Lost on the streets of Chennai
Pavement dwellers are an all too common sight in India but in Chennai we meet one with a rather unusual story.

s soon as we step outside the heat hits us like an oncoming train, even in November Chennai is relentlessly hot. The city’s soundtrack is a cacophony of vehicle horns, accompanied by speeding cars whipping up swirls of dust and dirt. Walking along the betel stained street outside our hotel we pass a cast of nameless faces, having been here for a few days they’re beginning to look a little more familiar to us now. We think they must live here, but we know nothing about them.

Central Chennai and the Chennai Legal College Building.
Central Chennai and the Chennai Legal College Building.

India is full of invisible people. At first it’s shocking to see such a large number of pavement dwellers, but the sight is so common in cities across the country that gradually you become desensitised, the sight is less shocking, the people less visible to you. Your empathy for the dire situation these people face is unwavering, but spending time in India somehow (worryingly) normalises what you see. Chennai (formerly called Madras) is India’s fourth largest city, with a population of 8 million. Many Indians make the journey from villages to cities, like Chennai, in search of work and often end up as longterm pavement dwellers, piecing together a living as daily wage earners. It’s estimated that 15% of Indians, around 197 million people, live below the poverty line.

One man among the group we pass stands out from the others, his huge mane of hair and unruly beard drawing our attention as he sits on a wooden cycle cart, knees clutched to his chest, staring out into the distance listlessly. When we pass by again the following morning we’re surprised to see a sudden change in his appearance; gone is the wild hair and beard. We make eye contact and he beckons us over.

Philippe Thomas in Chennai.
Philippe Thomas in Chennai.

His name is Philippe Thomas and without the long hair and beard obscuring his face, and with teeth unstained by betel juice, it’s clear that he isn’t Indian. Clean shaven and wearing a short sleeved shirt and dhoti, Philippe sits on his cart and shyly tells us a few details in English about his life. Philippe is 75 and originally from Belgium, he made the journey to India when he was just 18 and has been living on the streets of Chennai since he arrived, 57 years ago. We are simultaneously stunned and intrigued, a hundred questions speed through our minds: why did he come here? Was he running away from Nazi occupied Belgium? Why did he never go home? Did he ever try to contact his family? But as this is our first conversation it feels too intrusive to ask. We buy him some breakfast and promise to come back and see him tomorrow.

We continue to visit Philippe for the next few mornings, gradually uncovering more fragments of his story. He worked on the ship he took from Belgium to India and so got free passage to Chennai, when he arrived he decided to stay and look for work. At some point along the way Philippe’s documents are lost, including his passport, meaning that he has no proof of who he is. This was the 1940s; WWII was still going on and communications channels were not what they are today, those documents could not be easily replaced. But this is where the story gets a little fuzzy; Philippe either can’t or doesn’t want to recall why he never tried to get them replaced and why he never tried to contact his family members, father, mother and one brother, back home.

Tattoos acquired by Philippe during his years in India.
Tattoos acquired by Philippe during his years in India.

Philippe started out working as a cycle rickshaw puller in Chennai, plying the trade for many years before eventually trading his rickshaw in for a cycle cart and portering goods instead. The trusty, well-worn, wooden cycle cart he spends his days sitting on is one of his few possessions, the back is held together with lengths of rope and a piece of plastic lines the bottom. Philippe parks the cart under the shade of a tree in the commercial area of the town, because this is where he is more likely to get work. Day in, day out he sits and waits on his cart, hoping to be offered jobs. A small job, like portering some water bottles takes about an hour and pays around 30 Rupees (50 cents), a bigger job takes about half a day and pays around 100 Rupees ($1.50). Due to ill health he is unable to work much these days, his strength is fading and taking on jobs proving more difficult, so he is unable to earn as much as he used to.

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A lack of, or lost, identity documents are a fact of life for many pavement dwellers, less than half of those living on Chennai’s streets have birth certificates and a third don’t have the government documents required to access welfare benefits such as subsidised food. It’s cruelly ironic that some of those most in need, technically, don’t exist because their paperwork is missing, they become truly invisible and even more cut off from society.

Pulling a cart of goods in the Chennai sun.

Work as a rickshaw or cycle cart puller is a notoriously difficult profession and one which provides employment and vital income to the poor. Rickshaw pullers are usually at the low end of the socio-economic scale and a marginalised section of society. Entry into the profession is relatively easy as no specific skills are required and it means access to fast cash, nowadays the job is often done by poor rural migrants who move to Indian cities in search of work. Socio-economic status is still inextricably linked to the caste system in India and rickshaw pullers are often from the so-called “backward” caste category, meaning they are socially and educationally disadvantaged. It’s easy to see why this profession would have attracted someone like Philippe, who needed a job when he arrived to Chennai but had no evidence of any qualifications, no Tamil language proficiency and no papers.

One afternoon we go out with Philippe on a job; he struggles to move the load he is portering and rather than cycling the cart he has to get off and pull instead. Like many of India’s poor, Philippe is a daily wage earner and his income fluctuates depending on whether or not he finds work, some days he does and some days he doesn’t. Often local businesses or offices bring him some food, so he doesn’t go hungry on those days when he can’t find work. At night he leaves his cart and takes his small bags of belongings to sleep at a nearby shelter. Every evening the pavement dwellers in our area either head to a shelter or roll out a mat to sleep on the street for the night. In the morning they’ll roll their mats back up and stash their belongings somewhere nearby.

After a week or so, our time in Chennai comes to an end, we say our goodbyes to Philippe and are left wondering what will happen to him, he’s looking frail and it seems unlikely that he will be able to continue portering goods on the cart for much longer. We leave with so many unanswered questions about Philippe and his life, but we have to accept that India is a country of millions and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter who you are or where you’ve come from, eventually you’ll be consumed by the sheer volume of people surrounding you. That’s what happened to Philippe and how a lost Belgian man became one of India’s many invisible people.

A cart puller in Chennai sits under the shade of a tree.
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