MUMBAI: It was 3am on Saturday morning when families under the flyover on the Western Express Highway near Bahar Cinema were rudely woken up by the Vile Parle police. Weilding lathis, the police asked the families to move out of the area. The families who belong to the Pardhi community have been living here for decades making their living selling green chillies and lemon and baloons at the traffic lights. They are part of Mumbai’s homeless who are now being sought to be thrown out of the city as the civic administration and police wrestle with the unfolding coronavirus crisis.
Dhanaji Kale who along with 30 others moved to Nala Sopara said they had no food and would starve if somebody does not help them. “The police told us we cannot stay because of coronavirus. But our dhanda (business), ghar (home) are all there. How do we now survive?” he asked.
Ever since the government has been shutting down offices in Mumbai, it has become a tense situation for the homeless. At Charni Road civic officials tried to evict the homeless near SK Patil Udyan but the “residents” remained firm asking for an alternative.
According to Census 2011 there are 57,000 homeless persons in Mumbai but activists believe there are at least one lakh homeless people in Mumbai. “Fortunately none of them have so far tested positive for Covid-19. Government must provide some relief,” said Brijesh Arya, founder of the NGO Homeless Collective. He said the homeless are daily wage earners and with everything shut many have no money and no food.
Sitaram Shelar of Pani Haq Samiti said the government must provide some kind of shelter for the Homeless rather than driving them out of the city.
At around 11am on Sunday, Kalyan-based 23-year-old Salim Shaikh set out for the impoverished inner streets of Govindwadi whose residents don’t know what sanitizer means. In front of his bike, was a container with 50-odd packets of veg biryani and veg pulao. Mask firmly in place and hands scrubbed clean, Shaikh distributed these packets one by one to the daily wage labourers living here who could not afford groceries and were affected by the lockdown. Every time he handed a lunch packet, the commerce student made sure to advise the beneficiary on the precautions that they must take in the face of coronavirus. Some thanked him, others wondered how long the virus was going to stay.
Shaikh belongs to Falah-e-Aam–a charitable trust affiliated to Islamic revivalist organisation Jamaat e Islami Hind–that has decided to provide both food and corona awareness to disadvantaged sections in both Kalyan. Shaikh’s group, which consists of 20-odd members, started doling out biscuits for breakfast and veg packets sourced through a local caterer for lunch and dinner to the labourers on Saturday. While the first day saw 250 beneficiaries, the group–which spends roughly Rs 5,000 a day on the initiative–tweaked its logistics on Sunday in adherence to the Junta Curfew.
“We went one by one and only stuck to the gullies,” says Shaikh, adding that there’s a lot of fear in Kalyan after two cases of Covid-19 were detected here. “Not many among the poor are aware of the symptoms of coronavirus. We tell them to atleast get themselves an anti-bacterial handwash if not a hand sanitizer,” says Shaikh, adding that the group is mulling the distribution of masks and sanitizers too. A similar initiative is taking place in Kurla too.
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