The Digital Journalist


How the story is structured.

Lansdowne Road is a photoessay about life in a short street in downtown Bombay, which runs from the 5-star Taj Mahal Hotel to Regal Circle, one of South Bombay's main roundabouts. The area is full of tourists, both foreign and Indian, who come to visit the Gateway of India, a large monumental arch built at the beginning of the last century. It is also where many street people come to try to make a living from the tourists. As well as the street people from all over India there is a large settlement of Pardhis, members of one of the so-called Criminal Tribes, ethnic groups who were "notified" by the British as having a genetic or cultural disposition to crime.

The story breaks into two halves: Pardhi and Others, dealing with the Pardhi themselves and the other street people who live in the area. The Pardhi section contains 29 images, Others 25. Each section has its own set of contact sheets and captions. The actual images are raw scans from a Nikon LS2000 resized to 1500X1000 pixels and saved as JPEGs. They have not been manipulated in any other way.

The text consists of excerpts from articles by Dilip d'Souza, a Bombay journalist who is presently writing a book about the Criminal Tribes for Penguin India, some of which is specifically about the Pardhis and other parts of which supply more historical background to the Criminal Tribes phenomenon. There is also a brief text by myself about the situation of the Pardhis in South Bombay.

The Pardhis in Lansdowne Road - Robert Appleby

It was only after I'd been photographing in Lansdowne Road for a while that I realised that a group of people who slept in the carpark and always stayed together when begging actually constituted a tribe. The other street people - who came from all over India - called them kachchra lok (rubbish people) although they coexisted peacefully. It turned out that these were Pardhis, members of one of the so-called Criminal Tribes, now more properly called the Denotified Tribes or Denotifieds for short. They came from rural Maharashtra, from Barsi, although the Pardhi ethnic group is actually spread all over Maharashtra and Gujurat. Once I had become aware of the Pardhis staying at Gateway I started noticing them in other places; at Juhu and Chowpatty, among the crowds on the beaches, young girls selling balloons and tugging at sightseers' arms; at the stoplights all over Bombay, always a young girl with a baby whining through the taxi window with the right hand extended limply for a coin. There is a large settlement at Matunga on the Central Line, where the railway slums encroach on the tracks, and the children beg and sell jasmine blossom hair garlands on the trains.
In fact the story of the Pardhis at Gateway is desperately sad. They first came to Gateway, like all other street people, to hunt the tourists (indeed, "pardhi" means "hunter", and their traditional livelihood is hunting), but they were few, just another small group in the mix. Then, several years ago, a British NGO opened a shelter for runaway street kids in Colaba and, not knowing who the Pardhis were, opened their doors to them as well. Naturally this led to an enormous increase in the Pardhi population in Colaba, although the shelter soon decided that they fell outside their remit and stopped helpng them except occasionally in emergency cases. There are now a hundred or more Pardhis at Gateway, living at the bottom of the street hierarchy, despised by the police and other street people, the true outcasts in this extremely stratified society.
The popular image of these tribals still reflects the prejudices that even scholars have expressed: "Though they have taken to comparatively peaceful habits, they have not got rid of their thieving propensities. When in towns or villages selling game, they try to find a suitable place for robbery. They commit burglaries, rob fields, and steal when the chance offers." Or again: "Though ostensibly snarers and hunters, they make their living mainly by committing robberies. They openly rob the standing crops. Ö They drink liquor to excess." Kachchra.

