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Dharavi holds its breath as coronavirus cases increase

By Viveat Susan Pinto
April 06, 2020 10:36 IST
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Overcrowding, unsanitary conditions in Asia's largest slum pose big challenges to containment, reports Viveat Susan Pinto.

IMAGE: A girl looks on through the window of her house during a nationwide lockdown in the wake of coronavirus pandemic, at Dharavi in Mumbai. So far, the area, also known as Asia's largest slum, has reported five cases of the deadly virus. Photograph: Kunal Patil/PTI Photo

The roads are empty, the shops closed, and some areas are cordoned off. Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, is locked down like the rest of Mumbai.

However, the rising number of coronavirus cases in this teeming shantytown, where people live in huts and decrepit tenements, has put it front and centre of India’s fight against the coronavirus outbreak.

So far, Dharavi has reported five cases, including one death -- that of a 56-year-old man. But there is fear that the numbers could inch up in a place where people grapple daily with overcrowding and unsanitary conditions.

To add to their misery, the lockdown has left residents with no income and little food.

 

Rajesh Tope, Maharashtra’s health minister, said that Dharavi was a grave concern for the government, given the density of its population and the poverty of its residents.

“We are ensuring there is strict adherence to the rules of the lockdown in Dharavi. We do not allow crowds to collect, but it isn’t easy. There’s a space constraint, people are poor and without work right now. There are challenges,” he says.

Non-governmental organisations estimate that the average monthly income of a household in Dharavi is below Rs 5,000. Around 5-10 per cent of its population of 1.5 million, spread over 613 hectares and seven Mumbai wards, have headed back to their home towns in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar after the lockdown.

Sajeevan Jaiswal, a cloth merchant, is dipping into his meagre savings to somehow get by till the lockdown ends. His shop, near the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation office in Dharavi, is shut. Jaiswal fears for the safety of his family -- his wife, two sons, and a daughter-in-law -- who live above his shop in a small, 200 square feet space.

“I don’t let them step out of the house,” he says. “If groceries have to be brought, I do it. We don’t have the luxury of using hand sanitizers and hand wash. We share a small bar of soap between us,” he says, speaking through a cheap mask, his only means of protection outside of home.

Jaiswal’s fears are echoed by Anil Shivram Kasare, a social worker and resident of Dharavi. The biggest challenge, he says, comes from the slum’s public toilets.

“There are 1,500 public toilets in Dharavi. This is not enough for the people who reside here. But what can we do? We have to use them. The danger of catching the virus lurks everywhere in a slum,” he says.

IMAGE: A view of deserted roads near Dharavi during a nationwide lockdown in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic in Mumbai. The death of a COVID-19 patient has exposed its residents to the vulnerability of contracting the viral infection and sparked a fear of its spread in the highly congested area. Photograph: Kunal Patil/PTI Photo

Dharavi’s narrow bylanes, its lack of hygiene, and large families squeezed into small spaces -- some of them near open gutters -- make the area a veritable nightmare for any effort to step up cleanliness. To tackle the situation, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation has set up a branch in each of the seven wards of Dharavi.

Every branch has around 150 sanitation workers who fan out across the length and breadth of the slum pocket, sweeping the roads and collecting garbage twice a day. Fumigation is done every two days. But the garbage piles up quickly, says Akhtar Khan, an advocate who helps run a free food delivery service for Dharavi’s poor.

“These days, people have been frequently sweeping their homes, no matter how small, in an attempt to keep them clean. It’s a good habit. But let’s see how long they do it,” he says.

The food delivery service that Khan helps run provides one free meal to around 100-150 people per day. “Ever since the lockdown, the number of people approaching us has been increasing. But there is a limit to which this number can be extended. I don’t think we can cross 200 per day,” he says.

Most NGOs working in Dharavi say there is an urgent need to put money into people’s bank accounts. Moreover, ration should be reached to their homes to prevent them from crowding into ration shops and increasing the risk of spreading the virus.

Kasare puts it succinctly: “It is nice that the rich and powerful have come forward to support the government in this health crisis, and are donating to the cause. But I hope the money is put to use where it matters the most -- to care for the poor and the needy.

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Viveat Susan Pinto in Mumbai
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The War Against Coronavirus

The War Against Coronavirus