COVID-19 pandemic will pass one day. But what about hunger, unemployment, loss of education and stigma
Whether the Dharavi model will be an exemplar is a question for the future. But for now, the residents of Mumbai’s famous slum have lost all they had. Down To Earth, which spent six days in the area, found a people hungry, jobless and stigmatised. In this last part of a three-part series, we take you through those aspects of Dharavi's life during the pandemic which got overshadowed in the usual discourse
The 800,000 residents of Mumbai’s Dharavi are not concerned about whether the ‘Dharavi model’ to tackle the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) was science or serendipity. They would rather leave that to the experts and media.
The people of Dharavi are, instead, more concerned about issues such as job loss, unemployment, hunger and shortage of other basic necessities, which they believe, nobody wants to document.
Job loss and unemployment rocked every part of India as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded. But it was different for Dharavi, a place known for its billion-dollar economy. Here, job losses and unemployment were caused not just due to the lack of opportunities but stigma — of being Dharavi’s residents.
Rupali Veerkar, 31, was a housekeeper till the countrywide lockdown due to COVID-19 began. She is the sole breadwinner in her seven-member family. When we met her in the second week of July, 2020, she had lost her housekeeping job, thanks to the lockdown.
She tried for a similar job when things started opening up in July. “I went to a big bungalow in Worli. The moment I said I lived on 90-Feet road in Dharavi, I was refused the job. I had a similar experience in the Prabha Devi area,” Rupali told us in front of her home at Block No 4 in Dharavi’s Vijay Nagar.
Worse, she spends Rs 200 for commuting to places where she saw a job opportunity. She seemed to be in a hurry while talking to us. We thought the heavy downpour was the cause. But she said her daughter, who is nearly blind, was waiting for her. “I am not able to take her to the doctor for follow-up visits as I have run out of money,” she said.
Radha Somnath, a resident of Dharavi’s Rajiv Gandhi Nagar, who worked as a beautician, had almost a similar story to tell as Rupali, though with different characters and settings.
Sunny Mahadeo Gadre, from Dharavi’s Ashok Nagar, lost his mother to COVID-19. He also lost his job at a private factory. When he asked why he was not allowed to resume work like most of his colleagues, he did not get a reply. “But my superior told my colleagues that I could not be allowed as I lived in a shantytown, a slum,” he said.
These and many other such stories, clearly reveal the inherent contradiction of the ‘Dharavi model’. A place which became a model for science and medicine, is also stigmatic for most Mumbaikars.
It is just not that people engaged in jobs were suffering. Dharavi is known to be a billion dollar-economy and is home to 15,000 small factories. We found virtually all shut.
Kumbharwada, a hub of small pottery factories, is one of them. We met two potters — Dawood Sulaiman (48) and Deepak Singhadia (25) here. As we crossed several narrow lanes to reach their address, an eerie silence prevailed, a sign of how the area had fallen prey to the lockdown.
We were shown into a dilapidated room, which was a factory-cum-warehouse. There were a wide variety of pottery products there, including saucers for phirni, a kind of dessert, as well as earthen pots. Dawood Sulaiman (left) and Deepak Singhadia (right), both potters from Dharavi's Kumbharwada, said neither the government nor any civil society organisation gave them any kind of help. They are now staring at food shortage. Photo: Adithyan PC
Deepak asked us in Hindi, “Sab media wale yahaan ghum ke jaate hai. Hum Germany se lekar India tak chhap gaye hain. Par hamara bhala nahi hua. Hum kyon baat karen?” (We have published in the press from Germany to India. But our lot has not improved. Why should we talk to you?)
While we barely had an answer to him, he still agreed to talk. He told us there were no buyers for his products, which is why his warehouse was full. He and his elder brother work for a family of seven.
“Our business was anyway in a shamble before April due to tough competition from products made in Gujarat. The lockdown was the last nail in the coffin,” he said.
Minutes into the conversation, Deepak’s neighbour Dawood arrived. “We have accepted that Janamashtami and Eid have been ruined, as would be Dussehra and Diwali,” Sulaiman said, referring to the festivals when their products are usually in high demand.
His grouse with elected representatives was evident. “The pottery business in Gujarat is well subsidised. During election time, we are also promised subsidies. But now, even as we are facing an existential crisis, not a single public representative has visited us,” he rued.
Another big trading centre in Dharavi is its recycling market, situated at Dharavi Crossroads. It is normally dotted with people and estimated to recycle more than 60 per cent of Mumbai’s waste.
We found the roads in this market completely empty. Still, a few like AR Malik, who owns a recycling unit, go there off and on. “This market had its share of good and bad days. But we never thought it would come to a grinding halt like this,” Malik told us while standing at a tailor’s shop outside the market.
