Amid virus, those in India’s largest slum help one another

KOHIMA, India (AP) — There are no secrets in the tightly packed lanes of Dharavi, India’s largest slum. Everyone knows when children are scolded or when a family has its television turned up too loud.

So, news that someone had been hospitalised with the new coronavirus rocketted through the one square mile that is home to around a million of Mumbai’s poorest residents.

Born and bred in Dharavi, Kunal Kanase watched authorities ignore everyday disasters, like overflowing sewers and domestic violence. He knew better than to wait for help.

The 31-year-old student and community activist hounded government helplines trying to get authorities to quarantine the neighbour’s family. Unable to get through, he tweeted at the Mumbai police, who quickly came to take the man’s family to a quarantine centre.

“I used to teach his two children and felt good for the family since they were relatively safer now,” he said from the tiny two-room apartment he shares with his parents and younger brother.

Kanase is among many unsung heroes working to protect some of India’s most vulnerable people from the ravages of the coronavirus and the economically devastating nationwide lockdown that left millions unable to feed themselves.

When a woman who lives just two houses – less than 10 feet away – from Kanase became sick with COVID-19, he once again tried to notify authorities. He was unsuccessful.

People rest by their shanties at Dharavi, one of Asia’s largest slums, during lockdown in Mumbai, India. PHOTO: AP

Kanase would watch as health workers scrambled to stem the outbreak, suiting up to disinfect the squalid lanes and flying drones over the shantytown to surveil people’s movements.

Dharavi has more than 1,800 confirmed COVID-19 cases, and is among Mumbai’s most affected pockets.

The caseload in the city known for Bollywood and the country’s most important stock exchange stood at more than 41,000 on Thursday, and overwhelmed the under-funded health system.

Mumbai and elsewhere in Maharashtra state in central India account for the largest share of the country’s more than 210,000 confirmed infections, of which more than 104,000 recovered. India recorded some 6,000 deaths.

The rate of infection and the loss of life have been relatively small compared to the United States, United Kingdom and other hard-hit countries. But epidemiologists said India is still weeks away from peak coronavirus transmission.

Dharavi is known to the world as the setting of the 2008 Oscar-winning film Slumdog Millionaire. Set between busy train tracks and the heavily polluted Mithi River, which separates the slum from Mumbai’s modern skyscrapers, the neighbourhood is a maze of tiny alleys, each one full of scores of people, many living in tin shacks. Families or groups of migrant workers often pile into a single room. Hardly anyone has a private bathroom.

Without reliable running water, the most worrying concern is sanitation. The neighbourhood was able to avoid another disaster this week when it was spared damage from a cyclone that hit the city.

Kiran Dighavkar, a Mumbai official who is overseeing medical workers and volunteers in Dharavi, said his staff are focussed on cleaning the neighbourhood’s 500 toilet complexes. Each is visited by at least 1,000 people a day.

“These people have to come out twice a day, for food and to use the toilets. So you can imagine how tough it is to practise social distancing,” Dighavkar said.

Kanase and his team at Dharavi Diary, a group of young leaders who work to improve conditions in the slum, have been working to help those affected by the pandemic, handing out bags of rice, flour, cooking oil and sugar – enough to feed a family for two weeks. But they lack the resources to provide for everyone and often must filter out the needy from the neediest.

Each day the slum’s poorest – often migrant workers originally from elsewhere in the country – line the main street waiting for food handouts from Dharavi Diary and other volunteers, groups and government agencies.