Kalya's story is typical. In the early summer the Pardhis go home to their villages to celebrate their festival and patch up their houses. It was June and most of them had already left Lansdowne Road, but Kalya was having no luck with the tourists, and it was a slack period in any case. One day I met him at Gateway and he told me he'd finally got the seven hundred rupees together to go home; his wife was waiting for him in Ulhasnagar, a northern suburb on the mainland, and he was going the next day.
The next day I saw a filthy naked man, drugged or drunk, staggering along the street with a group of children laughing and pushing him over. It was Kalya. Abdul, his good friend, told me that while he was sleeping on Colaba Causeway the night before, he was robbed. He'd got hold of some drugs and drink and tried, I think, to kill himself. One day a man with plans, the next a dog to be kicked.
We managed to get some money and clothes together for him and send him off to his wife, but it was just the last straw in a long bad six months for Kalya and his family. First his 14 month old daughter Kavita died of viral encephalitis in January, closely followed by his sister Ganga's new baby two weeks later. Then his mother's hip and leg were broken by another son in a drunken fight at Matunga, and Ganga's foot was crushed by a taxi - some said as the result of jaddu - witchcraft. By September his wife was pregnant again. The last I heard (February of this year) he'd stolen a bicycle and run away from Lansdowne Road. What hope is there for a man on the street, where every vestige of decency and dignity is stripped from him.

At one time things were different: the Pardhis were entertainers and animal handlers in the courts, and were sometimes rewarded for their performances with grants of land - grants which now have no legal validity. About the only trace of their former profession is the common use of monkeys as begging accessories. As for the land, on which they built their villages, that is being eaten up by the explosive growth of the cities, which no group of impoverished tribals can halt, no matter what old documents say.
But few of them have any vision of a better life, even if they had access to it (and the authorities are always after them). Their whole culture by now is centred on begging, although they do sell hair garlands and balloons to tourists and travellers on the suburban trains. And none of them that I know send their children to school, despite the variety of voluntary organisations offering free schooling to street peoples' children in Bombay. Like so many, they are members of India's permanent underclass: people whose limited vision of themselves combines with the indifference and hostility of those above them to perpetuate their condition. 

A brief history of the "Criminal Tribes"
Excerpted from articles by Dilip d'Souza, Bombay

The way society and the police views ex-criminal tribes today has its roots
in colonial times, in the very concept of policing in India as a British
colony. To the British, India must have seemed a hair-raisingly anarchic
and volatile society, one that presented problems of law and order entirely
different from those on the home island. 19th Century England's rather more
settled society meant that the police there had begun focussing on
protecting private property; but in India, simply keeping public order was
work enough and became the prime goal of the police. Crime, thus, was
defined in terms of how difficult it was for the police to bring India's
large, dispersed populations under the rule of law.

India was also magnitudes vaster than England. For the police to establish
their hold over this huge area was a nearly intractable task. There was
strife and conflict everywhere, tensions of a kind the English had never
known at home. There was little hope that they would be able to contain all
of it, all over India. Consciously or not, the strategy that evolved was to
concentrate the limited resources and efforts of the police on selected,
visible, targets. This was the only way to give an appearance of being an
effective guarantor of public peace. In his "Imperial Power and Popular
Politics: Class, Resistance and the State in India 1850-1950", Rajnarayan
Chandavarkar explains: "[The police] necessarily [had] to rely upon a
general consensus about which groups in society were especially prone to
criminal activity and might constitute, therefore, the proper objects of
policing. ... [B]y enacting this principle of selection, the colonial state
was able to create criminal tribes and castes."

In this model of policing in colonial India, criminal tribes were just a
convenient target, a scapegoat. By acting against them, the state could
keep up at least a pretence of enforcing law and order around the country,
even if much other crime happened and was left unpunished. As Chandavarkar
writes: "While in reality crime went largely unreported and unrecorded,
police reports and memoirs ... described in painstaking detail crimes of
savage brutality or extraordinary guile and cunning or those which
reflected exotic customs and elaborate rituals. Of course, this was
particularly the case with ... the criminal tribes and castes, whose
supposed criminality was represented as an inheritance and a profession,
inextricably connected to their lineage and genealogy."

