MUMBAI: Around 3am on Saturday, families under the flyover on Western Express Highway near Bahar Cinema were rudely woken up by the police. Wielding lathis, the police asked the families to move out of the area. The families all from the Pardhi community have been living here for decades and make a living selling green chillies, lemon and balloons at traffic lights. They are among the city’s homeless who are now being thrown out of the city as the civic body and police wrestle with the coronavirus crisis.
Dhanaji Kale, who with 30 others moved to Nalasopara, said they had no food and would starve if somebody did not help them. “The police told us we cannot stay because of corona. But our dhanda (business), ghar (home) are all there. How do we now survive?” he asked.
Amid the lockdown, it has become a tense situation for the homeless in Mumbai. At Charni Road, civic officials tried to evict the homeless who remained firm, asking for an alternative. Radha Rajput who has been living here with five other families selling gajras for a living, said the outbreak halted their trafe. “We had got atta (flour) that should last us two weeks. Ration shops are closed. Can you help us get some dal and rice?” she said.
According to Census 2011, there are 57,000 homeless people in Mumbai but activists say there are at least 1 lakh of them. “Fortunately, none has so far tested positive for Covid19. The 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.
But the city has denizens who, moved by the plight of these people, are giving a helping hand. Around 11am on Sunday, Salim Shaikh, 23, from Kalyan set out for the impoverished streets whose residents don’t know what a sanitizer means. In front of his bike, was a container with 50-odd packets of veg biryani and pulao. Mask firmly in place and hands scrubbed clean, Shaikh distributed these packets to daily-wage labourers who could not afford groceries and were affected by the lockdown. Every time he handed a lunch packet, the collegian made sure to advise the beneficiary about precautions that must be taken against the coronavirus.
Shaikh belongs to Falah e Aam, a charitable trust. His group of 20-odd members started doling out biscuits for breakfast and vegetarian food packets sourced through a local caterer for lunch and dinner to labourers on Saturday.
“Not many among the poor are aware of the symptoms of corona. We tell them to at least get themselves an anti-bacterial handwash if not a hand sanitizer,” says Shaikh, adding that the group is mulling distribution of masks and sanitizers too.
Arya said the government must help with food and provide vacant buildings for these people to reside in.
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