In the week since India locked down to contain the spread of Covid-19, Sanjay Tadas has been unable to go to work and wears a homemade grey mask when he steps out of his lane. Apart from that, however, little has changed in the way he and his family live inside Shiv Nagar slum in Mumbai’s Andheri suburb.

“We are six of us living in one 100-sq-ft room, so maintaining distance from each other is impossible, of course,” said Tadas, a clerk in municipal office in Mumbai.

At night, Tadas, his wife and four children squeeze in next to each other as they always do. During the day, all the slum residents spend their time as they do on any regular weekend: sitting at their doorsteps or milling about in their narrow lane, chatting with neighbours.

A small “transit camp” for 216 families awaiting flats in a building being constructed by the city’s Slum Rehabilitation Authority, Shiv Nagar is one among lakhs of slum pockets across India’s cities where “social distancing” is an unachievable privilege. Cramped, overcrowded and often located near open drains, these bastis have little protection against the novel coronavirus that causes Covid-19.

According to a report by the ministry for urban affairs in 2019, 29.4% of urban Indians live in a slum. In Mumbai, that figure is much higher: about 62% of the residents of India’s commercial capital live in slums, according to the provisional report of the 2011 census.

In such a situation, the news about people living Mumbai’s slums testing positive for the virus have triggered fear among residents like the Tadas.

Sanjay Tadas and his wife in Mumbai's Shiv Nagar slum. Credit: Aarefa Johari.

Two slums sealed

On Monday, for instance, the city’s municipal corporation completely sealed Worli Koliwada, a dense fishing settlement, as well as the adjoining Janata Colony slum, after six cases of coronavirus were reported from the area over two days. More than 35,000 people living in the settlements are now living in a state of panic as civic authorities work to disinfect the area and try to trace everyone with whom the Covid-19 patients came into contact in recent days.

Other slums and dense population clusters in Mumbai have also reported coronavirus cases, triggering fears about that large numbers of people in these neighbourhoods could be infected if the virus is not contained.

On Tuesday, the municipal corporation stepped in to prevent such a situation, ordering all civic wards to requisition empty residential buildings, hotels, clubs, hostels, colleges, marriage halls and other such spaces to quarantine people from densely populated neighbourhoods if they had come in contact with Covid-positive persons.

Contact-tracing people in packed slums is a difficult task, however, and residents of Mumbai’s bastis are increasingly nervous.

“I see the news on Whatsapp or on TV and I am very worried, because anyone can easily pass on the virus from here to there,” said Vatsala Jadhav, a domestic worker who lives in Chandrabai Nagar slum in Juhu Koliwada. “The way we live, we cannot do much to keep ourselves safe, even if we try.”

A map being used by the Mumbai authorities marking homes with Covid-19 cases in the Worli area.

Hygiene challenges

Besides social distancing, which slum inhabitants cannot truly practice, washing ones hands several times a day is the most important safety measure recommended to prevent the spread of Covid-19. In a slum, that too is a problem.

Chandrabai Nagar and Shiv Nagar, like many other slums in Mumbai, get municipal water for only two or three hours every morning. Since most homes do not have space for a water storage tank, residents store water in large blue plastic drums typically stationed outside their doors. On an ordinary day, this is enough for an average family to get by on.

Jadhav is grateful that Chandrabai Nagar has been getting water regularly despite the lockdown, and tries to wash her hands more frequently than usual. “But I live alone, while other in my basti have four or five people in each family,” said Jadhav. For them, frequent handwashing – or even washing vegetables more thoroughly while cooking – would mean finding the space to store more water than normal. “Bigger families obviously have more problems,” she said.

Slum settlements also face to risk of infections spreading in and around common toilets, and the coronavirus pandemic has made many residents more aware of this possibility.

“In my area, everyone has started keeping a distance from each other while standing in the toilet line, and different people are going at different times of the day to reduce the crowd,” said Deepali Bane, a domestic worker from the Andhra Association slum at Antop Hill, where a set of 10 toilets are shared by around 120 people.

Vatsala Jadhav lives in Chandrabai Nagar slum in Juhu Koliwada.

Salary woes

While many domestic workers like Bane have been paid their full salaries by their employers during the lockdown, the daily wage earners and migrant workers who populate most of India’s urban slums have been grappling with job losses, unprecedented food shortages and hunger as a result of the lockdown. In this report, for instance, Vijayta Lalwani and Ipsita Chakravarty found daily wage workers who have no money left to buy food. As a result, some were surviving on water and salt.

For those who do have the means to buy groceries, the lockdown has brought them daily indignities at the hands of the police.

“In our area, only two vegetable sellers are open these days, and they are allowed only for two or three hours in the morning, so of course they get very crowded,” said Jadhav. Instead of getting the crowds to maintain social distance during their shopping, Jadhav claims the police targeted one of the vegetable vendors a few days ago. “They beat him with a stick, took Rs 1,200 as a bribe and blamed him for the crowd, even though none of it was his fault,” she said.

Reports and videos of police brutality towards citizens out to buy essential supplies have been pouring in from across the country since the beginning of the lockdown. Most of it has been targeted at members of the lower-income classes. In Shiv Nagar, however, Sanjay Tadas justifies the police’s misbehaviour.

“Everyone in the police force has been ordered to patrol the streets right now, even those who work in the police’s accounting section,” said Tadas. “Their salaries are going to be delayed because of this, so of course they are upset and frustrated and take it out on us. I understand because I don’t’ know when my salary will come either.”

A Mumbai municipal worker sprays disinfectant in an alley where a patient had tested positive for the virus.on March 31. Credit: Indranil Mukherjee / AFP