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Sunday, April 11, 2021

COVID-19 crisis: Dharavi soon to become a history?

Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi in Mumbai is presently a COVID-19 hotspot. It is on the verge of becoming history. Dharavi seems to be at the core of the COVID-19 crisis.

What is the reason behind it?

Dharavi slum is an irregular pentagon with an area of 2.1 sq. km in the heart of Mumbai. To understand it better let us look at some statistics here.

  • The population of Dharavi is around 8,00,000 which is more than the population of Jalandhar.
  • The area counts 2.1 sq. km which is the size of Lakshadweep’s Kiltan Island.
  • The density of people per hectare is 3,846 as compared to Mumbai’s 228.
  • The size of the house is 8 feet by 10-foot brick shanties.
  • Roads and lanes are so narrow that only one person can walk through them.
  • The number of clusters or pockets within the slum is 17.
  • The parameters of this slum are from Mahim West, Matunga east, and the CM residence ‘Matoshree’ at Bandra (East) along with city’s second-largest business district the Bandra-Kurla complex just 5 km away.
  • COVID-19 cases in Dharavi slum counts 189 in 16 days with 12 casualties.

Dharavi, a slum in Mumbai.
Photo – shutterstock.com/Pra_Deep

The epidemic history of Mumbai Slums

The slum has its own share of the epidemic outbreak history. The chawls in Dharavi are the largest breeding grounds for the diseases. Epidemics like the Plague in 1896 had wiped out half of the slum population. Dysentery, Cholera, Malaria, and Typhoid are common epidemics found in Dharavi slum. Some 90% of the residents use 225 public bathrooms and 1,500 public toilets daily. An estimated 50 people use one common toilet seat daily. The place being a nightmare for health workers, maintaining cleanliness, and sanitizing it requires massive effort. Thus the possibility of the spread of the pandemic is the highest.

Around 55% of Mumbai’s 12 million population live in slums like Dharavi, which occupies just 0.5% of the total area of the Mumbai Metropolis. Living in 8 foot by 10-foot brick shacks with lanes as narrow as only one person can pass through, social distancing is just a thought. Such close proximity is the key cause of the spread of the coronavirus pandemic. Ratan Tata has thus called for a re-examination of what has to consider as acceptable standards in terms of quality of life.

Who is the real culprit behind the outbreak?

It may seem that the low standard of living may be the reason for the spread of the novel coronavirus pandemic. But the real culprit is the multi-storeyed housing complex in the slum’s poshest cluster and that is Dr. Baligha Nagar. It so happened that a 56-year-old garment trader died suddenly on April,2 after he had allegedly hosted the preachers of the Tablighi Jamaat in his flat. The worst thing that happened was that these preachers happened to attend a birthday party and had met many people. This social gathering has now found its way into the maze of Dharavi slum. Most of the slum pockets Mukund Nagar, Dhanwada Chawl, Social Nagar, Janata Society, Kalyan Wadi, PMGP Colony, Murugan Chawl, Rajiv Gandhi Chawl, Shastri Nagar, Nehru Chawl, Indira Chawl, and Gulmohar Chawl are into the clutches of the COVID-19.

Health Workers monitoring body temperature at Dharavi.
Photo – shutterstock.com/ManoejPaateel

Living in Slums but high in spirits

Think about a family with 4 members in it, living in a shanty with only a step ladder to enter a place they call ‘Home’. Rais Khan is a tailor living in a one-room shackle built on top of another shackle. His son wants to be an engineer, his wife is working full time at home, and looking after their daughter, and upon that they share their living space with their earning member which is a sewing machine. His earning depends upon those huge blue plastic bags that are full of stitched clothes ready to be delivered. This, along with many other such instances give us a view of the scenario of hand to mouth lifestyle in Dharavi slum.

Dharavi is an economy of $1Billion (Rs. 7,600 crore/ year) in itself. A thriving business hub with its leather, pottery, garment, and plastic re-cycling makes this economy. The 90 feet road along with the slums with numerous shops is closed due to the lockdown affecting their business. Prafful Shinde, a local leather trader worries about how long will it take to bring back their businesses on the track!

