TALHA MUJIBI | 30 APRIL, 2020
Coronavirus Fears Grip Bhalswa Village, Delhi’s Largest Slum
For residents of Bhalswa Slum in New Delhi, the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown has compounded a long list of problems. “Mahamari ke baad khaane peene ki bohot dikkat hai, humare pass ration card bhi nahi hai (Since the epidemic, food and basic survival has become very difficult, I don’t even have a ration card) ” says Manoj Kumar, living in the slum for six months now.
Kumar recently came from UP’s Belwara village near Moradabad. Food and other resources are not easily accessible by the migrants as ration card eligibility requires the person to be a citizen of the state. The coronavirus pandemic proved to be a double edged sword — Kumar can neither go back nor stay in Delhi.
More than hundreds of laborers like him are seeking refuge under the bridge at the banks of Yamuna near Kashmiri Gate in Delhi. They were employed in construction works like plumbing, removing debris, operating equipment, loading and unloading bricks - and are now left penniless. Their plight unnoticed.
The slum where Kumar and others live is the second largest and most densely populated slum in India, after Mumbai’s Dharavi. According to a 2011 census report by the Ministry Of Housing and Urban Affairs — Bhalswa is home to more than 2 lakh people, making up a large portion of Delhi’s total 24% urban population residing in different slums.
Bhalswa is a part of a resettlement plan of 2000-02, when Jahangirpuri area was developed, modernized and urbanized with the introduction of the metro in Delhi. The residents were relocated to a distance of 2 kilometers and were promised basic amenities and other essential facilities. Now, after 18 years, the village remains hidden behind a humongous garbage dumping mountain with an average of 22,000 tonnes of waste thrown in every day. Delhi Municipal Corporation has beautified it with grass and planted a few trees but the effort is symbolic of the veil of ignorance.
Hadisa Khatoon hails from Araria, Bihar, living with three daughters in Delhi’s Bhalswa slums for two winters now. “My husband is in Bihar. I come to Delhi every year to save money for my daughters’ marriage. I am not sure if I will go back”. She alludes to the predictable rise in asymptomatic cases of the pandemic. She is scared of the possibility of being infected.
The coronavirus pandemic is spreading at a rapid pace crossing 30,000 cases in India. People residing cheek by jowl in these cramped single-room urban slums, unsanitary alleyways are most vulnerable to contract the virus. Public health experts have already warned that slums could prove to be potential hotspots for the spread of the virus.
Other slums like Nochikuppam in Chennai, Rajendra Nagar slums of Bangalore, Basanti slums in Kolkata, and Dharavi in Mumbai are reported to have an increasing number of coronavirus cases every day.
Another overlooked factor is the extreme poverty that characterises the lives of slum residents, compounded by a pandemic and lockdown. People here cannot afford a proper one time meal, let alone reserved food stock. The International Labor Organization reports that these workers live hand-to-mouth with a mere earning of ₹140-450 per day.
Usha Devi, 43, says her family is low on daily earnings. A day without work means no food. She is in a cyclical dilemma: To go out for work and risk contracting the deadly virus or stay at home and starve.
There are tens of thousands of women like Usha, working as domestic help, who are now left with no money. Some of them are employed as scavengers and rag pickers who could also carry the virus into their crowded communities.
Hygiene is an essential factor to combat the coronavirus but lack of money makes it impossible for people here to buy soap. Masks, gloves, and expensive sanitizers are beyond consideration. Maintaining hygiene at a time when they have to buy drinking water remains an unresolved issue -- to drink or wash hands.
“Dilli Jal Board wale din mein ek baar aate hain lekin usse kya hoga? Humein paani ke liye bahar jaana hi padta ha (People from Delhi Jal Board come once a day, but what help is that? For water, we have to venture out)” adds Usha.
Bhalswa Village witnesses 50-100 deaths every year due to water borne diseases -- open drainage, run off water from the garbage, excreta laden sources and contaminated drinking water are the reasons.
Most of these households have no access to running water or toilet facilities. On average 50 people share a single unclean toilet every day that could easily lead to community transmission.
The woeful situation is largely a result of tremendous population pressure and unorganized urban housing. Women are at the receiving end as they have to bear humiliation particularly the case of pregnant women due to open defection.
The government's Clean India Mission or Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched in 2014, declared India to be Open defecation free with 100% households having access to toilets. Puneet Srivastava, manager of policy at NGO WaterAid India says, “Clean India Mission largely focused on building household toilets in which a considerable number of slums have not been included.” These claims are still debatable.
An unprecedented lockdown that has been extended until May 3 may work for rich or even middle class Indians, but the hardships seems nearly insurmountable for the lowest income group filtered at the bottom. Lack of education and awareness worsens the situation, as people live in fear of being taken away to quarantine centers.
Even as the majority adhered to the clarion call of isolation and social distancing inside their home, these slum dwellers with no luxury of private space cannot abide even if they wish to.
There is a possibility of undetected coronavirus positive cases as testing rates are low as well as expensive especially for slum dwellers. There is a large population routinely suffering from chronic illnesses like diabetes, asthma, and cancer. The immuno-comrpomised living in unhygienic conditions are more susceptible to coronavirus as these comorbidities add to the soaring death tolls every day.
Rajmohan Panda, an expert at Public health Foundation of India says, “Many of those living in low income areas are undernourished and their immunity levels are low. This is going to be a huge problem, especially if poverty levels rise due to loss of livelihoods.”
India is keen on implementing cluster containment strategy to minimize further spread of the virus. But the question still remains if it is possible for people living in congested areas.
Social distancing is an unreachable privilege for the people of Bhalswa, taking shelter in 10x10 feet jhuggis (huts). India suffers from acute power shortage, especially in the summer. The only respite for residents here is stepping out of their electricity starved and claustrophobic houses as temperatures start to rise.
The potential mortality and morbidity risk associated with Covid-19 is most likely to multiply among these residents who live in close proximity with 8-10 members sharing a single room in each of these tiny tenements. Bhalswa slums may be at the brink of emerging as another hotspot of coronavirus after Dharavi, but who is paying attention?