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Social distancing in Dharavi: 8.5 lakh people holed up in 2.4 sq km

Coronavirus (COVID-19): Spread over 2.4 sq km, Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, is home to some 60,000 families and 8.5 lakh people — among the most densely packed human habitations on the planet.

coronavirus outbreak, india lockdown, dharavi cases, social distancing, mumbai news, indian express news In Dharavi, Mumbai Fire Brigade sprays disinfectant on Sunday. COVID-19 cases have been found in the slum. (Express Photo: Prashant Nadkar)

Coronavirus (COVID-19): “Gharat raha, baaher padu naka (stay indoors, don’t step out),” blares a loudspeaker atop a police vehicle on patrol near Garib Nagar in Dharavi, as several men with hankies tied around their faces stand around in groups of four or five. This is the fifth time that the police have driven down this road in 15 minutes. Their warnings unheeded, the policemen get off and charge with batons raised — and some of the men, scampering towards the lanes of the slum, get it on the leg. The policemen get back into their vehicle and drive towards another part of Dharavi. Five minutes later, the groups of men are back in the empty streets, defying the lockdown. COVID-19 LIVE updates

Spread over 2.4 sq km, Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, is home to some 60,000 families and 8.5 lakh people — among the most densely packed human habitations on the planet. Once cases of novel coronavirus infection started appearing here, the density of population sparked fears of community transmission.

Coronavirus (COVID-19): Ensuring people stay inside the 10 feet-by-10 rooms they share with nine or 10 others is proving to be a nightmare for the police and health administration. Anju Chauhan, 30, a homemaker who lives on the 90-foot road said, “There are seven of us in this small room and three are children under 10, with my youngest aged only two years. He gets very restless after being inside the whole day, so my husband has to take him out for some fresh air and calm him down. We put on cartoon channels on TV for almost the entire day to ensure the older children stay home.”

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Kiran Dighavkar, Assistant Commissioner, G-North ward, conceded that “Given how cramped their accommodations are, expecting them to follow social distancing is a joke”.

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Said Shankar Sangam, 44, a local social worker who lives in a building on the road: “The rooms are small, there is no ventilation, it is getting hot, and people come out because they have no option. The toilets are common, one toilet is shared by around 200 people. We try to counsel them, but they are stuck between a rock and a hard place.”

coronavirus outbreak, india lockdown, dharavi cases, social distancing, mumbai news, indian express news Spread over 2.4 sq km, Dharavi, Asia’s largest slum, is home to some 60,000 families and 8.5 lakh people. (Express Photo: Prashant Nadkar)

Congress MLA and School Education Minister Varsha Gaikwad said: “While there are challenges, the government is trying to meet these head on as and when they arise. Our focus is on sanitisation, containment, and isolation.”


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Ironically, the index patient in Dharavi, detected on April 1, was a man who lived in a highrise in Baliga Nagar, the most posh location in Dharavi. According to police, he had hosted members of the Tablighi Jamaat in a flat he owned nearby. His close contacts were immediately traced, but the Tabligh link came to light only after the third case was detected in Mukund Nagar, a slum settlement, on April 3. It was revealed that people from the Jamaat had attended a birthday function and met several people in the area.

The administration acted with alacrity. “We had learnt from our experiences in Worli Koliwada (another coronavirus hotspot slum settlement in the neighbouring ward) and immediately widened contact tracing and containment measures,” Dighavkar said. But by Sunday evening, the outbreak had spread to nine pockets in Dharavi, with 43 positive cases and four deaths.


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According to Dighavkar, that situation would have worsened but for the proactive isolation of high-risk contacts by the administration. “Things would have exploded,” he said. “We have taken over the 50-bed Sai hospital in Dharavi for treatment of positive cases. A 300-bed isolation facility has been created at the Rajiv Gandhi Sports Complex. We are setting up another 700-bed isolation camp at a municipal school complex. Our focus has been on isolating and testing the high-risk contacts first. Of the 43 cases tested positive, nine are from the isolation facility at Rajiv Gandhi complex; so our strategy seems to be working.”

Inside the Rajiv Gandhi Sports Complex which is now being used as an isolation facility. Express Photo

At the sports complex, a ground-plus-two structure at the outer end of Dharavi, the mood isn’t so upbeat. There are 107 people isolated here in two halls, each with a single toilet. Beddings are laid out a foot apart. Veena Koli, 36, a nurse who stays with her husband at Mukund Nagar, has been quarantined at the complex since her husband, Adarsh Koli, tested positive on April 10.

Veena’s brother-in-law, Krishna Reddy, too, has tested positive, and the two men, both of whom are in the travel business, are under treatment at Seven Hills hospital. Both their families are at the sports complex, awaiting the results of their own tests. Veena said she is afraid: “We were with these positive patients for three days, eating, sleeping, using the same toilets. What if we test positive too? This place is crowded. Isolation ka koi matlab hota hai ki nahin? (Doesn’t isolation mean something different?)”

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Reddy said: “We are treated well at Seven Hills, but my family is struggling. I have a three-year-old, he doesn’t understand the concept of masks and social distancing. We are not averse to isolation, but give them proper facilities. They could have given us flats or rooms instead, or locked us inside our own homes.”

A policeman stationed outside the facility said, “Some of these people are aggressive. If they run away, how will we catch them? We are also worried about catching the infection if we go near them..”


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Local people complain about the authorities’ lack of planning. Aslam Daulat Khan, 44, who runs a community kitchen and a Shiv Bhojan centre, said, “The BMC needs to ensure door-to-door delivery of food packets and ration. Agar khana mil jaaye toh log baahar kyon niklenge? Maut se toh sab hi darte hain. People are more afraid of dying of starvation than corona.”


In a new containment strategy, the BMC has now declared five red zones within Dharavi, where it plans to screen all 50,000 residents in the coming three days. Dighavkar said, “We are in mission mode, attack is our best defence now.” Twenty-four private doctors from the community have joined the BMC’s efforts to combat the virus, he said.

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A man at his pottery workshop inside Dharavi. Express Photo by Sandeep Ashar

In century-old Kumbharwada, a locality of 300-odd potter families, Yousuf Gulwani, 38, said, “While we have stayed indoors since the lockdown, many others keep coming to our lanes. So we have shut the gates from all sides.” Families here worry that the industry already reeling under a slowdown, won’t be able to sustain a prolonged shutdown. But for now, Gulwani says, “Jaan hai to jahan hai.”

Dharavi’s bustling leather, garment and snack-making industry has taken a big hit. But the immediate concern for now is daily sustenance.

First published on: 13-04-2020 at 03:11:45 am
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