Covid-19 in a Mumbai Slum: An interview with Shamim Banu of Rafik nagar

by James Tayler


Last week, SPARC India spoke to Shamim Banu Salim Sheikh (age 55), a member of Mahila Milan living in Mumbai’s Rafik nagar slum in Govandi about conditions in her community. The below are her reflections on her community and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

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“My name is Shamimbanu. I am the taluka vice president of Samajwadi party. I reside in Rafik nagar – Govandi, Shivaji nagar near Bismillah Masjid dumping ground.  My family consists of my husband, two sons and two daughters. One daughter is married. My husband and my sons are working in the fishing transport line. We have one business only.

Life in Rafik Nagar

Rafik nagar is a huge slum with around 40,000 houses. Most of the houses are kuccha (informal), at least 30 to 35% houses are kuccha since they are near the dumping ground. Securities from this area don’t allow these people to build pucca (permanent) houses. But if we go little away from the dumping ground then we see little pucca houses and more deeper in the area, you have ground plus one houses, i.e ground floor is pucca and upstairs they have patra (tin) roof or patra side walls. Most of the people’s occupation here is wastes pickers, fish sellers, vegetable sellers, kadiyas (masons), construction workers and mystry (carpenters).

All kinds of people stay here. Most of the people are Muslims from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar states. Migrant workers in this area were more, now most of them have left their houses and went back to their native lands. The houses are small and 8 to 10 men would stay in one house. The reason they left from here is not food but all their work is stopped [because of the coronavirus lockdown], and they were scared that whatever savings they had would finish staying here without work.

We have a  team of ladies who come together and prepare community food daily, all the expenses are done by the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly (MLA) and five other councillors and supply food to different areas such as Guatam nagar, Shivaji nagar, Sathe nagar and Indian oil and also Rafik nagar. Whoever wants food comes here and takes the packet. Many people don’t have a gas cylinder in their house. If we take a cylinder it costs 1000/-. Most of them use chullas (hearth / stove) for cooking food and some get kerosene at 80/- per litre.

We have 24 hours electricity – only people near the dumping ground don’t have individual meters otherwise all the houses have individual meters. Water is also not a problem: we get ample water from last 3 years as our MLA has given us water connection to every house. He has spent crores of rupees to give us this connection. Some lanes have proper drainage lines, but the new houses don’t have drains. Even in rainy season, we don’t have much problem here. The area doesn’t get choked up any time. He has constructed a small kabrastan (cemetery) in our area, otherwise we had to go far away to cremate the body. Only problem we have here is that, because the garbage comes here there is very dirty smell in the area when they burn it. It’s not only garbage that gets burnt but there is a company nearby which throws post-mortem and other stuffs in this dumping ground . Many people have various kinds of lung diseases here. We all use common toilets. The toilets are not sufficient for everybody, some go near the dumping ground before the security comes to take charge.

Covid-19 in Our Community

Corona illness is a surprise to us, but as I said we are living here for years with  all kinds of dangerous diseases, this is one kind of disease in our list. If you ever come here and see you will find people going around everywhere without any fear. Nobody from outside such as police, doctors or Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) officers dares to come inside the area. Because they themselves are scared that they will get new diseases if they enter this slum. So most of the time police stays outside near the road side and don’t allow people to go anywhere.

We try and tell other people that they should keep their hands clean, houses clean, don’t sneeze or cough in public places. But all these things are for rich people and not poor people like us. In this area most of the people have at least 7 to 8 members in their houses, how are you going to tell them they should not sit together or keep distance between each other? They will laugh at  you and show you their houses first to see how big is their house. It’s two and half months now, nobody from the government side or BMC has come to sanitize our area  or give us any information about this disease. We hear the message when we have to call somebody from the phone. They have a tape that tells you what we have to do to stay away from this diseases and sometimes from the TV. But people here are least bothered about all these things. They are waiting, when this lockdown will be over and they will go out for their jobs.

We must be having many positive cases in our area, but nobody has come to check any family. Once our MLA had arranged a camp and sent some doctors to check here by bringing some small machine to see if people have fever, but they said there are no positive cases at least nearby my area. We are not sure how true is that. Because if people don’t listen to what government is saying than how could you test just few people and say that there are no positive cases in this slum. Many migrant workers who were living here have left from here, our MLA arranged buses and train tickets for many people, now almost 30 to 35% of migrant workers have gone.

Many people have lost their jobs. They are not sure whether they will get the same job again, but the fish and vegetable sellers will continue with their jobs. The rest will have to find another job. We are all waiting for the buses and trains to start so that we can go out and start earning. Government didn’t think about people who are on daily wages. It’s good that our MLA gives us all the grains to cook food in our area so at least poor people take meals twice from here.

We had got a contract of preparing some 10,000 to 12,000 masks. We use to get 2 rupees per mask. Many people were doing this work but that is also stopped. In Ramadan month most of them had started vegetable and fruits businesses. Some were selling toys and other stuff so that they were able to earn some money out of it. But now everything is stopped. The waste pickers try and go to pick up waste but the watchman asks them to pay 50 rupees to go out from the area, and since all the shops are closed who will buy their stuff.

People do have ration cards but not all. We get only rice and wheat in the ration shop and nothing else. What are we going to doing with all the rice if there is no daal or masala or oil? How are we going to cook the food? No systems are in place; government does their own manmani (will), whenever they want they do lockdown but we are the sufferers. It seems everything has come to an stand still. “Zindagi mano thumsi gayi hai.” (“Seems like life has paused.”)

Nothing is good about what is happening, we are thanks to Allah (God) that we have a good MLA who is taking care of people in whole of Shivaji nagar. We prepare 4,000 kg of rice daily, dal, chole bjature (chickpea curry with fried bread), once a week chicken biryani and once a week mutton pilaf and feed as many people we can. Our team of ladies come together and pack the food and send it by tempo (small cargo truck) to different areas. This is only good thing.

There is a small general hospital built by MLA which takes care of small cases. They charge 10 rupees if medicine is available then they give us free medicines also. We have been given contact numbers for ambulance so that in emergency we can contact them.”