Vulnerable in Maximum City: Reimagining Mumbai

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Sarojini Pradhan
Dr Arun Kumar

Most States in India, including Maharashtra, are in their fifth month of the COVID-19 pandemic-induced lockdown. What started as a health crisis in March has quickly morphed into a humanitarian crisis. In these five months, tens of thousands have lost their means of income, lakhs of workers have walked back to their villages in defeat, feeling abandoned by the government and the city they lived in and worked for. Also, perhaps for the first time, many in the country have become aware of the extent of the vulnerability of the casual workers, daily wagers, hawkers, domestic help, sanitation workers, auto-rickshaw and taxi drivers, and several others. People have begun to talk about the “invisibles”, whose labour has been critical in running the city, becoming “visible” for the first time. There is also a somewhat reluctant recognition of the humungous role played by Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) about their role in reaching relief to the poor. Many feel that without the active participation of the civil society, governments—central, state and municipal—would not have managed to provide food and daily provisions to millions left without any support during the sustained lockdown. 

With no work and little means to support themselves, millions have had no choice but to flout the lockdown and return to their villages. Chinmay Tumbe, a researcher, puts India’s reverse migration since mid-March “conservatively at 30 million or 3 crores or 15-20 per cent of the urban workforce”. Prof Amitabh Kundu (Economist) and colleagues have made estimates of “interstate migrants who have been economically destabilised during March-April 2020. The estimated number is 22 million.” (Seema Chishti, The Indian Express. June 8, 2020). The office of the Chief Labour Commissioner of the Central Government, on the other hand, put out data on June 2 on its website that there are only around 2.6 million stranded migrant workers across the country (Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar, The Wire. June 5, 2020).

In this essay, we shall discuss a possible roadmap for the reconstruction of Mumbai, a city severely ravaged by the pandemic and the lockdown. M East Ward, where a bulk of Apnalaya’s work is focused, ranks lowest amongst all the wards in Mumbai in terms of the Human Development Index. 80 per cent of its population lives in slums, and the average age at death is just 39. Every second person works as a casual labourer. 

The Ward has had the highest COVID-19 fatality rate at 9.7 which is nearly three times higher than that of the city’s 3.7 (Jyoti Shelar, The Hindu. May 14, 2020). In a survey conducted by Apnalaya, it was found that in Shivaji Nagar, M East Ward, the average family monthly income was just Rs 9,147—about Rs 1800 per person for the whole month for a family of five. Only 46 per cent of the households have ration cards and about 15 per cent have no bank accounts. During the lockdown, 81 per cent of the people have struggled to have access to ration and 70 per cent had to borrow to buy ration and water (Tanushree Venkatraman, Hindustan Times. July 16, 2020).

On March 27, Apnalaya started its relief work. Its holistic approach—daily provisions and food materials, fruits and vegetables, added with Direct Benefits Transfer—ensured that no household was left to fend for itself. Recognising the impact of this crisis on the urban poor, Apnalaya initiated a social media campaign, and through networks, sought to create a sensitive eco-system that viewed the crisis in its totality and not just from a position of the privileged standpoint. As we can recall, the initial narrative around the lockdown was centred around work-from-home and washing hands frequently. Little did we realise that the daily wagers, domestic workers, construction workers, hawkers, auto-rickshaw drivers, and so on could not work from home. Nor did we realise how crores of slum dwellers throughout India will access water to wash hands frequently. 

Mumbai is a city of stark contrast. It is a city that produces a millionaire every 27th day. Known as the financial capital of India and the 12th richest city in the world, Mumbai is also home to severe misery and deprivation. Half of its population lives in slums with extremely inadequate basic amenities. They are the workers who virtually run the city. The city is dependent upon their labour but stays aloof to their everyday struggles 

Apnalaya galvanised volunteers from slums, mobilised resources and contacted government agencies to provide immediate relief to the people in M East Ward. Simultaneously, a consortium of civil society organisations (CSOs) working in Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, and Thane was initiated to optimise efforts, reduce duplication, learn from each other and draw upon each other’s strengths.

Apart from ration kits distribution, we engaged and compensated community volunteers for their relief work, bought health insurance for them, did direct cash transfers to vulnerable households, and distributed fruits and vegetable packets to containment zones, helping around 3.2 lakh people in Shivaji Nagar and adjacent areas. We also provided beds, medical and preventive materials to 3 MCGM hospitals and 15 health posts in M East Ward for a better and stronger response to the crisis.

But we all know this isn’t enough. There is an urgent need for systemic change to make the city more inclusive and accessible to the urban poor. In response to this crisis and as a reconstruction effort, there is a need to work on multiple issues on a larger policy level, a need to tackle the data gaps, the outdated regulations, the insufficient access to basic amenities and existing welfare schemes which is the reflection of an interface between hapless urban poor and apathetic civil society. 

