Urmila Maurya, in her early thirties and a mother of three, can put into practice none of the protective measures against COVID-19 that are advised by the World Health Organisation. The family of five lives in a 10×10 ft room in Janata Nagar, at the farthest edge of Mandala, a slum of about 4,000 shanties. “Wash our hands frequently?” she says, only a little incredulous. “Sometimes I have to skip bathing to save water for cooking.”
Mandala is a creek-side slum sprawl along Mumbai’s eastern suburbs, but its conditions are almost exactly the same as those in dozens of other slum colonies across the city. In each of these colonies, the measures that other Mumbaikars are putting in place are entirely impractical.
While Maharashtra has seen 45 cases of infections and a death from coronavirus, there has been no evidence of community transmission. But in slums such as these, with population densities among the highest anywhere in the world, social distancing is an impossibility. Though few have history of foreign travel, common to most of the cases in India, the slums are home to taxi-drivers, autorickshaw-drivers, vegetable vendors, carpenters, scrap-purchasers, delivery boys, waiters, domestic helps and employees of hotels, hospitals, stores, and more, making them extremely vulnerable in case the virus spreads beyond local transmission.
Mandala is one of Mumbai’s shanty colonies with neither household water connections nor community water standposts. Of three public toilets located within 1 km from Janata Nagar, one has been locked for months. A slab collapse in another toilet killed three residents in 2017. With nearly 6,000 people using a single toilet block, hundreds of men and children defecate in the small open space adjoining Janata Nagar.
The Mauryas live in a lane between this open ground and a fetid creek, beyond which lies the Deonar dumping ground, home to all of the financial capital’s garbage, occupying an area the size of 70 football fields, where toxic, compacted garbage stands about 10 storeys tall. The wind brings the dump’s odours into these homes.
Social distancing, hand-washing, respiratory hygiene, early medical care are all quite impossible, say Urmila and her neighbour Sumari Kanojia.
Currently the biggest worry for slum-dwellers, who have all watched hand hygiene videos on WhatsApp in the past week, is access to clean water.
In Mandala, Nooran Khatun has five sons and three daughters. The one boy with a steady income from a garage was laid off last month. Her husband goes door-to-door collecting scrap, and customers are negotiating tougher deals for their waste than ever before. With such a large family, Nooran spends at least Rs 100 a day on water.
The water comes from a filthy hose-like pipeline that snakes along the edge of the open-toilet maidan before it reaches the bylanes of Janata Nagar, where an assortment of plastic drums and the ubiquitous blue plastic jerry cans keep vigil outside homes. “There’s no predicting when the water will be available through the pipe, sometimes it’s after two-three days,” she says.
The residents of Janata Nagar pay Rs 20 for 105 litres (three jerry cans of 35 litres each), which adds up to Rs 190 for 1,000 litres, mostly through illegal connections from the main water supply line along the main road. In contrast, in Mumbai’s housing societies, the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation’s water tariff is Rs 5.22 per 1,000 litres, among the cheapest in megacities across the globe. In the slums, where household incomes range between Rs 8,000 and Rs 15,000 a month, water for a large family could cost Rs 2,500-Rs 3,000.
As for healthcare, Sumari says there are several “jhola-chhap” doctors in Mandala, and only a couple with genuine medical degrees. The closest municipal health post is at Lallubhai Compound, nearly 3 km away, or Shatabdi Hospital in Govandi, 5 km away.
“At least two million people in slum colonies across 17 municipal wards are suffering from acute difficulties in accessing clean water,” says Sitaram Shelar of Paani Haq Samiti, which on Wednesday wrote to Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray and Municipal Commissioner Praveen Pardeshi demanding that at least temporary arrangements be made to provide clean water and sanitation to these communities.
At least 54 slum communities in Mumbai require this urgent intervention during the health crisis, say urban planners. Shanty-dwellers here have no municipal water supply despite a 2014 Bombay High Court order that said water is a basic amenity to be provided even to communities encroaching on public land.
“Between 2017 and now, we have filed water connection applications for 8,000 families. Only 400-odd families have got the connections,” says Shelar. Two hundred of these pending applications are from Mandala.
The Housing and Land Rights Network, a group of several organisations working with India’s urban poor, is also set to ask governments for measures to protect the homeless and slum-dwellers.
In Mumbai, various groups met on Wednesday evening to draft a set of demands to be presented to the sate government. “Preventive measures at the community level have not begun yet,” said Shweta Tambe of Habitat and Livelihood Welfare Association, one of these organisations. “This is going to be critical in a city like Mumbai where (population) densities are so high in the slums.”
Meanwhile, worry and a lack of awareness brought many slum dwellers to local clinics.
In an Antop Hill slum, Najma Khatun says she decided to visit a doctor after finding out about the new disease from her workplace and from WhatsApp forwards. “I was coughing, so I dropped everything to see the doctor,” she says.
A house-keeping staffer at a gymnasium, Najma expects to be paid for March but is unsure if she’ll have a job in April if the gym lockdown continues. Neither is any cleaning-disinfecting operation underway in the public toilets in the vicinity nor any awareness drives for slum-dwellers regarding preventive and protective measures. All Najma has heard from the municipality is the Do-Not-Fear-Corona advertising campaign by the BMC.
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