Laxmi, 17, squats in front of a gas stove on the floor, the triangle of her handkerchief mask covering her nose and mouth. The fumes from the tempering for the greens she is cooking fill up the dark, window-less room. Laxmi stifles a cough, looks up and smiles. “The health officials have told us to be careful while sneezing and coughing. But how can you not cough?” she says.
On better days, Laxmi, a Class 12 student at Government Senior Secondary School in Sector 6, Panchkula, would have been outside, hanging out with “best friend” Seema and sneaking out to the Sector 7 market.
But these days, with the Kharak Mangoli slum, one of the largest slum clusters in Panchkula, and its 9,000-odd residents under quarantine, Laxmi has been spending all her time at home — mostly doing chores and looking after seven-year-old brother Chotu.
So when they can, Laxmi and Seema sit on a stone slab over the open drain outside their homes, exchanging notes on this “curfew”, rushing back only when they spot a health or police official.
“We are a family of five — my parents, Chotu, my younger sister and me — and we have two small rooms. The officials want us to stay inside all the time. But how can we do that? There’s hardly any space,” Laxmi says.
The crates of vegetables that Laxmi’s mother, a vegetable hawker, brought home the day the quarantine was announced take up most of the space in the room.
On March 20, a 40-year-old resident of the slum, working as a masseuse at a salon in Chandigarh, tested positive for coronavirus. With more than 2,500 households tightly packed in slum, the authorities cordoned it off early next morning, along with its residents, who are mostly Class IV government employees, autorickshaw drivers or household helps. Police now man the four main access points, and eight checkposts around, with no one allowed in or out. Health officials drop in, wearing protective gear.
Officials claim that every morning, entry of essential perishable items such as milk and eggs is allowed to kirana shops inside the slum, after “due precautions”.
Rakesh Kumar, who owns a small kirana shop at Gate No. 3 of the slum, says, “Our supply of milk, bread and other such items has been coming, at least so far. But we have cut down on our orders since people in the slum are running out of money.”
On Wednesday, five days into the quarantine, the Panchkula administration also started providing rations — 2-kg packets of rice, wheat and pulses — at subsidised rates to all daily-wage labourers. Pre-cooked food packets, meant to be sufficient for one, were given out at Rs 5 each.
Dr Rajiv Narwal, the nodal officer for coronavirus in Panchkula, says they can’t take any risk. “We are scared the infection will spread quickly if even a single new case comes. It is a miracle there have been no new cases since the first one,” Narwal says.
Back at the slum, while those who lie in the outer areas use masks or handkerchiefs or dupattas to cover their faces, deep inside, people pull their masks on only when they spot a health team.
Dr Narwal says they have provided masks to all residents seen sneezing or coughing. “All others have been asked to cover their faces. We have also been telling them to wash their hands every hour, if not every 20 minutes.”
With schools shut, children of the slum mostly hang around the open dumping grounds nearby. “We keep telling them to maintain a distance of at least 1.5 metres from each other, but it’s impossible. And with homes so cramped, how can children possibly spend all their times cooped up inside?” says an inspector.
As the men mostly sit outside their homes, smoking and chatting, the women say they have to work doubly hard. Laughs Huma Devi, who lives in the slum with her husband and daughters Harshia (4) and Mausam (2), “Earlier, I would send the children to the anganwadi and do other work. Now I end up looking after not just the kids, but my husband too.”
Her husband Mahendar Kumar has worries of his own. “It is getting very frustrating. We have never spent whole of one day inside in our entire lives,” says Mahendar, who owns a ration depot.
Rama Devi, 29, a daily wager with four sons and a daughter, worries how they will go on. Her husband is a vegetable vendor, who is also out of work. “Each of us is eating two rotis per meal instead of four. I now add more water to the daal and give children tea instead of milk. I am trying to save whatever little money we have,” she says, adding that, after a while, even subsidised food provided by the authorities may be unaffordable.
Mahendar has also worked out barter deals to get on. “For instance, my godown has some grains, which I exchanged with my neighbour, a vegetable vendor,” he says.
Rohit Sonker has no such option though. The 21-year-old runs a meat shop on the periphery of the slum, which is now shut. “The day they put us in quarantine, I kept some meat for my family and had to bury the rest so that it did not rot. I lost almost Rs 10,000 worth of meat.”
The meat market, at the colony’s Entry No. 3, has since been sanitised by the Municipal Corporation and Health Department. Policemen posted in the slum and nearby areas usually gather here for their lunch and dinner.
The lockdown is also straining the supply of medicines. “My mother has blood pressure and diabetes. When I tried to go to a chemist outside, policemen did not let me, saying they will provide the medicines inside. I haven’t heard back from them,” says a worried Sarita, a teacher at a government school in the area.
With cooking over, Laxmi says that despite the gloom, there are a few bright spots. “My Board exams were on when they shut the school. It was a dream come true. I don’t think anybody has ever had such luck,” she beams.
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