He gave a ball-park figure that about 10-12,000 employees worked in the market. For men, the salary was Rs 15,000 per month and for women, who according to Malik, worked for lesser hours, the salary was Rs 8,000 per month.
“Almost all of them live in Dharavi. While a good number of them were migrants, some of whom have moved out, many are still here. Each worker supports between five and seven family members,” he said.
Every single family in the ten areas visited by Down To Earth — Rajiv Gandhi Nagar, Koliwada, Vijay Nagar, Kamla Nagar, Naik Nagar, Prem Nagar, Transit Camp, Arjun Nagar, Dharavi Crossroads and Kumbharwarda — shared their own tales of ostracisation or closed businesses.
Staring at hunger?
A very direct consequence of this crisis has been hunger. While some families said they never got a grain, others told us that dry ration was distributed by the government and several non-governmental organisations after the initial period of lockdown. But it had since ceased.
“We survived COVID but it is becoming difficult to survive the post-illness period. Whatever foodgrains we get from ration shops every month, gets exhausted in a week’s time. The small shop our family had, has been shut for months now. I have taken loans from most of my relatives and all options seem to have been exhausted,” Wasim Ali from Naik Nagar, who has a family of 10 adults and six children, said.
Shankar Balram, a rickshaw puller and a resident of Prem Nagar, used to buy one litre of milk daily earlier. But now, he buys half a litre for his children. On some days, he does not buy even that much, he said.
The residents of Dharavi have been forced to cut their children’s milk consumption to negligible and their own consumption of meat and fruits. Some have even cut down their number of meals.
This might have a serious consequence on the fight against COVID-19 as it could lower immunity levels. This, in turn, might directly impact Dharavi’s ongoing fight to keep the novel coronavirus at bay.
A paper published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition in April said the key to maintaining an effective immune system amid the COVID-19 pandemic, was to avoid deficiencies of those nutrients that play an essential role in immune cell triggering, interaction, differentiation or functional expression.
“Nutritional deficiencies of energy, protein, and specific micronutrients are associated with depressed immune function and increased susceptibility to infection. An adequate intake of iron, zinc, and vitamins A, E, B6, and B12 is predominantly vital for the maintenance of immune function,” it read.
We spoke to Dharavi’s member of legislative assembly and Maharashtra education minister Varsha Gaikwad. She accepted these were two big problems currently. “I have taken it up in the state Cabinet too,” was all she could say.
Women in Dharavi have been facing a shortage of sanitary napkins as well. Amina from Kumbharwada and several other mothers whom we met, said they have had to force their daughters to use old clothes instead of napkins.
Laxmi Kamble, a volunteer with ACRON Foundation, said, “Earlier, when we distributed ration kits, we gave sanitary napkins too. As the kit distribution stopped, so did the napkins.”
Mariyam Rashid, senior official of Dharavi-based SHED Foundation, said condom distribution by government agencies had stopped completely since the lockdown. Some of the women we spoke to, also corroborated. “This will obviously lead to many unwanted pregnancies, especially here in Dharavi and to sexually transmitted infections (STI),” Rashid said.
Mehrul Nisha lives near the mosque at Dharavi Crossroads. She is a single-mother and used to earn her living by tailoring at home. But it has stopped completely since the lockdown and now she might have to discontinue the education of her daughters. Photo: Adithyan PC
So, the warnings that international organisations gave about COVID-induced lockdowns — of hunger, domestic violence or unwanted pregnancies — all seem to have been realised in Dharavi.
Education too has suffered. Wasim Ali told us it was becoming next to impossible to give the school fee of his two daughters and he might have to discontinue their schooling, just like Mehrul Nisha of Dharavi Crossroads, who is a single mother supporting four daughters.
What about ‘Others’?
Dharavi residents also complained that the treatment of other diseases had taken a beating during the COVID-19 period.
Akshay Vishwakarma's mother got a paralysis attack in the first week of April. She requires a speech therapist as per doctor's prescription. But Akshay said he has been refused by every therapist because their home is in Dharavi. Photo: Adithyan PC
For Akshay Vishwakarma’s mother, it was again stigma at play. They live in Naik Nagar. His mother suffered an attack of paralysis on March 20. After being discharged from hospital, the doctor said she would need a speech therapist. From April through July, he found many speech therapists but none was ready to go to Dharavi.
Kailash Gaud, an integrated medical practitioner from Dharavi said the consequences could be more disastrous for TB patients, who are found in large number in the slums.
“All DOTS distribution centres are closed. This will cause a huge impact, especially for drug resistant TB patients whose drugs cost thousands per month in the open market,” Gaud said.
This is the final part of a three-part series. Read the second part here
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