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Slumdog Millionaire’s Ticking Time Bomb

Many slums in Mumbai have become coronavirus hotspots but the one dominating the headlines is Dharavi—Asia’s second biggest slum. What can be done to contain the Covid-19 spread and the potential risk to the rest of Mumbai, India’s commercial capital? By Kamakshi Singh Mehlwal and Geetanjali Mehlwal

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Dharavi, spread over 2.16 square kilometres, is one of the most densely populated areas on earth. A Covid-19 community spread here in the heart of bustling Mumbai, will explode like a grenade. Dharavi is, without doubt, a major ticking time bomb. Almost 10 lakh people many of them migrant labourers from all states of the country live here in small shanties.

Many slums in Mumbai, including Dharavi, Govandi, Byculla and Kurla, have become coronavirus hotspots. The only way to prevent hospitals in Mumbai getting overwhelmed is to thwart the virus from breaking loose in Dharavi and other slums in Mumbai. Community spread in these slums will be lethal to Mumbai’s fight against the coronavirus.

According to the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), on May 4, the number of Covid-19 cases in Dharavi stood at 590, with a death toll of 20. One officer of the Dharavi Fire Station also tested positive for Covid-19. Dharavi is the largest slum in Mumbai and the second largest in Asia after Orangi Town in Karachi.

It is estimated that one million people live in Dharavi, which spans just over 2.1 square kilometres (0.81 sq miles; 520 acres). Assuming that the population is only 7,00,000, the population density comes to over 2,77,136 per sq km or 7,17,780 per square mile. There are approximately 5,000 businesses and 15,000 single-room factories in Dharavi. The slum is the most literate in India, with a literacy rate of 69 percent. The percentage of people living in slums is estimated to be as high as 41.3 percent in Greater Mumbai, implying that over 9 million people live in these areas.

Consequent to an expert team’s adverse appraisal of Dharavi, the BMC decided to make a 1000-bed isolation facility for non-critical Covid-19 patients, with pathology labs at the adjacent exhibition grounds in the Bandra Kurla Complex meant exclusively for Dharavi residents to be constructed by MMRDA. This facility is estimated to be ready by May 20 and can be further expanded to accommodate 5,000 beds. BMC has also taken over a 50-bed Sai Hospital and two small hospitals within Dharavi as the rapid rise in the number of cases was giving nightmares to the administration. A municipal school in the heart of the slum is also being equipped with a 700-bed isolation facility.

The government of India’s team of experts suggested that the state government focus on the high-risk patients in the slums. It also recommended the shifting of suspected patients out of the slums and installation of mobile toilets.

Focus must be on sanitisation, containment and isolation in Dharavi. Fifty persons on an average use a toilet seat each day. The BMC says it has been disinfecting all 225 public bathroom complexes and 1,500 toilets daily. A special treatment and solution machine imported from New Zealand has been deployed for the purpose. BMC workers also fumigate the area every alternate day.

Dharavi emerged as a settlement for migrant factory labourers when factories were shifted from peninsular Mumbai in 1884. It has a history of epidemics and other disasters, including a widespread plague in 1896 which killed over half of the population of Mumbai. In 1986, a cholera epidemic was reported, where most patients were children of Dharavi. In recent years, many cases of drug-resistant tuberculosis have been reported in Dharavi. Fires and other disasters are also common here. For example, in January 2013, a fire destroyed many slum properties and caused injuries. In 2005, massive floods led to deaths and extensive property damage.

Informed citizens feel that the central government should bring in the Army to handle the slums of Dharavi and Govandi in Mumbai as the coronavirus pandemic in Maharashtra has crossed all boundaries. If proper protocols are followed, containment zones might require up to 10 lakh tests.

The population of Mumbai has more than doubled since 1991, making it a melting pot due to the influx of migrants that relocate to the “city of dreams” for employment opportunities. The 2011 census put Mumbai’s urban agglomeration at 20,748,395, making it the fourth most populous city in the world while the main city itself had a population of 12,478,447. The next national census is scheduled for 2021.

An estimated 60 percent of Mum­bai’s waste plastic is recycled in Dharavi. The first polluting tannery moved from peninsular Mumbai into Dharavi in 1887. People who worked with leather, typically a profession of the lowest Hindu castes and Indian Muslims, moved into Dharavi. Other early settlers included the Kumbars, a large Gujarati community of potters (another polluting industry). The British government granted them a 99 year land lease in 1895. Other artisans, like embroidery workers from Uttar Pradesh, started the ready-made garments’ trade. These industries created jobs, labour moved in, but there was no government effort to plan or invest in any infrastructure in or near Dharavi. Its empty spaces have continued to serve as the waste-dumping grounds for operators across the city.

