With Covid-19 cases on the rise in Mumbai’s Dharavi, migrants from Tamil Nadu try to return
In the first week of April, a septuagenarian suffering from oral cancer in Dharavi – Asia’s biggest slum — returned back to his village in Salem, Tamil Nadu, in an ambulance, which his son had managed to arrange after much struggle. The patient had come to Mumbai in February for his treatment at the Tata Memorial Hospital.
Huddled in the ambulance with him were his neighbours — a 17-year-old boy with Down syndrome and his mother. The boy’s mother had earlier tried to get a permit to take him back home in an ambulance, but was not given permission citing it to be a a ‘non-emergency’ request.
“My son would rush out of our room [in Dharavi] due to the suffocating conditions. It is too risky as he could be exposed to the virus. My 15-year-old daughter wasn’t even allowed to go near him,” said the boy’s mother.
The cancer patient said the boy would get agitated and cry throughout the night as his family did not let him step out. “As it was impossible for the family to keep him cocooned in their small room round the clock, his mother requested us to allow them in the ambulance as our family member,” said the patient.
The mother and son live in the neighbouring district of Villupuram, about two-and-half hours from Salem. They had a non-Covid certificate that allowed them to cross the state borders.
“My son is better now as there is enough space for him to roam around,” said the boy’s mother.
Spread across approximately 210 to 240 hectares, Dharavi is home to a population of around 8.5 lakh people. As per the civic body data, almost 15% of the population comprises of migrants from Tamil Nadu who have settled in the slums of the Dharavi decades ago.
However, hundreds of migrants from Tamil Nadu are now desperate to their native state through the porous inter-state borders, as they fear contracting the Covid-19 infection in Dharavi’s overcrowded slums, extending to 70-120 square feet rooms.
“We have stopped going out but it’s a challenge to keep my children confined in the room. We cover our hands and feet with plastic before using community toilets. We are living in fear,” said Sundari Chari, 32, who resides with her husband, two children and in-laws in an 110 square feet room.
According to the information shared by the Tamil Nadu government, migrants in Dharavi are trying to get inside the state through commercial essential vehicles such as vegetables supplying vans, in the absence of public transport.
Authorities in Tamil Nadu are monitoring these movements. High security has been imposed on national highways to monitor the entry of potentially-infected migrants from Dharavi and other parts. The Tamil Nadu government has set up testing facilities and quarantine centres near national highways, and police personnel have been posted in civilian clothes along the highway.
Recently, two people from Dharavi who drove over 1,800 kms on two-wheelers to Tirunelveli district, southern Tamil Nadu through Karnataka were caught by Tamil Nadu police officers, Shilpa Prabhakar Satish, district collector, Tirunelveli, told HT.
Spending nights on roads and sleeping at empty bus stands and temple premises, the duo took four days to reach their native town. They were so dehydrated, weak and frail that they were not in a position to share their information when apprehended by the police. They were provided with water by the police, and later tested for Covid-19. The two were then sent to a nearby quarantine centre and allowed to go home only after their report came negative.
“Slum dwellers from Dharavi are taking drops in vans supplying essential commodities from national highways. Some are coming on two wheelers, and some others even in ambulances with patients,” said Satish.
According to Satish, many who have lost their livelihoods want to return because they don’t have to worry about food in their native homes.
Kalla Prasad, 41, a native of Avudaiyapuram, said, “We can survive through farming. My brothers are worried and keep calling me back.”
The Tamil Nadu government has now initiated talks with the Maharashtra government to find out a possible mode of transport to bring its stranded people back.
“It is not only Dharavi, but hundreds are stuck in different districts of Maharashtra after the lockdown. So, our government is communicating with the Maharashtra government to find out ways to bring them to Tamil Nadu. All panchayat heads have been informed to keep an eye on the people entering their villages,” said Satish.