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Stranded family’s plea to authorities: ‘If we don’t go back, our cattle will starve to death’

As India grapples with an unprecedented shutdown prompted by the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, mass closures have left Mumbai’s mathadi workers in a vulnerable position. The community that survives on daily wages has no money in hand to make ends meet.

Written by Sandeep A Ashar | Mumbai | Published: March 31, 2020 12:06:25 am
coronavirus india lockdown, coronavirus update, corona, coronavirus update in india, migrant workers coronavirus, mass exodus coronavirus, corona virus in india, corona virus news update Seven members of the Pawar family had come visit Kathu Kale, a mathadi worker and their relative, who resides in a slum at Indian Oil Nagar on Ghatkopar-Mankhurd Link Road. (Express Photo by Ritesh Shukla/Reprsentational)

FOR THE past couple of days, Seetabai Pawar has been going to Shivaji Nagar police station at least twice a day urging cops to help her return to her village in Parbhani. The 50-year-old woman, whose entire family had come to Mumbai to visit a relative on March 16, is worried that if she does not go back, her cattle may starve to death. “We own a five-acre farm, we have two bullocks and a cow back in the village. When we came here, we didn’t expect to be stuck for so long,” she says.

Madhu Pawar, 30, her son, said they had tried many means to return home, but to no avail. They even asked for a recommendation letter from this journalist to show as a certificate to go back. “Our cattle is starving there, though we have adequate supplies back home and here we have to struggle for even bare rations,” Madhu says.

Seven members of the Pawar family had come visit Kathu Kale, a mathadi worker and their relative, who resides in a slum at Indian Oil Nagar on Ghatkopar-Mankhurd Link Road. Kale, who does not own a ration card, has found it difficult to secure food supplies for his own family amid the lockdown.

“I have not earned a single rupee in two weeks. Whatever supplies we had stocked are now exhausted and I don’t have enough for my own family, how do I take care of relatives as well?” he asks.

Bhanudas Kale, a local resident and activist in the area, says NGOs have been kind enough to supply rice, wheat and flour, but the families here say they are running out of edible oil and gas to cook food. As many as 200 families of mathadi workers (head loaders), mainly from Beed, Parbhani and Solapur, reside in the slum.

As India grapples with an unprecedented shutdown prompted by the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, mass closures have left Mumbai’s mathadi workers in a vulnerable position. The community that survives on daily wages has no money in hand to make ends meet.

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Bilal Khan, an activist with Ghar Bachao Ghar Banao Andolan, which has been working closely with the community, says while they have been supplying ration, bathing and washing soap through crowd-funding to local families, there is an urgent need for cooking gas refills and edible oil so that the ration can be put to use.

Khan says a majority of the workers in the area is not registered with the state-run Maharashtra Building and Other Construction Workers Welfare Board and is wary that the government’s relief measures will not reach them.

Khan claims that a majority of head loaders living in Mumbai’s other slum pockets are also unregistered. While the Centre has already announced cash doles, Maharashtra is also planning a relief package for the registered labour force.

A day after Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray assured migrant workers and the homeless in the state that emergency safe spaces had been set up across the state to shelter them, the arrangement in Mumbai remained chaotic, with some of shelters even being discontinued.

While Thackeray had originally announced that civic schools will be converted into temporary shelters for the homeless, sources say this decision has now been reversed with senior bureaucrats raising concerns over the need for disinfecting schools before classes resume.

On Monday, the government decided to re-purpose large open spaces, including sports complexes and grounds, besides community centres as temporary shelters for the homeless and migrants.

The Bombay exhibition centre (NESCO) in Goregaon, spread over 60,000 sq m, and the Andheri sports complex are among the large spaces identified for the purpose. The Mumbai municipality has also shortlisted some disused government and private highrises to shelter the homeless, but concerns are being raised over the lack of basic amenities, including water supply and toilets, at these facilities.

Amid challenges that the authorities and vulnerable sections are facing, a team of youngsters from the Shivajinagar slum in Govandi, which has been hit hard due to the lockdown, distributed free food and water in other slum pockets.

“We are not an NGO, we have pooled in funds to secure supplies. A lot of people in Mumbai have been hit hard by the mass closures, we are trying to do what we can,” says Shammiullah Khan, 24, a juice centre owner. They call themselves Team 19.

Community kitchens to come up

The state government has directed civic commissioners and district collectors to identify places to set up community kitchens for those who do not have a roof over their heads. On Monday, the state also appointed a committee under Chief Secretary Ajoy Mehta to coordinate efforts of moving them to temporary shelters. An independent helpline, 1800-22-1292, was also announced for the homeless and those stranded in Mumbai.

Here’s a quick Coronavirus guide from Express Explained to keep you updated: What can cause a COVID-19 patient to relapse after recovery? | COVID-19 lockdown has cleaned up the air, but this may not be good news. Here’s why | Can alternative medicine work against the coronavirus? | A five-minute test for COVID-19 has been readied, India may get it too | How India is building up defence during lockdown | Why only a fraction of those with coronavirus suffer acutely | How do healthcare workers protect themselves from getting infected? | What does it take to set up isolation wards?

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