Mumbai’s ticking bomb

Published : Apr 24, 2020 07:00 IST

Outside their homes during the lockdown at Dharavi on April 3.

Outside their homes during the lockdown at Dharavi on April 3.

“If we don’t die from the disease, we will die of starvation,” says Lakshmi Umape, 45, who lives in the sprawling Geeta Nagar slum near the World Trade Centre in Mumbai. “They (police) have been patrolling our lanes ever since the lockdown started. They allow us to go to shops only within the slum. Those shops charge us three times the price for rice or dal . We heard the Prime Minister saying all food will be available at fixed price. But the shopkeepers charge us whatever they want. It is robbery.”

Lakshmi Umape works part time as a cook. Recently widowed, she supports three children, a daughter-in-law and two grandchildren. When the lockdown was announced, her employers gave her a month’s wages and asked her to stay home until the situation normalises. She is not sure whether she still has a job. But the immediate worry is food and mobility. “The police are constantly beating or chasing people. It is very tense here,” she says.

Geeta Nagar is a slum of nearly one lakh people. Large families are packed into tiny one- or two-room structures that stand cheek by jowl along narrow lanes. Public toilet facilities are present only on the main roads that border the slum. Its diverse population is engaged in daily-wage labour, fishing, as domestic helps and so on.

Naturally, the cramped spaces, the lack of constructive activity and the unavailability of food is causing resentment and a restiveness. The extension of the lockdown made it worse. Residents of several slum areas that Frontline spoke to say the mood is down. “If high prices are bad enough, we have to buy gas, oil and milk in the black market,” says Mahesh Pujari, a waiter at a restaurant. “We are given two hours in the morning to use the public toilet and when we get there, the lines are very long. If there is a time frame to the lockdown we can manage it somehow,” says Pujari. “We do not even know whether we still have work” he says. He makes about Rs.10,000 a month and sends a small amount to his mother living in a village in Karnataka.

Barely 100 metres away are buildings that house some of the richest in the city. “Physical distancing and lockdowns are for the rich. In the beginning, we thought it was temporary. If we do not get work when the lockdown lifts, there will be a rebellion. Politicians have not dared to show their faces around our area,” says Pujari. An office-bearer of the nearby Cuffe Parade Residents Association acknowledges the disparity. However, the representative of the society says the government has given strict orders to restrict entry for part-time staff, many of whom come from Geeta Nagar. In fact, they can file a case if the society is seen violating the rules, so our hands are tied, says the representative.

Mumbai’s slums have become one of the most challenging aspects of addressing the pandemic. The density of their population and the insanitary conditions are ideal for the spread of the disease. As Mumbai becomes one of the hot spots in the country, there is a very real fear that if the disease hits the slum pockets, the city will be grappling with a health crisis it is not equipped to handle.

According to the 2011 Census, 41.3 per cent of Mumbai’s 1.84 crore population live in shanty towns. The Maharashtra State government is aware of the slums becoming tinderboxes and seems to be making an effort via the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to control the situation. However, it will require a mammoth effort to keep the disease under check if it starts spreading in these areas.

At present three slums have been sealed because of residents testing positive. Sections of Dharavi, South Mumbai’s Worli-Koliwada and Asha Nagar have been completely sealed.On April 16, Dharavi recorded 71 positive cases and eight deaths. Worli-Koliwada had six positive cases and Asha Nagar reportedly three. Mumbai recorded over 2,000 positive cases on April 16 and approximately 100-plus deaths.

“Densely populated, poor sanitation and hygiene levels are draws for the virus to attack. Sadly, it is an imported disease and for no fault of the poor they will be victims,” says a doctor in Dharavi. “In spite of the government’s efforts, it will strike here and people here do not have the wherewithal to survive this disease unless the government helps. But even if the government wants to help, it does not have enough resources given the numbers, he says. Census figures peg Mumbai’s population density at an average of 21,000 per square kilometre. Not only does the city have the highest density of population in India, but it is among the top three most populated cities in the world.

Mindful of the slums’ vulnerability and the stringent lockdown rules, municipal workers have been visiting affected pockets to take swab tests and carry out door-to-door checks. Deputy Municipal Commissioner Ramesh Pawar told the media that this is also being done to ease the load on laboratories and to prioritise testing,. The BMC says they have the capacity to test up to 2,200 patients a day. Two government laboratories along with five private ones are currently authorised to do the tests. Two government hospitals and three private hospitals will be dedicated COVID-19 treatment centres. Additionally, asymptomatic patients will be admitted to isolation centres in Nagpada, Bandra, Andheri, Powai and Shivaji Nagar. Observers say that while these arrangements are assuring, they are not enough to meet the likely demand. There are 381 containment centres in Mumbai.

Vinod Shetty, a labour lawyer and activist who runs ACORN, a non-government organisation (NGO) that works with children in Dharavi, says: “It is like a concentration camp there. No one is allowed in or out without a special pass. In spite of porous borders, the police have managed to seal it extremely well, leading to the feeling that the government has the resources to do these things but when people really need help, the government turns a blind eye. I hear that the free rations that the Prime Minister announced is not reaching the areas of the COVID-19 affected people. The migrant labour issue, which is already showing signs of exploding, is a problem in the slums as well. Many have rented homes on short-term leases. If they cannot pay the rent next month, the landlords will throw them out. Tension is brewing. They were not given any warning of the lockdown. All they want to do now is go back to their villages. It is tragic and will lead to a bigger tragedy. The misery is palpable. I think if the law enforcement authorities and local politicians are more communicative, people may calm down.”

Anuj Lakra, 35, a security guard who lives in Nala Sopara, was ready to leave for his village in Chhattisgarh on April 15 when the lockdown was to end. He told this correspondent that he and his friends had decided to hire a bus and leave the city as they had no money to survive another month. Besides, the climate in the colony was tense and he said they could not live like that anymore. Lakra lives with eight other men in a single-room structure in a slum located in the northern belt of Mumbai. They work in shifts, four working at night and the other four during the day. When he was informed that crossing two State borders was impossible, that it would be a danger to his health and that travelling in a group would not be allowed, he broke down. “All I want is to go home. I will walk if I have to,” he said.

There seems to have been a misconception that the lockdown would be lifted on April 15 and trains would ply to take people to their villages. That is perhaps why thousands gathered at the Bandra station on April 14, says a corporator from the ruling party who did not wish to be named. “The feeling we got was that there would be an exodus. Disappointment has led to unrest within the bastis [slums]. That is why the police have stepped up patrolling.” There has been a noticeable ramp-up of security personnel in Mumbai ever since the lockdown was extended.

“I cannot go out and buy anything, police vans and patrols are all over our chawli [slum]. The other day, BMC people came to spray disinfectant in the area and we saw some screening. We have no idea what is happening, but have been told to stay indoors,” says Amit Shengenkar, a taxi driver who lives in Worli. “In our area, local boys are now helping the police patrol. It has helped because people are familiar with the boys and they feel reassured. But we cannot get anything where we are,” says Laxmi Kamble, a social worker who lives in Dharavi. The people who are very badly affected are those labourers who work in the textile and leather units in Dharavi. They are all daily-wage migrants from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. They thought the trains would operate on April 15, but now everything is at a standstill.

Mumbai’s slums occupy just 10 per cent of its geographical area but some wards such as Dharavi have a population density of 66,190 a sq. km. Mumbai’s most dense area has 91,991 living in a sq. km.


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