Urban nomads: the floating population who fall asleep under the stars on Chennai’s rail lines

Abandoned railway buildings are used as shelter for those who have nowhere else to go

Meera Navlakha
Sunday 06 September 2020 15:45 BST
Hundreds of nomadic people sleep around the cavernous and often abandoned railway buildings
Hundreds of nomadic people sleep around the cavernous and often abandoned railway buildings (Photos by Narayana Swamy Subbaraman)

Feet plastered with cement. Spines laying on a solid stone bench. Bodies sprawled next to plastic water bottles. These are the first dawn images seen by the sleepers in the vast emptiness of Beach railway station in Chennai, as they wake up to a blast of a horn on the first train leaving the platform as day breaks.

“It’s a regular affair, I sleep on the benches at railway platforms,” says Parthasarathy, a 56-year-old, heavy-eyed labourer who missed the last train of the day after a late-night consignment delivery. After an exhausting shift involving cement delivery, he dozed off amidst the unfriendly stings of mosquitos. “The police have always been rude to people who find the purpose of this emptiness,” says Parthasarathy.

MRTS was built in 1995 (Narayana Swamy Subbaraman)
A family walks past a sleeping person (Narayana Swamy Subbaraman)

From the early times, men and women were nomads who travelled from a place to place in pursuit of food and shelter. Anthropologists suggest the ancient nomads moved in cooperative bands. Today, millions of Indians follow their example in the teeming cities of the country. But that ancient spirit of mutual support has long since been replaced by urban isolation and the law of the jungle.

The bustle of the railway station continues around the sleepers (Narayana Swamy Subbaraman)
The line was introduced for the growing population (Narayana Swamy Subbaraman)
The hope was to lower travel time (Narayana Swamy Subbaraman)

According to the Census of India in 2011, “One in three migrants in India are heading to southern states, Tamil Nadu with the highest growth rate of 98 per cent in the migrant population”. Walking along with Chennai’s rail platforms, with hundreds of nomadic people sleeping around the cavernous and often abandoned railway buildings, this comes as little surprise.

Ramesh, a handicapped and destitute day labourer who sleeps in railway station, says, “I don’t sleep at one railway station more than twice a week because it might lead to the police chasing us out.” Besides a working railway platform, these ghost structures shelter the needy. But only until the patrol cops come out to chase the nomads away as day breaks. “I lost my legs years ago. Since then I consider this place as my home,” says Ramesh, who lost his left leg in an accident.

Travellers onboard a train (Narayana Swamy Subbaraman)
Limited lighting as a train waits at a platform (Narayana Swamy Subbaraman)

Built in 1995, MRTS transports thousands of commuters a day from all walks of life. These commuters pass, absorbed in their own lives, blurring out the unnoticed migrant population. The rail line was established to reduce the travel time of the growing population, reflected today with lower patronage in sprawling railway stations.

A boy looks out of a train (Narayana Swamy Subbaraman)
The ghost structures serve as a shelter to the needy (Narayana Swamy Subbaraman)
Nomads are often chased away by police as day breaks (Narayana Swamy Subbaraman)

The floating population who sleep furtively in the railway buildings are often disabled – people not considered good candidates for jobs. They have nowhere else to go. “We have always been looked down upon as we are homeless and we are also accused of creating a social nuisance,” adds Jeevanandham, a disabled destitute who spends his night at Beach railway station.

Parthsarathy, 56: ‘The police have always been rude to the people who find purpose of this emptiness’ (Narayana Swamy Subbaraman)
‘We have always been looked down upon as we are homeless’ (Narayana Swamy Subbaraman)

Jeevanandham says, “Our lives are worse than what it is in slums, we are always on the lookout for a place to sleep after dusk”. With crowds buzzing from one rail line to another, left unnoticed are some who migrate for work, some who are disabled and some who don’t have a place called home. For now, Parthasarathy, Ramesh and Jeevanandham represent the voices of homelessness who will go find shelter in emptiness and sleep in the darkness of the night.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in