The City and its Workers

Mumbai is a city of stark contrast. It is a city that produces a millionaire every 27th day. Known as the financial capital of India and the 12th richest city in the world, Mumbai is also home to severe misery and deprivation. Half of its population lives in slums with extremely inadequate basic amenities. They are the workers who virtually run the city. The city is dependent upon their labour but stays aloof to their everyday struggles. Its relationship with its workers has often been transactional or utilitarian. The extent of the neglect can be gauged from the fact that the city doesn’t even know exactly how many workers it has.

The lockdown has made us more aware that the urban poor, especially daily wage earners, face starvation if they do not earn daily, that the poor across the country have no universal access to food despite the country having more than 60 million tonnes of food surplus

According to a news report, from May 1 till June 13, when the Maharashtra Government said there were no further demand migrants for Shramik trains, more than six lakh people left Mumbai (Simpreet Singh, Scroll. August 7, 2020). Another newspaper report held that about 11.5 lakh workers have left the city (Vijay Kumar Yadav, Hindustan Times, May 29, 2020). A fortnight before, another newspaper had “unofficially” pegged the number as high as 25-30 lakhs (Sudhir Surywanshi, The Indian Express, May 16, 2020). Why don’t we have an exact number of how many “migrant” workers left the city? The answer is we don’t know how many “migrant” workers work in Mumbai.

“Migrant” workers constitute the backbone of informal unorganised work in urban areas. There is a “new normal”, which the world is adapting to, and it is imperative for us as civil society to recognise the imminent needs of people and those in the long-term. There is a need to fill these data gaps, to give migrant workers—whom the city depends upon—security and a voice. 

Food Security and Public Distribution System

The lockdown has made us more aware that the urban poor, especially daily wage earners, face starvation if they do not earn daily, that the poor across the country have no universal access to food despite the country having more than 60 million tonnes of food surplus.

An estimated 114 million job losses (91 million daily wage earners and 17 million salary earners who have been laid off), across 271,000 factories and 65-70 million small and micro enterprises have come to a halt (Sanjay Kanojia, The Scroll. May 31, 2020). Nationally, our insistence on linking up food security to the Census of 2011 leaves out over 100 million people without any security cover.

Rations through the PDS, however inadequate, are a major source of basic sustenance for the urban poor. The Government’s initial announcement of Rs 1.74 lakh crore in funds and measures to provide extra rations through its targeted public distribution system (TPDS) for the first three months have been helpful to those poor and vulnerable families who could access it. However, more than 50 per cent of the people we work with in Shivaji Nagar have no ration cards to access the Public Distribution System. The State Government, in its way, has tried distributing free food grains by linking it to Aadhar cards and submitting forms to the local ration officer which turned out to be tedious and not always user-friendly. 

But the fact of the matter is that about 108 million poor are out of the PDS net, which is about eight per cent of India’s population, that is, over four times the population of Australia and about as much as the population of Ethiopia – the second-most populous country in Africa. In fact, there are only 13 nations in the world which have a population of more than 108 million” (Kabir Agarwal, The Wire, April 16, 2020).

It is imperative for any discussion about reimagining the future to take food security as its first point. 

Integrated Child Development Scheme/Anganwadis

The Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) addresses the growing needs of children under the age of six years. It seeks to provide young children with an integrated package of services such as supplementary nutrition, healthcare and pre-school education. The ICDS is a central government scheme, and as per the guidelines of the Central Government, for a population of 800 people comprising 200 families, there will be one Anganwadi centre. There are 135 Anganwadis under Shivaji Nagar ICDS project for a population of 6,00,000. In the 12 clusters, there are 22 Anganwadis for a population of 37,000 whereas 47 Anganwadis are needed to cater to the children in these communities. This means there is a gap of 54 per cent where the people here are marginalised in all aspects of life. 

The lockdown has made this situation worse and the children from M East Ward are one of the most impacted. Since March, the immunisation work carried out under the ICDS has virtually come to a halt. In the several slum clusters, Anganwadis were either shut; in some cases, they were never functional. (Sukanya Shantha, The Wire, August 1, 2020). Across the nation, in all the cities especially, this is the situation. 

We must develop a system to account for people living in urban slums. A decadal census is not very useful, given the spate of migration India is witnessing. We urgently need to work towards increasing the number of ICDS centres in line with the population and policy of at least one Aaganwadi per 800 people/200 families, as well as improvement of the quality of services offered by these centres. A Nutrition Rehabilitation Centre (NRC) needs to be established in all major slum clusters of Mumbai to prevent malnutrition and morbidity among resource-poor children.

Basic Health Facilities

Lack of primary healthcare services has turned this pandemic into a far more deadly pandemic than what should have been the case. The city’s poor who are dependent on government support for their survival has perished in much larger numbers. It has magnified unequal access to healthcare services. Most of the outpatient departments in hospitals continue to be shut and people with non-COVID-19 illnesses in need of curative health services are excluded with no recourse. For example, according to a survey by Apnalaya, 32 women in M East Ward were forced to undergo home delivery during the lockdown period (Shruti Ganapataye, Mumbai Mirror July 8, 2020).