And yet the truth, says Chandavarkar, was really that "... the criminal
tribes were scarcely, by the late 19th Century, a potent threat to social

In those lurid police records was born a certain view of certain tribes
that made it easy to call them criminal. This view, this use that was made
of them if you like, has persisted. In his 1932 book "The Underworld of
India", Lt. Gen. Sir George MacMunn calls such tribes "absolutely the scum,
the flotsam and jetsam of Indian life, of no more regard than the beasts of
the field." Add to that florid description the Phaltan sub-inspector's
succinct pronouncement, circa 1999: that crime is no more than "their

When they are so easily seen through this dark lens, it's no wonder that
the police still thinks these tribes are inherently prone to crime. That
they are still first to be rounded up when crimes happen. Just by way of
recent example, the sub-inspector told me he had arrested two Pardhis -- a
Shera Narayan Bhosle and his accomplice -- only days earlier. After what he
described with a wave of the hand as some "degree-vagairah" (loosely
translated: "third degree") they had confessed, he said, to three or four
dacoities in the area.

"Degree-vagairah" notwithstanding, the truth still is that while there are
indeed Pardhi criminals, they hardly constitute "a potent threat to social
order." That particular description applies better to wealthy, powerful,
politicians and other criminals, men who get away with enormous swindles,
with stoking murderous riots. Meanwhile, Pardhis live in miserable huts,
always on the outskirts of villages, in constant dread of bring rounded up
by the police.

Every single Pardhi I have met -- several dozen, by now -- has spoken of
that dread.

And The Tap Tells A Tale
Dilip D'Souza

Where were the women of the little colony, I was starting to wonder. A
dozen or so of the men had spent the morning with me, talking, showing me
papers, showing me around their homes. When we began, I spotted several of
their wives, standing around on the periphery in colourful saris. But those
bright reds, greens and yellows had since melted silently away.

I was to see them again soon enough. The men wanted to show me something a
hundred or so metres away. No, they did not mean the missing women. But
when we got to the spot, we found several of them there. They were taking
turns to fill their pots with water from a "tap."

Now I use that term -- "tap" -- with some circumspection. Because this was
not what you might ordinarily recognize as one. Instead, it was a pipe that
stuck a few inches out of the ground. Water flowed steadily through it.
With no obvious way to turn the flow off, it had formed a slushy, murky
pond in the surrounding mud. To reach the tap, the women had waded through
the muck with their pots. Now they were perched on stones placed in the
pond, smiling shyly up at me as their pots filled.

The tap, of course, was the only source of water for the little colony of
just over a hundred huts, of about five or six hundred people. The tap, of
course, was what the men had brought me to see.

And I had particularly wanted to see this tap. While we talked, several of
the men had produced a series of bills from the Municipal Corporation,
going back nearly a quarter of a century. Each listed a charge for water.
For at least 25 years, each of those one hundred huts had been billed for
water -- for that one tap they all had to share. In its most recent
billing, in November 1998, the Municipal Corporation wanted Rs 252 per
house for the tap. I did the calculation easily: over Rs 25000 a year for
one tap shared by several hundred people.

This had to be a remarkable tap indeed; I almost expected it to be
gold-plated. I simply had to see it. I felt mildly let down when it turned
out to be most ordinary.

Still, there was enough else to puzzle over. The oldest bill I saw that day
was one that Nathabhai Veljibhai Vaghela showed me. It was dated August 30
1975, and was for the year between April 1 1975 and March 31 1976. On it
was the water charge for those twelve months: Rs 2.14. Two rupees and
fourteen paise. Nathabhai also showed me a bill dated August 6 1988,
applying to the period between April 1 1988 and March 31 1989. This bill
demanded Rs 18 for water: in thirteen years, there had been a nearly
nine-fold increase in that charge.

70-year old Khudabhai Jivabhai was one among several men who had the most
recent bill. This was the one dated November 2 1998, carrying a water
charge of Rs 252 for the year 1998-99. In the ten years since 1988, the
Municipality had multiplied its water fee another fourteen times.

Or: the charge today for Baroda Municipal Corporation water to this one
colony of hutments is nearly 120 times greater than it was just under 25
years ago. That outstrips inflation by a mile: Tata's reliable little S.O.
(Statistical Outline of India) tells me that the wholesale price index has
risen approximately five-fold over the same period. Real estate has not
appreciated nearly as spectacularly either. In fact, I feel safe in saying
there cannot be a single investment that has, over a quarter of a century,
increased in value as much as the cost of Baroda water to several hundred
of its poorest residents has.

