, nor could they gain access to basic services like water, sanitation, and electricity. Pavement dwellers, unlike slum dwellers, were also excluded from electoral rolls and any official census taken in the city and throughout the country.

The social exclusion faced by Byculla’s pavement dwellers and the constant fear of having their pavement homes demolished by the municipality, prompted them to take their own measures to claim both their right to the city and their status as formal citizens. In 1985 SPARC and the Byculla pavement dwellers conducted their own census to demonstrate their presence in the city. It turned out that 60 percent of households had been in Mumbai for over a decade, far too much time to still be considered intruders and excluded from public policy.

In 1986, a housing exhibition was initiated by the Alliance to display life-size models of houses designed by and for pavement dwellers. Today, these housing exhibitions continue and have been replicated in cities throughout India as well as in other Asian and African countries. The housing exhibitions are a way for pavement dwellers to be involved in the design of their houses in accordance with their economic and spatial needs. They are also a way to show city and state officials that the poor can and should play an important role in the production of their habitat and be active participants in the construction and design of the city.

By 1995, pavement dwellers were finally given the opportunity to register on electoral roles and at that point started being recognized by the Slum Rehabilitation Authority, the body which supports citizens when they have to resettle or redevelop their homes. Once pavement dwellers began gaining more recognition, the women of Mahila Milan decided to apply to the Bombay Electric Supply and Transport Undertaking (BEST), the electricity supplier for the city of Mumbai, as they no longer wanted to depend on illegal electricity supplies often obtained through middlemen at high costs. After two years of consultations with BEST officials and much resistance from BEST to grant the pavement dwellers access, Mahila Milan, with the help of NSDF and SPARC, managed to obtain electricity in one sector of Byculla. By 1999, 125 households had formal access to electricity and this has only increased throughout the years.

The achievements accomplished by the Byculla pavement dwellers and the Alliance throughout the past 23 years is quite significant; they have made themselves visible in urban policy, begun to participate in how urban space is shaped, and have made considerable progress in claiming their right to the city. It is quite clear that through determination and cooperation, local initiatives like those taken on by the Alliance and the Byculla inhabitants can be successful in influencing how citizenship is defined and in enabling cities to be more inclusive spaces for all of their inhabitants.

Today’s cities have become increasingly exclusive for the poor who do not have sufficient resources to enter the dominant market economy. In Mumbai, the recently launched Mumbai City Development Plan (MCDP) 2002-2005, which strives to transform Mumbai into a world-class city by 2013, has the potential to further exclude pavement dwellers from urban space. The MCDP promises to dramatically increase low-income housing availability and affordability, and improve housing stock. However, world-class status and improved housing stock implies a city free of slums and informal dwellings, and thus a city where pavement dwellers are no longer physically visible. For a city to be “attractive” at the international scale, it must be appealing to the public eye, have a thriving economy, and must invest in large infrastructure projects such as transportation, conference centers, and tourist attractions. Where then do pavement dwellers fall on the list of priorities when governments are striving for world-class status?

I believe governments must acknowledge the potential that citizens have to positively shape urban spaces. The Byculla pavement dwellers and the Alliance have demonstrated that when supported by the municipal government and other institutional bodies such as the Slum Rehabilitation Authority and BEST, they can be drivers of community improvements and can shape urban space in a way that meets the needs of the most impoverished in the city. If Mumbai aims to become a world-class city it must ensure the equal treatment of all of its citizens and acknowledge pavement dwellers as active citizens rather than intruders. The city belongs to people like the Byculla pavement dwellers just as much as it does to its rich inhabitants, therefore if Mumbai wants to achieve world-class status it should work with citizens to give them adequate housing and allow them to participate in decision making. A world-class city must be inclusive, it must value the local and its own citizens before placing international interests as top priorities, and thus it must enable the poor, such as Byculla’s pavement dwellers, to continue claiming their right to the city.


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  • Burra, Sundar and Liz Riley. 1999. « Electricity to Pavement Dwellers in Mumbai ». Pages: 1-17.

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  • McKinsey & Company. 2003. « Vision Mumbai ». India office website:

  • SPARC. 1995. « We the Invisible Revisited ». Website: