For Women Hawkers In Mumbai’s Flower Market, The Day Begins In Jungles

Despite the enervating humidity of the mid-October night in Mumbai, Bhimabai Zunjure, 40, is deftly working a mound of mango leaves into neat bunches. She sits on the bridge leading to the Dadar flower market, and looks up from her work to onl

Despite the enervating humidity of the mid-October night in Mumbai, Bhimabai Zunjure, 40, is deftly working a mound of mango leaves into neat bunches. She sits on the bridge leading to the Dadar flower market, and looks up from her work to only sell the leaves which are in high demand for the ongoing Navratri rituals. She can earn around Rs 200-300 a day during the festival season if she works at a stretch for 24 hours.

Zunjure lives in Tirangalwadi village in the Igatpuri tehsil of Nashik district, a good 125 km from Dadar. In the festive season, she heads to the forest near her home every day around 9 am to forage for mango leaves. By around 4pm, she usually manages to collect three sacks full weighing around 12 kg, and starts her long journey to the Dadar flower market

Zunjure, and her friend Satrabai Shivare, get to Ghoti,  a neighbouring town by a bus or shared auto, and there they hail another auto to take them to the Igatpuri station. There, they board the Tapovan Express to Mumbai around 6.50 pm. It is 9.30 pm when she gets to Dadar and then starts the struggle to find a space on the bridge to set up her stall – a 4 sq ft area where she spreads her leaf collection.

All she has managed to eat the whole day since she left home is a vada pao. It is 11.30 pm when we meet her. 

“We sell the bunches till tomorrow morning, 10/11 am or till whenever they sell out. Then we will take a train and reach home by 5-6 pm. We sell the bundles in both wholesale and retail – Rs 300 for 100 or Rs 5 for one. Even at that price people bargain, how do we make any profit?” she asks.

Bhimabai Zunjure working at her stall at midnight in Dadar’s flower market / Pradeep Kokare

Zunjure and many like her who travel long distances to Mumbai from interior villages surrounded by forests belong to the Katkari tribe, categorised as a particularly vulnerable tribal group (PVTG) in Maharashtra. Their lives have been extensively documented by researchers such as Milind Bokil and Surekha Dalavi. The community possesses no farming land and relies heavily on forest produce for livelihood. The men engage mostly in low paying casual work, and poverty is rampant in the community. In their villages, Katkaris are treated with suspicion and contempt. 

Festivals like Ganesh Utsav, Navratri, Dussehra and Diwali are opportunities for the women to make some money by selling the mango leaves they collect from forests neighbouring their homes. The women also sell seasonal forest vegetables like takla, kurdu, and alu during monsoons at the Dadar station in Mumbai as well as in markets in distant suburbs close to their homes such as Kalyan, Ulhasnagar, Badlapur, and Ambernath. 

Marching Together

The hawkers at the Dadar flower market often travel together because it gives them a feeling of safety, solidarity and support. They are too poor to pay for a train ticket.

“Mostly people support us but sometimes RPF wale (the railway police force) and TCs (ticket checkers) stop us. We band together and convince them that we don’t have the money to buy tickets or pay fines. They usually let us travel,” says Satrabai Shivare 

Gulab Vilas Pawar, 44, is from Kothimbe village in Karjat in Raigad district, 85 km from Mumbai. She too travels to the city with a group of women – Mukta Hilam, Laxmi Waghmare, Reshma Waghmare, all her friends. They go foraging in a neighbourhood forest together and also put up stalls next to each other.

“We use Mumbai local (trains) for travelling, and since they get extremely crowded, we have to help each other unload the sacks. Going together to forage also gives us a sense of safety – no men can bother us and if they do we know how to deal with them” says Pawar with a chuckle. 

She is very thrilled with the henna pattern she has drawn on her left palm for Navratri. No, she cannot afford packaged henna, she just chanced on it, she says. “Ha kon ithech padlela hota tar uchalala ani kadhala jara eka hatavar, donhi hatavar kadhla tar maal kasa viknar? (I just picked up a used cone of mehendi someone had discarded on the road and drew on one palm. How can we sell our wares if we have henna on both hands?),” she asks.

No Time To Celebrate

Their work cycle is so hectic during the festive season that the women find no time to celebrate with their families.

“Earlier we would bring home an idol of the Devi, decorate our aangans (courtyards) and celebrate all nine days. Then the idols became too expensive for the pada (community). We could not even afford snacks for our children after they finished garba at night. We don’t get much time either. We manage one visit during Navratri to visit a temple in our village or pray wherever we are. We try to make some sweets at home for our children, like kheer, sheera, and puranpoli with the aandacha shidha (subsidised food grains distributed at PDS shops during festivals). Now inflation is so high that we can’t afford to make dals and vegetables. Our children also work as daily wagers,” says Laxmi Waghmare, a single woman in her 40s. Her husband died 10 years ago and she has two children. One of them is 25 and could not finish formal schooling and the other works as a labourer. 

Mukta Hilam, Gulab Pawar, Laxmi Waghmare, Reshma Waghmare from Kothimbe village, Karjat selling mango leaves at the Dadar flower market at midnight / Pradeep Kokare

On most days, meals in Katkari families consist of rice and dry chilli powder, says Mukta Hilam, twisting her pallu in anxiety. “When a festival comes around, we might buy 250 gm of chicken or mutton and I serve everyone two small pieces,” she says. In the village, members of the tribe are often humiliated, she says, and their children treated badly. “When they see our children, they say to their face: ‘Bagha, Katodyachi pora aali, tyancha avatar bagha, kashi ghanerdi…’ (Look at these Katkari children, so unclean),”said Hilam. 

A new saree or a set of bangles is a luxury for Katkari women. “We buy two sarees every year, a cheap one for daily wear and another for festivals and occasions like weddings. Women like you get new bangles, earrings, jewellery, gajra for the hairand henna for festivals, not us. A set of bangles costs Rs 50 to 100 so we use that money for our children,” Mukta Hilam adds. 

Chingubai Sakhare travelled from Kasara to Dadar to sell mango leaves and seasonal flowers on the occasion of Navratri / Pradeep Kokare

Struggle For Water, Sanitation, Health Facilities

A policeman who patrols the Dadar flower market but wishes to remain anonymous says that 400-500 women hawkers come here from outside Mumbai. There is only one public toilet here, which has only two toilet seats for women and one tiny bathroom. A single use costs Rs 5, and the toilet is functional with adequate water supply but it is not clean.

“The toiletwala takes Rs 5 but it smells all the time, and we are afraid of catching a urine infection. Anyway, who has the money to spend Rs 20-25 on multiple toilet visits? We simply drink less water,” says Chingu Sakhare, a Katkari woman from Kasara in Thane district who too sits at the flower market.  

The women bring water bottles that they fill at the Dadar railway station or from the drinking water tap near the public toilet in the market. Sometimes they do not even get time to refill their bottles and go without water. “We always feel that we can save these Rs 10/20 and buy something for our children,” says Reshma Waghmare. 

For the women who work outdoors in Mumbai, which reports an average humidity of 60% to 70 %, heat is a troubling issue that impacts their health.

“Until two years ago, we used to carry a light sheet or shawl to cover ourselves while sleeping at the stall. It would get nippy between 3am and 6 am. Now it’s hot even at midnight. Even the jungles have changed – these are places where we once found respite in the cool breeze while working,” says Gulab Pawar. 

No one can afford to fall ill at work. There is no ambulance available; the nearest government hospital, KEM, is not far but the chaotic traffic conditions in the Dadar area would mean a 30-40 minute drive in case of a health emergency.

Katkari women at Dadar also told Behanbox that over the last three years, they have fallen sick frequently because of the heat conditions. They complain of exhaustion, fainting fits, and aches. “We have had to get admitted to hospitals once or twice a year and given saline,” says Pawar. 

Neha Saigal, director of gender and climate change at Asar, a social impact consultancy, says the crisis is impacting not just the women’s health but also the forest produce that is essential for their livelihood. “Increasing heat and climate change is affecting women and specifically women from lower income groups. And there are no policies to help them cope,” she says.

None of the 10 Katkari women Behanbox met have mobile phones. If they need to call home in an emergency, they have to borrow it from a passer-by and most people are not willing to part with their phones even for a few seconds, they say. “They say to us that Katkaris are not trustworthy. But young, educated people do help,” says Gulab Pawar.

  • Priyanka Tupe is a multimedia journalist with Behanbox based in Mumbai.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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