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Covid-19: Lockdown in a Mumbai slum

As Mumbai's Worli Koliwada becomes the largest containment zone in the city with tight police controls, Lounge reports on the everyday battles of its residents

The Mumbai civic body had identified 381 containment zones by 9 April and imposed movement restrictions on the residents
The Mumbai civic body had identified 381 containment zones by 9 April and imposed movement restrictions on the residents

It had only been minutes since I arrived outside Worli Koliwada, a fishing village in Mumbai, when a resident from the neighbourhood stopped me on the street.

“Are you from the press?" he asked.


“People from Koliwada have been breaking the curfew and coming to our slums for groceries. If we get infected (by the coronavirus), who’s responsible?"

Four days earlier, on 30 March, the Brihanmumbai municipal corporation (BMC) had placed the fishermen’s colony under complete lockdown after four of its residents tested positive for covid-19. The police had since barricaded the two major exit gates from Koliwada. Over a dozen personnel deployed at each point sweated in the April sun, rejecting the residents’ requests to go out, fending off the persistent few with their long wooden sticks.

Maharashtra has emerged as India’s epicentre in the covid-19 pandemic, with 97 dead and 1,385 testing positive as of 10 April. Across the city, the BMC has declared 381 “containment zones" and sealed off the residential complexes where there have been cases of coronavirus. These range from tony residences in Malabar Hill to chawls in Prabhadevi.

Worli Koliwada is a densely crowded fishing village where nearly 80,000 people live in an area of 2 sq. km
Worli Koliwada is a densely crowded fishing village where nearly 80,000 people live in an area of 2 sq. km

In Worli Koliwada, an estimated 80,000 people live in tiny houses spread over 2 sq. km. The restrictions on movement were meant to control the spread of the virus—within and outside. The civic body had said it would take care of supplying essential commodities like milk, groceries, medicines and cooking gas. But going by this man’s account, it wasn’t going quite as smoothly.

I strapped on a face mask and followed the man into Janta Colony, a slum cluster next to Koliwada. We negotiated its narrow by-lanes, crossing its one-room houses, taking in the smells of the meals being cooked, and emerged into an open expanse that overlooked the sea. The beach in front of us doubles as a toilet and a garbage dump. A narrow path along the shore connects the colony to Koliwada, whose triangular landmass juts nearly a kilometre into the sea. Halfway down the path was a police constable. Next to him, a young man stood holding his ears, doing sit-ups. “The cop has just come here," someone filled us in. Rule-breakers weren’t going unpunished.

Three women and a man stood around us, eyeing the policeman anxiously. They wore handkerchiefs around their faces and carried bags filled with bread, biscuits and vegetables. “We were nearly out of food," 75-year-old Laxmibai Shinde explained. “The grocery shops inside Koliwada are either shut or empty." Sunad Patil, 58, had an ID card pinned on his shirt. He works as a driver in the BMC’s Worli office. “I have been working day and night since the nationwide lockdown was announced and they are still not letting me in," he said, visibly agitated. “I am a diabetic. My daughter is prone to seizures. The chemists inside Koliwada didn’t have our medicines." He took out a strip of tablets and waved it at me. “What choice did I have but to come out and get some?"

This seemed to touch a nerve with the small crowd gathered around us. They raged against the abruptness of the lockdown, the inefficient handling of its aftermath. Some pooh-poohed their MLA Aaditya Thackeray’s assurances of restoring normalcy, made in a video released online on 2 April. Worli Koliwada has long been a Shiv Sena bastion. “But if they are to go asking for votes tomorrow, people will certainly hit back," one said.

Over the next hour and a half, the residents of Janta Colony made frantic phone calls to local political leaders, imploring them to help the four stranded around us. After a brief stand-off, Patil was allowed to return. Shinde and her companions decided to chart their way through the garbage and muck on the beach. The sight of them plodding through knee-deep dirt probably moved the policeman standing by the shoreline. He called out to them and asked them to return to solid ground. As the four made their way home, their figures getting more distant by the second, the man who had taken me there heaved a sigh of relief.

“Imagine," he said to those around us, “this could be us tomorrow."


The possibility of coronavirus spreading to chawls and slums has been one of the biggest worries of health experts. The small living spaces in such areas, along with shared amenities like bathrooms and toilets, make social distancing—the most important preventive measure against the virus—near impossible. One in every six urban Indians lives in slums, according to the 2011 census. In Mumbai, around 42% of its 22 million population does.

Worli Koliwada is one such highly vulnerable area. A quiet fishing village for hundreds of years, it had seen a population boom in the last century, when its residents started building small rooms to rent out to the cotton mill workers migrating from rural Maharashtra. The mills shut down eventually but most of the workers had already settled in with their families. Today, Koliwada is a vibrant cluster of houses both big and small, with migrants old and new. Its iconic settings often serve as a backdrop in films and music videos, like they did a few years ago for Hymn For The Weekend, by the British rock band Coldplay.

