AT THE far end of a queue of about 35 men, mud splatters on the edge of his lungi from the jostling, 40-something Ikhlaq Khan doesn’t know what they’ve lined up for in Ambujwadi, a dense slum colony in suburban Mumbai. “Can you walk to the front and check?” Whatever it is, his family needs it, he reckons.
It is a short wait. As the men press against one another and a government official tries to note down names, number of family members and an estimate of how much foodgrain each requires, a crowd quickly gathers.
Amid shouting and pushing, a hapless policeman raps the men on the back of their knees with his lathi trying, in vain, to disperse the crowd. “If anything is distributed, a huge crowd gathers in minutes. Even charitable organisations run away because of how these people behave,” said police constable Abhijit Ahirrao.
Locking down the nearly 1 lakh residents of Ambujwadi, located along mangroves and creekside mudflats in Malvani on Mumbai’s north-western periphery, has not been very successful.
Eighty per cent of working adults here are daily-wagers, and they are now gathered, all day long, at alley corners, outside the mosque where there is a notice asking the faithful to offer prayers at home till further notice, in the little tin-roofed square outside the Sai Baba temple and wherever there seems to be a whiff of the promised government aid.
Vegetable vendors pushing handcarts, women gathered around a tap from where water can be purchased, children chasing pinwheels, women washing clothes and utensils along open drains and shared clotheslines — Ambujwadi does not have a solution to crowding.
Yet, at every corner, conversations are not about social distancing and hand-washing, but livelihood, foodgrain to be made available under the public distribution system and the free supplies that local MLA and Mumbai Guardian Minister Aslam Shaikh’s office is going to hand out.
“My husband is a mason and has been home for 10 to 12 days,” said Gulshan Khan, a 30-year-old mother of four from Gonda in eastern Uttar Pradesh. Like 80 per cent of Ambujwadi, they are migrant workers, and have nothing to return to in their native villages.
Her neighbour in the Millat Azad society of shanties inside Ambujwadi, Zaituna Khan, whose husband is a construction worker, said she too has run out of supplies and cash.
In Mumbai for six or seven years now, they don’t have ration cards here or back home, though they have Aadhaar cards, PAN cards and voter cards. Thousands of ration cards in the Malvani area were cancelled in a clean-up drive about two years ago. “We’re not beggars, but those without ration cards may not get the three-month ration that the Prime Minister promised, so we rush whenever food or anything else is distributed,” said Gulshan.
Sometimes they send the children, somehow it’s a little less mortifying than queuing up for freebies themselves.
Constable Ahirrao is in the slum 14 to 18 hours everyday. His duties as beat officer include making sure the lockdown orders are obeyed, but he’s walking a thin line trying to keep the peace and maintaining order among restive crowds. A popular cake manufacturer came to give away food two days ago, he said. “Looking at the crowds, I told him to come around midnight.”
At the Sai Shraddha society inside the slum, domestic worker Sita Kodai Gond has been out of work since having breast cancer surgery four months ago. Her daughter Poonam (20) is fearful of creditors, including relatives, asking to be repaid just when her own monthly salary of Rs 6,500 from a beauty parlour is in doubt.
Rickshaw driver Mulchand Bhullar’s wife Samravati, from Bhadoni in Madhya Pradesh, works as a domestic help at an office to add Rs 1,000 to their monthly earnings. “Now whatever was stocked up is getting over so we’ve begun rationing daily food,” she said. They need cheap food now, not nutrition.
At 65, Shakuntala Meshram earns Rs 600 each from three households where she mops floors and washes utensils. Her husband is jobless and their children abandoned them many years ago. Some women like Khairunissa Shaikh walk through the mangroves every day to sort garbage in Dharavali village. She hasn’t earned anything since March 20. Most of these women have Jan Dhan accounts, but no savings. If they’re not able to resume work, they will be entirely dependent on state aid in April.
One thing is plainly visible: In Ambujwadi or any of Mumbai’s multitude of similarly crowded, unsanitary slum clusters, local conditions could fan the spread of the virus once it’s at their doorstep, but the contagion and the lockdown will equally aggravate people’s marginalisation, pushing them back into the joblessness and starvation that brought them to Mumbai and led them to clean the city’s drains or sort its garbage.
It’s little wonder then that when a queue forms, it’s every man for himself — attempting not to breathe down another’s neck can only mean a lost spot in the queue, a quicker slide down that slippery slope.
In the 1970s, when a couple of hundred Pardhi families moved to this site from a Bandra plot where construction of a hospital was beginning, only hurricane lamps cast a dim light on Ambujwadi’s pathways after nightfall. In 2005-06, the municipality undertook a massive slum demolition drive, and parts of Ambujwadi were razed to the ground, over and over as slum-dwellers rebuilt their makeshift homes in days.
Fifteen years later, the nearly 17,000 shanties are all pucca homes, most with an upper storey that may be sub-let; the homes and shops standing higgledy-piggledy and packed closely together along the narrow streets are all electrified. Water is now universally available through tankers or municipal points, though everybody must purchase it for Rs 10 a jerry can.
There are dozens of shrines, places of worship. But for decent medical care, residents go to one of two municipal hospitals located 5 or 12 km away, though there are a some uncertified “doctors” practising by the streetsides. “We’re lucky if we find the day’s meals. And will be luckier if we find a good doctor, whether it is this mahamaari or the next one, or even if my baby just has diarrhoea,” said Gulshan. Amid all the change, investment in healthcare somehow fell through the gaps.
Local resident Rachita Balekar of the Ghar Bachao Aandolan has lived here for 21 years, and is keen to help authorities draw up lists and distribute aid. “I hope that starts soon, because people are more desperate now than I have ever seen them,” she said.
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