Dharavi is a lot of things. It is the world’s largest shantytown, housing about 6,50,000 people in 2.5 square kilometers. It is one of the largest producers of leather in India, having over 15,000 industries.
When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Dharavi was in the news again. Naturally, when a highly infectious, and potentially fatal, disease runs rampant through the state, eyes quickly turn to the squalid labyrinths of areas with high populations; fingers readily point to the thousands, if not lakhs, of people who reside in Dharavi, without whom Mumbai’s fast-paced life is unimaginable.
There were thousands of tests and camps held in the settlement; most migrant laborers had left for their native place with their families. Dharavi was a hotbed of infections, but only momentarily. It soon got another label attached to its name: Dharavi, the slum that had beaten the virus.
But had it, really? The repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic are not just skin-deep. It has had a profound impact on people and the way they live their lives, primarily by curbing their ability to earn. Repeated blanket lockdowns in the wake of increasing cases, and stricter regulations for social distancing are but two of the factors that have limited paid employment opportunities for the un- or low-skilled laborers that most inhabit Dharavi.
After the lockdown, one of the SNEHA volunteers informed her about her exact entitlements. “I went to the Fair Price shop and straightaway told the shopkeeper that I’ll lodge a formal complaint. He immediately rectified the amount on my card.” This incident has caused a chain reaction, with many people approaching Fair Price shops for the correct amount of food grains they should receive. “Even though we receive food grains, and they help us direct our money on other necessary expenditures, I would like to point out that the wheat grains we receive are very sub-par. We received rations from SNEHA twice, and that was of very high quality. But sometimes we receive very, very poor quality, adulterated grains from the Fair Price Shops”, says Raheema.
While Raheema had been receiving rations for a long time, there were those even worse off than her, who did not have a ration card due to lack of information or incomplete documents. When the lockdown was put in place, all economic activity was stalled. Many of those working as casual daily wage laborers were left in the lurch. Not having a ration card at this time in such a situation was a matter of life and death. Naaz* was clueless about obtaining a ration card. “But I got the right information from SNEHA”, she recalls. But Naaz had to spend hours in government offices in order to get her card made. “I even reached out to a third-party agency, but they straightaway demanded Rs 10,000, which I did not have.”