So when the coronavirus started making inroads in the last week of March, there was fear of community transmission. The government as well as the World Health Organization continue to classify most of India at “stage 2" of the pandemic, meaning local transmission. “But in Koliwada the houses are so small and close together the virus could have spread everywhere," said Hemangi Worlikar, the Shiv Sena corporator from Worli Koliwada. “Many people were not taking the curbs on movement seriously, a trend that continues till date. A strict lockdown was thus necessary."

Mumbai police punish those found violating the curfew
Mumbai police punish those found violating the curfew (Photo: Getty Images)

A little before midnight on 30 March, a team of Mumbai police personnel went around Koliwada with a megaphone. Some people from the village had tested positive for covid-19, they announced. The BMC planned to disinfect the village. All residents were to stay indoors until further orders.

The next morning, residents woke up to an eerie quiet. All milk booths, grocery stores, medicine shops and other establishments providing essential services were shut. Fishermen were forbidden from going into the sea. The police were patrolling the streets. No one was allowed to come in or go out. “They wouldn’t even allow me to attend the funeral of my grandmother in Panvel," recalled Nitesh Patil, a fisherman from Koliwada. “They said, ‘Itkya lamb corona gheun challa ka (You want to spread the virus that far)?’"

Citizen volunteers draw boxes for people to stand and maintain social distancing at a grocery market in Dharavi
Citizen volunteers draw boxes for people to stand and maintain social distancing at a grocery market in Dharavi (Photo: Pratik Chorge/Hindustan Times)

The civic officials had two major tasks ahead of them: to identify the people who had come in contact with coronavirus-positive patients and restore essential services in the area. As the infected lanes in the village were identified, a handful of shops in the other lanes selling milk, groceries and medicines were allowed to open. The officials had drawn circles outside the shops for people to stand in and maintain distance from each other. But it wasn’t long before crowds thronged the shops, buying in bulk, social distancing forgotten. Demand outstripped supply. “I have had 200 calls since the morning complaining about lack of food," Babu Koli, a Shiv Sena leader from the area, told me on the phone on 1 April. “Corona baju rahila, upasmarichi vel aalie (the virus aside, people are staring at starvation)."

Sachin Gawane, a resident who works in the production team of a Marathi news channel, said it was a case of mismanagement. “In the first few days, the police weren’t letting trucks with essential items come in. People didn’t receive milk and food as promised, even doctors living inside our village weren’t allowed to work." Unavailability of essential items and uncertainty about the lockdown led to anxiety and panic, he added. “My mother started crying while watching the news on TV the other day. “Koliwadyatach ha rog aalae. Aapan jagnaar ki naahi (It’s come to Koliwada now. Will we survive this)?"

Amidst this confusion, Worli MLA Aaditya Thackeray released his first video address on the crisis in his constituency. “I am sorry for the inconvenience this has caused," he said in Marathi. “I hear of a shortage of milk and vegetables still and we are working to fix that. But we will have to put up with it for now because this is a question of our lives. We need to prevent a repeat of what we see happening in the US, Spain or Italy. The only way to do this is to stay indoors."

By the end of the first week, civic officials, helped by local NGOs, had ramped up supplies of essentials. Sharad Ughade, assistant commissioner in the BMC, told Mumbai Mirror on 5 April that they had surveyed a total of 40,000 residents in the village. The areas around the houses of covid-positive patients were marked out as “containment zones"; 225 “high-risk" individuals were moved to a quarantine facility at the state-run Poddar Hospital a few kilometres away. By 8 April, Worlikar told me, a total of 22 people from Koliwada had tested positive. The scale of the exercise and the urgency of its implementation offered a stark contrast from other clusters in the city.

“It certainly helped that Worli Koliwada is part of Aaditya Thackeray’s constituency," said Gawane. “If Aaditya’s image is affected due to mishandling, it directly affects that of the chief minister (Aaditya’s father, Uddhav Thackeray)." So far, the Shiv Sena chief has largely been praised for his calm, efficient handling of the pandemic, a radical departure for a party once known more for its right-wing rabble-rousing than setting a benchmark for good governance.


On 5 April, a week after the lockdown had been imposed, I returned to Koliwada. The two entry gates were still closed but residents were being allowed to collect food and grocery packages from online delivery apps over the barricades. A portable ATM had been set up nearby to facilitate transactions. Tempos carrying kits of kitchen essentials like rice, oil, onions, flour—some with Shiv Sena stickers on them—were a common sight. Some volunteers could be seen on bikes, carrying tea, water bottles and vada-pavs for the police personnel.

