It’s been more than a month since the lockdown was imposed to contain the spread of the Coronavirus in India. Migrant workers across India have been finding it hard to put food on the tables. The same situation can be seen in Mumbai’s one of the COVID-19 hotspot, Dharavi. The migrant workers in Dharavi have been desperately waiting to get a chance to go back to their native places. 

Mumbai, the financial capital of India, the hardest-hit city in the country, alone witnessed over 7,000 coronavirus patients and nearly 300 deaths. BMC authorities believe that densely populated slums are highly responsible for the drastic increase in COVID-19 positive patients. The total number of cases in Dharavi is now reached to 496 including 18 deaths so far.  

Muharram who used to stay without family brought his family of five members two months ago thinking to spend a few months with family. But fate has something else for him. Before he could save some money to take his wife and children on a Mumbai city tour the lockdown was imposed. 

“My boss gave me some foodgrains and some financial help 25 days ago. That is going to finish soon. Few people came to my home and noted down my contact number and address promising me some foodgrains. However, the aid did not reach me yet,” said Muharram. 

Muharram further added that he has one child who drinks milk. “I am struggling to even afford milk which is necessary for my child,” said Muharram. He would work at a leather bag’s small factory earning Rs. 12,000 a month. He further added that many nonprofit organizations are providing fruits for iftar during this Ramadan for which he is thankful. 

Another migrant worker in Dharavi is so frustrated by the worsening situation due to the lockdown that he broke down in tears while narrating his ordeals. Zafir Nasir had booked a ticket to visit his native place in Bihar to spend Ramadan with family, had to cancel his plan because of the lockdown in India.  

“Every year, I spend Ramadan and Eid with my family in Bihar. But this lockdown changed my fate this time. My 4-year-old daughter asks when I am visiting her to celebrate Eid with her every time I talk to her over the call. And I promise her that ‘will come soon’ despite having no clue when I will go,” said Zafir while controlling his overwhelming emotions.

Zafir who runs a small leather business in Dharavi is left with a small penny to run his expenses. He has no money to send to his family of six members in Bihar. “I had borrowed some money from my friends to manage unavoidable expenses. But, how long I would borrow money? Everybody is facing the financial crisis,” added Zafir while clearing a lump in his throat. He stays in a small room with eight other men who are also migrants from different states. 

Marisamy Ravi who is a migrant in Dharavi from Tamil Nadu complained that authorities are not making sure that everyone is having food to eat. He has no food in his home. The cooked food from BMC is not as good as it should be. 

“People will fall sick eating the food provided by BMC. That is why I am buying cooked food from a hotel chef who is cooking food for a few people. The food is costing me Rs. 3500 monthly,” revealed Ravi. It is tough for him to pay for food at the time of financial crisis due to no work following lockdown. 

Ravi is an electrician who stays with seven other men who are also migrants from different states. He would earn about Rs. 15,000 monthly before the lockdown. Majority of the Dharavi residents are dependent on food provided by NGOs and BMC. However, residents claim that the help is not reaching out to every needy person. 

 

Food is being distributed by NGOs in Dharavi. (PC: special arrangement)

 

Scared of getting infected 

Social distancing is impractical in Dharavi where about 8.5 lakh people holed up in 2.4 sq km. More than six people stay in a room as small as 10 feet-by-10. They use community toilets at least twice a day. “Residents are unable to stay home all the time because of small houses that suffocate them. Many are seen violating the COVID-19 protocols,” said Ravi. 

This situation is panicking people of getting infected by the COVID-19. “People here in Dharavi are scared of even a casual cough. They think they will be quarantined which eventually lead them to be infected by COVID-19,” said Zaffar Ahmed. He stays in Mahim but has a leather business in Dharavi. He is well connected to Dharavi residents as he is also a member of a trust that works for the betterment of people in Dharavi.  

Mohammed Bashar who is a migrant in Dharavi from Bihar said that he avoids visiting outside thinking if he gets infected by COVID-19. “I only step out to use the community toilet and buy groceries. The area is so congested that you can’t walk without touching each other,” told Bashar. He further added that the residents of Dharavi have no other option than to live with the fear of getting infected. 

“In such situations, only poor people like us get affected. Rich people are enjoying the luxury of staying in big houses. Even the government shows a lack of care for us,” added Bashar. 

 

Why should they be sent back home?  

Every migrant worker is eagerly waiting to go to their native places. That is the reason a couple of days back in April many migrant workers thronged at Bandra station expecting to be sent to their native places. Such incidents were also observed in Surat and some other state too. 

The question arises why migrant workers want to go to their native places. When asked, migrant workers in Dharavi said that they have food security in their native homes. “We have basic foodgrains such as rice, wheat, dal and some veggies to survive on. We can manage to survive in our native places for at least a month or two. However, it is not possible here. We will have to sleep empty stomach if we are left here for a few more days,” said Bashar. 

The other reason migrant workers want to go home is that they have houses big enough to maintain social distancing in their native places. “We also get fresh air in the villages. The villages are not congested as Mumbai. This will assure us that we are somehow safe from the Coronavirus,” said Naushad Shaikh, a migrant worker in Dharavi who belongs to Bihar. 

Naushad has been living in Dharavi for more than 10 years and does labour work in a leather factory in Dharavi. Migrant workers who stay in Dharavi without family are also homesick. 

Looking into the situation the central government has recently decided to send migrant workers back to their native places. Some trains have already begun running from one state to another. However, people can’t directly buy tickets and visit their native places. 

Instead, they have to fill up a form and submit it to the concerned person in their respective places. Accordingly, buses or trains will be arranged. For this migrant workers need to get in touch with area police, corporators or pradhan. Migrant workers in Dharavi have already begun preparing for the same.  

Also Read: Why Mumbai Slums Are More Vulnerable To COVID-19 Than Highrise Areas