And in all that time, one thing has not changed. Those residents have had
to get their water from one somewhat distant tap that is surrounded by a
pool of slime.

It was 80 years ago, the men told me, that the Maharaja of Baroda gave
their ancestors this land to live on. They belonged to the Bajanias (the
word comes from "bajana", to play an instrument), a wandering minstrel
tribe that makes a living by playing music at weddings and other functions.
The land -- then part of Majepur village, well outside the limits of Baroda
-- was a reward to one Bajania troop for a performance at some
long-forgotten royal wedding.

The Maharaja's word was then law. If it was to prove inadequate decades
later, as you will soon see, at the time it was enough for those two dozen
musicians and their families. They did not bother asking the Maharaja for
written titles and other such legal niceties. Giving up their wandering,
the Bajanias built themselves homes and have lived here ever since. Today,
the hundred huts form a colony known as Mani Nagar Bajaniavas.

Of course, Mani Nagar is now very much part of Baroda. That's because
Baroda has expanded greatly in those 80 years. In particular, what used to
be fields in this area has turned into a maze of paved roads used by a
steady stream of chaotic traffic. There are dozens of shops and STD booths,
several quite fancy four- and five-storeyed blocks of flats. Around the
buildings you can see the usual detritus of urban India in the late 1990s:
plastic bags, drink cartons, garbage dumps in which a few pigs root

And I don't need to enter these nice-looking flats to know that each one
certainly must have a steady supply of Baroda Municipal Corporation water
that arrives via gleaming Jaquar brand bathroom fittings. I don't need to,
because that's how such flats are. They are built so that those who live in
them can find comfort and water within their homes. So they need not be
forced into the inconvenience of filling pots from one un-shuttable tap. I
did not find out what the Baroda Municipality charges the people in these
flats for water; whatever it is, I know they get it more easily than the
far less privileged men and women who live at their doorstep.

Why, I asked the less privileged men, does the Municipality charge you an
ever-escalating fee for water, but supply the precious liquid to you in
such a niggardly fashion?

We have asked the same question, they told me, and many times. We always
get the same answer: you have encroached on this land illegally; you must
leave; we are going to demolish all your huts eventually; why should we
give you water anyway? Ever since these buildings started coming up -- here
they waved at the blocks of flats -- we have been hearing this argument.

The men unfolded a survey map to prove to me that the land the Maharaja
originally gave them included the plots where the blocks of flats now are.
They tried to make it clear how the lines on the map corresponded to the
ground. But with all the buildings and roads around us, I could not quite
grasp the layout the map indicated.

Until I remembered the tap. It is a hundred metres from the huts, but it is
surrounded by four of the buildings, each no more than a stone's throw
away. Even given India's notoriously eccentric Municipalities, it seems
crazy for Baroda's city authorities to give these Bajanias a tap so far
from their homes. Unless when the Municipality did connect that tap, it was
in the middle of their plot of land, among the huts they had built there.
That, I realized, is the story the map told.

The huts at that end of their land, the Bajanias said, had all been torn
down to clear space for buildings. When one such demolition job, in 1993,
was imminent, the hutment dwellers went to Court but failed to stop the
Municipal action. That judgement was later upheld by the Ahmedabad High
Court. In an order dated May 25 1993, that learned Court observed: "[The
appellants] submitted that they are in possession [of the land] pursuant to
some [grant in] their favour by some ruler of Baroda State. In support [of
this] submission no evidence was produced before the [earlier] trial. [Nor
was] any evidence forthcoming before this Court. ... The appellants
therefore do not have any [title on] the land and therefore they cannot be
permitted to [occupy it]."

And that is just how summarily, 80 years on, a Maharaja's gift to a few
wandering minstrels was snatched away.

All text ( Dilip d'Souza 1999 and ( Robert Appleby 2000.

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