I joined a group of constables for a cup of tea. “It’s fairly calm now," one of them told me. “You should have seen in the first few days—they would come so often, in so many numbers. They would say they want to go out and buy bread. Some complained about not being able to buy and eat fish. Can’t you adjust with chapati for a few days?" It was a uniquely big city phenomenon, they agreed. The slightest inconvenience is blown out of proportion.

“They just won’t listen if you are polite," said Sandip Gawai, an assistant police inspector. “‘Aat ja, please’ doesn’t work. You have to be hard: ‘Aye, chal lavkar.’"

On Day 5 of the lockdown, three residents of Koliwada sneaked out on a boat and went to Mahim. As they tried landing on the beach, they were handed over to the police by residents. “They were only out there to buy groceries," recalled Gawai. “That was the turning point. It really showed how acute the shortage of essential items was inside."

Ten days into the lockdown, a number of services have resumed in the village. Doctors from outside Koliwada are allowed to enter and examine those with medical conditions. Grocery shops too have stocked up on essential commodities. There are, of course, still some issues: extended confinement in cramped spaces poses risks to mental health, complete curbs on the availability of alcohol can lead to withdrawal symptoms.

“We haven’t received any complaints so far," said Worlikar. “But we are taking the problems head on and finding solutions as they come."

As the crisis in Koliwada eases, several more cases have emerged in slums and chawls across Mumbai. But even as the civic body increased the number of areas sealed, many of these areas see poor enforcement by the police and few attempts by the civic body at providing essential goods to the residents trapped inside.

On 7 April, Aaditya Thackeray tweeted that everyone in Koliwada would be screened for symptoms. Twelve residents reported high fever on the first day but so far, no new cases have been reported.

“By now, the shock is wearing off and the awareness is increasing," said Gawane. “Many of us have food, so we keep indoors."

But the chaos of the first few days, he added, could have been avoided. “It comes down to communication. In spite of being in the curfew zone, we were getting our information from news channels. If you want to do something, you have to tell us what was happening, why it was happening. You can’t just instruct, you must take people into confidence."


Contagion vs congestion

Slum areas under curfew see frequent violations by residents and poor enforcement by the police, risking further spread of the virus


The Jamblipada slum in the western suburbs of Mumbai was declared a “containment zone" after a resident tested positive for covid-19 on his return from Italy, where he was working on a cruise-liner. The police sealed the slum cluster on 25 March and put up barricades at each of its four major entry points.

On the morning of 5 April, no police personnel were visible at the three entry points Lounge visited. The residents had moved the barricades and were moving in and out.

“When the barricades were put up, we weren’t informed why or how long they would be around," said Anita Gaikwad, a homemaker from the area. “The police make a few rounds every day and ask us to stay indoors. But so far there doesn’t seem to be any restriction on our mobility out of the slum." Senior inspector Kailas Avhad, in charge of the local police station, insisted that the restrictions were in place. “We have told the residents not to go out," he said. “People might be stepping out to get vegetables but our men and citizen volunteers are patrolling the area regularly to keep them in check."

Most of the residents of Jamblipada are blue-collar workers—taxi drivers, mechanics and domestic helps. As the lockdown stretches on, their savings are shrinking. “We have a corporator from the Congress, an MLA from the Shiv Sena and an MP from the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party). None of them have come forward to help us financially or with basic essentials like food," says Kishor Sonkusare, a driver at a travel agency. “At this rate, even a working professional like me will have to depend on state handouts."


On 4 April, a 52-year-old resident of Shakti chawl in Mukund Nagar was diagnosed with covid-19. Three people had tested positive from Dharavi till then but this was the first case from a slum cluster. The man was hospitalized and his family moved to a quarantine facility. Their neighbours were asked to self-quarantine and marked with a stamp on the wrist.

When Lounge visited Mukund Nagar the next morning, the neighbourhood was buzzing with people. Some were on a grocery run, others were chatting in groups of four and five, handkerchiefs on their faces. The police had allowed them to shop and stock up on essential goods a few hours in the morning and evening, one said. “It’s actually far less crowded than normal."

A group of men stood outside the lane leading up to a lane that was reportedly cordoned off. There were no barricades or official posters of the containment area. Mohammad Ayub Shaikh, who runs a biryani restaurant in the neighbourhood, said they had removed the bamboo barricade early in the morning. “It’s the only way we can use toilets—they are out of the lane," he explained.

Two constables, sitting some distance away, seemed least bothered. Shaikh said his friends and he—men in their 20s and early 30s—were taking turns to keep the residents in check. But he too empathized with their inability to stay indoors. “Most of us live in 6x6ft rooms," he said. “You can’t stay in one all day."

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