Over the last several days, India’s COVID-19 count has spiked (currently at 180). There is a stark gap in state mechanisms to increase awareness on the ground, build people’s resilience and offer adequate welfare measures. In this context, we at Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) have been reaching out to low-income and vulnerable communities to understand the situation, its impacts and offer support. We strive to be safe ourselves in doing so.
This blog records the direct experiences of our staff as they assessed the situation in 20 settlements across 4 cities in the Greater Mumbai area where we work — Vasai Virar, Mumbai, Navi Mumbai and Panvel. Through this, we have been able to understand people’s level of awareness of COVID-19, and their current economic situation in the face of measures taken to contain the virus. We have focused on especially vulnerable persons — senior citizens, differently abled persons, women-headed households, children and young people. This has helped us understand people’s fears, needs and gauge their preparedness (especially in case a lockdown is imposed).
Overall, there is a lack of awareness on the pandemic and rumours and misinformation are high across the regions surveyed. Of the 800 plus families we have already reached out to, 95% of households are dependent on daily-wages. Currently many people are foreseeing losing their current source of income; many others have stopped earning their daily wage already.
Presented below are the findings from the rapid assessment. This is an ongoing effort and will be updated as we enter the coming weeks:
At the Tipping Point
- Groups that were already vulnerable, such as the homeless and individuals from disadvantaged communities (Pardhis, transgenders and many others) are at an impasse. People who beg for a living stated that they are being shunned even more, rapidly increasing their deprivation.
- Among families who have been homeless for a long time and those who have been recently forcibly evicted, without a secure place to live and currently without a daily-income (many jobs such as garland making and food vending are no longer possible to pursue in these circumstances), many are on the brink of starvation. Numerous households are surviving on little or no food.
Lack of Access to Food
- While families want to avail rations through the Public Distribution System, due to the lack of/poor Aadhar-ration linkages, they aren’t receiving adequate amounts of basic grain and pulses. In a western suburb in Mumbai, a ration shop owner mentioned that the ration quota for this month had already been distributed and there would be no added supply (even though there is current scare on food scarcity).
- ICDS centres or anganwadis where children between the age of 0–6 years are provided basic nutrition have stopped daily food supplies in many areas.
- With schools being closed for the last few days, mid day meals have also stopped. Many children depend on this meal to sustain themselves during the day.
Workers and Wages
- Most homeless persons who have been unemployed since the start of the month have mentioned that especially since the start of this week (16 March 2020) it has become very difficult for them to find a means of earning.
- Most women domestic workers stated that they have been asked not to come to work. Some of them were not fully aware of the reason for the same. Across the board they all said that they have been told that they will not be paid for these days!
- Daily-wage construction workers have not been finding work at construction sites — they are forced to stay home and have no alternate source of income.
- Street vendors at rehabilitation and resettlement (R&R) sites of Vashi Naka and Lallubhai Compound, mention how they are seeing sales dwindle fast. ‘I have enough savings to last our household for the next week, but what after that?’ a vendor who spoke to us said.
- Vendors who sell food items are among groups that are suffering the most since people are avoiding purchasing street food. The constant talk of wholesale markets shutting down is adding to further unease among them.
- With the closure of places of worship all associated jobs have also come to an end.
- Women from the Waghri community commonly called chindiwallis reported going to the market daily, but with no one to sell to they return empty handed.
Doubly Vulnerable Senior Citizens
- Elderly citizens employed in daily-wage labour are among groups that are suffering the most. With no source of income, they are becoming more vulnerable, even as their advanced age makes them more prone to disease, and at high-risk in case of COVID-19. An old couple from the Pardhi community mentioned how they have resorted to begging, as no one was buying the food that they were selling, especially in the last few days.
Fears Multiply: Forced Evictions at the Moment and the NPR
- In two pockets within Ambujwadi (a slum settlement of more than 15,000 people in Mumbai’s western suburb) two forced eviction notices were posted by authorities. The fear of losing work and then the fear of losing one’s home is having a serious impact on the mental well-being of the residents.
- With regards to mental well-being, in certain places residents mentioned that they have been living in fear of what the National Population Register (NPR) may mean for them. The spread of the pandemic and losing work has added layers of worry in already-stressed households.
Rampant Misinformation and the Lack of Awareness
- In interactions with residents in various settlements, many individuals revealed the fear that has overtaken their neighbourhood, others mentioned that this virus is too distant and will not affect them. In some places people had not heard about the virus but understood that ‘something’ was happening.
- Misinformation is also high — some asked if the virus has come out of slum settlements itself and many individuals believe that the consumption of a non-vegetarian diet is spreading the virus. For example a kilogram of chicken that is sold for INR 120/kg was being sold for as low as INR 40/kg in some areas.
Through this assessment, it is evident that the grassroots reach of the healthcare system is completely absent in the face of the pandemic. Barring posters in commercial areas, people resort to hearsay and social media as a source of information to explain this situation. This raises even more serious questions regarding containing the spread of the virus. People do not know how to protect themselves. Their basic needs are unmet and we argue that this has to take equal priority while the government attempts to ensure containment of the virus.
Based on the situation emerging from our ground assessments, we submitted an unequivocal list of demands to the Government of Maharashtra (presented below — click on the hyperlinked portion in the line above for Twitter link).
All Ministers have been asked not to have individual meetings with members of the public until 31 March 2020. Furthermore, the Chief Minister’s Office is accepting letters on behalf of all Departments and directing them at their end. In the absence of personal meetings we are using social media to disseminate and amplify these demands.
We also launched Together We Can, a campaign to help the most marginalised, especially daily-wage workers who have no wage security among communities we work in across Greater #Mumbai, to access basic food supplies. We have started receiving support and will be starting the process of food supplies distribution within the next 24 hours.
An update on our current outreach by end of day 25 March: Currently we have reached out to 940 households (4,700+ individuals), reaching identified homeless families in Kurla, Sion, Dadar, Matunga, Bandra and Jogeshwari, and vulnerable families in slum settlements in Malvani, Mankhurd, Vashi Naka, Navi Mumbai and Panvel.