Impromptu disorganised growth has resulted in inadequate sanitation, drains, safe drinking water, pavements, roads or other basic amenities. But some ethnic communities have built schools and temples. Dharavi’s first mosque, Badi Masjid, started in 1887 and the oldest Hindu temple, Ganesh Mandir, was built in 1913. Dharavi’s large recycling industry, a source of heavy pollution in the area, processing recyclable waste from other parts of Mumbai, is reported to employ approximately 2,50,000 people. The numerous household and micro enterprises consist of 5,000 businesses and 15,000 single room factories, while export goods around the world consist of various leather products, jewellery, accessories, and textiles.

The markets for Dharavi’s goods include stores in the United States, Europe and the Middle East. The total (and largely informal economy) turnover is estimated to be between $500 million and over $1 billion per year.

The estimated per capita income of the residents, depending on approximate population range of 8,00,000 to about 10,00,000, ranges between $500 and $2,000 per year. Several big stores and brands outsource manufacturing here.

Mahim Creek, where the Mithi river drains into the sea, is widely used by local residents for urination and defecation, leading to the spread of transmittable diseases. Release from open sewers into the city drain, into the creek cause stinking odour, spike in water pollutants and contamination. Moreover, the air pollutants cause diseases such as lung cancer, tuberculosis and asthma.

As Mumbai struggles to fight the coronavirus pandemic, it was reported that on April 1, 2020, a group of misguided youth pelted stones on the police after being asked to stay indoors at Dharavi. Multitudes are not cooperating with the authorities and are still thronging grocery stores within the slum, pushing aside barricades installed to maintain social distancing. So far 3,000 residents have been quarantined and Mumbai Police conducts “flag marches’ every other day.

Dharavi’s first Covid-19 positive case was linked to the Tablighi Jamaat Markaz in Delhi. The police investigation into the contacts of the 56-year-old garment unit owner who died on April 1 has revealed that 10 Jamaat members stayed in one of his vacant houses in Dharavi between March 22 and March 24, and four of them visited him before heading for Kerala. The BMC team alerted the police and categorised the man’s family as high-risk and instructed that they be quarantined.

The Dharavi Vidhan Sabha constituency is part of the Mumbai South Central Lok Sabha constituency. Slumdog Millionaire, a 2008 British crime drama film that won eight Oscars, including “Best Picture”, depicting the love and life in Dharavi was shot there. So was Dharavi (City of Dreams), a critically acclaimed 1993 Hindi film, a joint NFDC-Doordarshan production that won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film. Dharavi has also featured in a 2019 film Gully Boy.

Since the 1950s, proposals for redeveloping Dharavi have emerged. MV Duraiswamy, a well known social worker, had promoted a society with 338 flats and 97 shops in the 1960s.

In 1997, the Maharashtra government floated multiple tenders to redevelop Dharavi like the former slums of Hong Kong such as “Tai Hang” but without success. In 2004, the cost of redevelopment was estimated to be Rs 5,000 crore ($700 million). By 2010, it was estimated to cost Rs 15,000 crore ($2.1 billion). Companies from around the world have bid to redevelop Dharavi, including Lehman Brothers, Dubai’s Limitless and Singapore’s Capitaland Ltd.

In the third week of February 2020, Dubai-based SecLink Technologies Corporation, that won a Rs 28,000 crore ($4 billion) tender to redevelop the slum, alleged that there is a conspiracy to derail the project. The company had emerged the highest bidder for the mammoth project over a year ago. In a letter to the Dharavi Redevelopment Authority (DRA) and the Slum Rehabilitation Authority (SRA), the company stated that it had placed Rs 28,000 crore—the entire project cost—in an escrow account in Dubai, as endorsed by the Indian embassy and a Dubai auditor, and is losing $20 million per month as interest at the rate of .5 percent per month. It has warned that it will seek compensation of Rs 2,299 crore ($320 million) if the Dharavi Redevelopment Project is not awarded to it. Meanwhile, one can almost hear the ticking of the bomb.

—The authors are advocates with the Supreme Court of India

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