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In Mumbai’s slums, pregnant women, new mothers slip through gaps

In Mumbai’s slums, not only are pregnant and lactating women unable to access the usual state-aided nutritional supplements on account of the lockdown but regular immunisation of babies is also on hold.

Written by Kavitha Iyer | Mumbai |
Updated: June 11, 2020 9:20:14 pm
Dharavi, Dharavi coronavirus cases, Mumbai slums Health workers in full PPE walk through lanes to identify patients to take them to the quarantine centre

Nine days before her baby is due, Radhika Jaiswal (26) does not know yet which hospital she will approach, or if a hospital bed will be readily available.

Visiting Mumbai when the nationwide lockdown was imposed, the mother of two from Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh is now living in an empty factory unit in Dharavi, uncertain if she should visit the nearby Lokmanya Tilak Municipal General Hospital in Sion, and whether she will be able to register in the maternity ward for a delivery.

Her husband, a civil works painter, has been out of work since March, and the family is surviving on charity and handouts. Radhika has had no folic acid tablets, no calcium supplements, and she and her two daughters have eaten only frugal meals since March. “Just the sight of the big hospital is frightening, and then there is the fear of contracting the disease,” Radhika said.

Her story resonates across Mumbai’s slums where not only are pregnant and lactating women unable to access the usual state-aided nutritional supplements on account of the lockdown but regular immunisation of babies is also on hold.

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In Andheri’s Shiv Nagar slum, Seema Jain has a six-month-old baby who was given her first shots on the third day after birth and then the doses at 10 weeks. “For the remaining shots, the hospital told us to come back later, after the lockdown,” said Seema, who is married to an autorickshaw driver. Having had a baby earlier, she knows that doses of the Oral Polio Vaccine and the pentavalent vaccine are among those pending.

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In Kapaswadi slum, eight-month pregnant Krishnaveni Gounder has had no routine medical check-up since the lockdown began. Her husband drives a cement lorry and has not been paid since March.

Nearby, Swati Padme, also eight-month pregnant, is at her mother’s home for her first baby. “One semi-private hospital said they’re not taking patients, we’re hoping Cooper Hospital will accept us,” she said. Swati is somewhat better off – her husband, who sells insurance, has been able to work from home. Her mother, a domestic help, is without work or pay.

Nidhi Khidbide, due to give birth on July 15, has decided to go to a private clinic as an added precaution. Her husband, a helper at a private press in Ambarnath, has been asked to resume work but cannot go as the suburban trains are not running.

Shalini Rewale (50), who works as a cook in four homes, is among the few to have been paid for the lockdown period. “My employer also gave me an advance. I spent nearly Rs 1.5 lakh on my daughter’s delivery in April. The baby needed NICU admission,” she said.

Radhadevi Shah of Sitamarhi in Bihar delivered a baby girl at Cooper Hospital in Vile Parle during the lockdown, but the child has not had any subsequent immunisation.

There are similar stories in every alleyway.

“A gendered view of relief is totally lacking,” said Nirja Bhatnagar, state head of ActionAid India, which has supplied grocery kits to slum families. “Despite the government schemes on women’s health, nutrition and child-bearing, the state is now missing from women’s lives entirely.” In addition to those facing domestic violence and job loss, pregnant and lactating women also slipped through the gaps in government relief measures, she said.

According to Sister Mary Jose of the Good Shepherd Convent in Four Bungalows, which has reached out to women in the slums of Kapaswadi, Shiv Nagar and nearby areas, even the basic needs of food and nutrition are being met. “Women tell us they’re getting just rice at the ration stores. How is this enough? These women need some dal, some vegetables, some milk and sugar. This is a question of survival,” she said. The sisters of the convent have volunteered to supply groceries and medicines during the lockdown.

The problem of floating populations in slums, where many relocate periodically, means that some areas may remain uncovered by Anganwadi workers, said Shubha Shamim of the Maharashtra State Anganwadi Workers Action Committee. “The family survey is done only once a year in April, and this year even that could not be done. Pregnant women may get added to the list by anganwadi workers during quarterly or half-yearly surveys,” she added.

If a pregnant women in a densely-populated slum misses these surveys, she can access Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) aid if she visits the anganwadi and gets registered. Most women in Kapaswadi, Shiv Nagar and Ganesh Nagar slums do not know where the nearest such centre is.

Nidhi Khidbide is among the few pregnant women here regularly taking folic acid tablets – she purchased them on her own on the advice of a private gynaecologist.

Shamim said with public transport suspended, anganwadi workers are also unable to visit their centres or provide the nutrition supplements usually given to pregnant and lactating women. “But dry ration packets have been distributed when they arrive. In the current circumstances, women are unable to forego that. It is the only state aid coming regularly,” she added.

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