We must improve the number, quality and accessibility of health services offered by the local hospitals and health posts, particularly focused on improvement in diagnostics services, shortage of medicines, staff shortages and lack of implementation of patient’s rights charter. This means a substantial increase in health budget and improvement in health infra

The impact of no medical recourse has been particularly devastating for the people in M East Ward that has the lowest Human Development Index in Mumbai. The average age at death here is 39 years. The infant mortality rate is 66 (of 1,000 live births) while the national average is 41. It has Asia’s oldest and second-largest waste dump. Shivaji Nagar, the largest slum cluster in M East Ward has nearly 600,000 people, 11.5 per cent of Mumbai’s informal settlement population, living in an area of 1.37 square kilometres. There are only 15 Health Posts, 7 dispensaries and only two Maternity Homes in the entire M East Ward with a population over one million, at least.

With a population this large, there is an urgent need to map out the population and existing health facilities in all slum areas and prepare a ward-level list of needs. Shatabdi Hospital in Govandi and Rajawadi Hospital in Ghatkopar are the only accessible municipal peripheral hospitals for people living in M East Ward. 

We must improve the number, quality and accessibility of health services offered by the local hospitals and health posts, particularly focused on improvement in diagnostics services, shortage of medicines, staff shortages and lack of implementation of patient’s rights charter. This means a substantial increase in health budget and improvement in health infra.  

Public Toilets and Drainage System

More than a year after the State Human Rights Commission took suo moto cognisance of reports, based on Apnalaya’s data, on lack of community toilets in the slums of Shivaji Nagar, nothing has changed on-ground (Tanushree Venkatraman, Hindustan Times. July 11, 2020) In November 2018, Apnalaya calculated the ratio of people per toilet seat as being 145:1, a far cry from the Swachh Bharat Mission norms which states that there should be one toilet seat for every 25 people.

The Maharashtra State Human Rights Commission has ordered the MCGM to construct over 9000 additional toilets, three times the existing number that is presently functional. Most of the families completely depend on public toilets as individual toilets cannot be constructed in their houses, thanks to lack of a proper sewage system. The lack of community toilets forces people to stand in long queues or resort to open defecation. And, this has had a telling impact on people’s health, especially during the pandemic. 

A life with dignity often depends on basic amenities like a proper toilet and drainage system. No cities should be imagined without them. 

People with Disability

Disability is a limiting condition – be it physical or mental, all over the world; and for people living in informal settlements, the odds are against them. It is with this background that Apnalaya has conducted a study on the Prevalence of Disability in Shivaji Nagar, Mumbai, and this study is scheduled for release in the second half of this year. There is a major process lack of disability certification. 

While the Government has initiated an online system for applications, the lack of certification indicates that the measure has, so far, not been successful to the persons who require it. Merely 8.5 per cent of adults with disabilities in the slums of M East Ward areas have a Disability Certificate, while none of the children or toddlers with a disability did. A majority of PwD, 82.1 per cent of adults, have never applied for a Disability Certificate.

Service provision for PwD is lagging despite there being an online system for application towards certification. There is a need to advocate for the certification process to be improved/made more accessible, increasing awareness of the role and importance of having a disability certificate and supporting PwD to access them. There is also an essential need to bridge the gap between the definition of disability now used by the Indian Government and the current service provision approach.

 We have to work towards building and participating in networks and consortia, bringing together stakeholders from across the city (public and private sector, civil society, academia, media and the general public). The civic efforts at reimagining a new future will not be possible without making people’s representatives at the local level an active participant in the entire process

As civil society, we are perhaps just beginning to get a sense of how hard the life of a person with a disability becomes especially during a pandemic and lockdown. Physical distancing is very difficult to observe for people with disability. Even if e-learning is made available to a large section of our society, children with learning challenges will struggle to cope with the new methods of teaching and learning.   

To conclude, we have to work towards building and participating in networks and consortia, bringing together stakeholders from across the city (public and private sector, civil society, academia, media and the general public). The civic efforts at reimagining a new future will not be possible without making people’s representatives at the local level an active participant in the entire process. The corporate and the philanthropic sections of the city must join the government and non-government actors in rebuilding the city anew. A group of people with deep pockets and sensitive hearts may consider “adopting” a slum to transform. Maybe, one at a time. Maybe, starting with the one at the bottom of the pyramid. 

Arun Kumar is the CEO, Apnalaya. He has worked with social purpose organisations for over two decades. Through the lens of social justice and non-violence, Arun has engaged with issues of marginalisation, both, in urban and rural spaces. He develops programmes and strengthens organisations invested in the holistic development of communities on the margins. A student of Historical-Sociology, Arun obtained his doctorate from Binghamton University, USA; has authored three books and several articles. He writes stories for children and poems for adults and makes documentary films.

Sarojini Pradhan is currently working as the Communications Manager at Apnalaya. She received her Postgraduate Diploma in Social Communications Media from Sophia Polytechnic in 2018.