Is Dharavi emerging as non-cooperative?

10 teams, each led by a doctor, a nurse, and two officials of the BMC (Brihanmumbai  Municipal Corporation) are going door-to-door checking for the Corona infected people. A number of health and social workers are also on the move for the checking of the virus-infected persons. They see a lot of residents disobeying the call for social distancing. At Mukund Nagar, a ritual bath was given to COVID-19 patient’s body, that too in the open before his burial. The residents doubt this event giving a boost to the cases of COVID-19 in the slums. Also, the people living here are not ready to get themselves checked for the virus. Nor do they consider any of the advice given to them by the health workers. Many of them have a discouraging attitude towards their health.

An important observation for keeping up with the social distancing here is that the residents live in matchbox shaped houses with zero ventilation and lanes narrower for even a person to walk through them. So they have to necessarily step out of their homes to get a breath of air.

Even the police face a lot of rebellion from the residents. They have to disburse the crowds from the shops, rearrange the barricades stationed by shopkeepers to avoid contact but pushed aside by the customers and request the people continuously for not leaving their homes. The doctors also worry about their safety during check-ups as crowds gather around them making them feel helpless.

What has the BMC done to date?

BMC has been taking care of the slum. It has been disinfecting the 225 toilets every day using a special treatment and solution machine specially imported from New Zealand for the purpose. 5 teams with 150 sanitization workers in each team are cleaning the lanes by sweeping, collecting garbage with proper disposal. BMC also disinfects every inch of the area on alternate days.

The government has also focused on the containment of the virus along with the isolation of the patients says Varsha Gaikwad from Congress. The corporation has created isolation and care centers at:

  • Sai Hospital with 50 beds
  • Rajiv Gandhi Sports Complex with 300 beds on the banks of the Mithi river near the slums.
  • A Municipal School with 700 beds located in the center of the slums.

Looking at the introverted nature of the residents, BMC has appointed 150 medical practitioners to talk to them personally and convince them of the virus scans.

BMC has gone further with a more focused approach says Kiran Dighavkar, Assistant Municipal Commissioner. BMC has further divided the Dharavi slum into 5 zones. Each zone comprises of 55,000 residents who will be screened for the virus in the next few weeks.

Dr. Diksha Shah, the corporation’s chief health official, however, remarks that though India is exporting Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ) drugs across the world, it is not being used in Mumbai for treatment.

Municipal corporation workers sanitizing areas in Mumbai.
Photo – shutterstock.com/harshits3

Who is to be blamed for this unfair act?

As the outbreak has showed-up in Dharavi slum, it’s the most prominent neighbor, Uddhav Thackeray is on the point of focus. He still continues to live in his residence ‘Matoshree’ as well as uses his official residence ‘Varsha’ on Malabar Hill for his official meetings. Interestingly, BMC who is responsible for Dharavi’s up-keep has been controlled by ‘Shiv Sena’ since 1997. Incidentally, Uddhav Thackeray belongs to the same party. A winner of three out of seven municipal wards of Dharavi in 2017 elections, he is now under tremendous pressure even from the opposition for Dharavi’s present situation.

Devendra Fadnavis, the opposition leader has emphasized the need for aggressive testing all over the city. He also said that BMC was trying to “suppress the actual Covid-19 numbers”.

And, thus it was announced that they will be tested after a quarantine period of 5 days by BMC Commissioner Praveen Pardesi.

The Union Government though is skeptical about BMC handling the pandemic. A team of 5 experts under additional secretary Joshi assessed the situation on April,21. Door-to-door service and shifting of the suspected patients out of the slum was the suggestion by Joshi and his teams.

Moreover, an issue still remains to be postponed to replace the shanties of Dharavi by multi-storeyed buildings. From 1997, unsuccessful attempts by the Maharashtra Government smells of vested interest. However, as a development towards it, recently a Dubai-based Seclink Technologies Corporation has won a 28,000 crore bid for the re-development of the slums. But for unknown reasons the company has not yet been given the contract and a threat of Rs. 2,299 crore compensation demanded by the company mounts over the government.

It is undoubtedly a harsh truth of how public health is losing against politics!!!

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