Coronavirus Pandemic

India's Covid warriors: How Asia’s largest slum turned into a model for battling the virus

Linah Baliga/Mumbai
Filed on May 18, 2021

Photos: Supplied

BMC's Assistant Municipal Commissioner Kiran Dighavkar

Dharavi is continuing to show a marked decline in cases, unlike other parts of India that are reeling under the second wave.

Dharavi, Asia's largest slum, has managed the raging SARS-CoV-2, which causes Covid-19, in the second and more lethal wave of the contagion.

Social distancing may be a pipe dream and home isolation impossible because of the cheek-by-jowl, unhygienic living conditions of the slum-dwellers — a majority of whom are economic migrants to Mumbai. But Dharavi has emerged as a role model that calls for emulation in India reeling under a devastating fresh spell of the raging viral outbreak.

Dharavi recorded only nine and eight cases on May 14 and 16, respectively, and has bucked the trend by reporting in single digits daily since then.

This is a far cry from Mumbaikars’ growing fear that the densely congested Dharavi would be one of the city's worst hotspots. Instead, it is continuing to show a marked decline in Covid-19 cases, unlike other parts of the teeming megapolis, which has an estimated population of over 15 million.

Iqbal Singh Chahal, Commissioner, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), Asia’s richest civic body, and Kiran Dighavkar, Assistant Municipal Commissioner, G (North) ward, deserve fulsome praise for the "Dharavi model".

Their successes need to be celebrated for winning over one of the toughest Covid-19 challenges in an urban sprawl that has no parallel in India and that has been devastated by the second wave of the contagion amid growing allegations of undercounting of the dead.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) had singled out the BMC authorities for their stellar work during the first wave of the pandemic last year. The civic body has added another feather to its illustrious cap and the “Dharavi model” calls for emulation by other municipalities across India.

Dighavkar weighed in on the change in strategy for the second Covid-19 wave. “The civic authorities had focused on three Ts — tracing, testing and treating — among Covid-19 patients in a bid to contain the spread of the virus, and they constantly reminded themselves not to be complacent even when Dharavi reported five new infections on February 13,” he said.

Dighavkar, who implemented the famed Dharavi model, was on his guard from the outset. “We got into the act early and set up mobile vans and dispensaries for collecting swab samples of slum-dwellers. The aggressive vaccination drive that was started in early March also came in handy to keep the viral outbreak at bay,” he said.

“In retrospect, the launch of the vaccination drive at Dharavi, at best, was lukewarm. Data showed that only 64 people had shown up on the first day. But we offered inducements to the slum-dwellers with gifts such as soaps and bottles of juice and encouraged them to take the jab. Local doctors were also urged to motivate them to come forward spontaneously. Gradually, our tactic worked and 16,000 slum-dwellers have been administered the jab to date,” he added.

The Bharatiya Jain Sangh, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), set up help desks to educate the slum-dwellers to take the jab and also helped them to register. “Many slum-dwellers are illiterate and don’t know the registration procedure. The NGO’s volunteers have been doing a good job,” he added.

The Mahim Dharavi General Practitioner's Association had championed the cause of the slum-dwellers in the first wave of the contagion. However, the civic authorities didn’t leave it to chance in the second and deadlier wave of the viral outbreak.

The BMC’s "My Family, My Responsibility" scheme has proved to be a game-changer, as around 400,3600 people were screened thrice during the second wave.

Dharavi was considered a recipe for the Covid-19 disaster for a raft of factors. For instance, 80 per cent of slum-dwellers use 450 community toilets, raising fear of the spread of the contagion at an alarming speed. Each tenement, which is 10 ft by 10 ft, is occupied by up to 10 people and most eat out daily because of an acute space crunch.

Social distancing and home isolation that have entered the common man’s daily parlance since the viral outbreak last year is a luxury in Dharavi and Covid-appropriate behaviour is not feasible because of urban challenges.

However, the BMC authorities stepped in with alacrity to nip the viral outbreak in the bud.

"This is the beauty of Dharavi. The infected and suspected Covid-19 patients were immediately separated. The quarantine centres provided healthy meals thrice a day. Those who were inside the slum and unaffected were given food packets and rations," Dighavkar said.

The civic authorities are ready for an anticipated third wave that’s likely to hit Mumbai in August-September. "The third wave will have its own challenges. We shouldn't wait for the virus to find us. We have to chase it away and that is what we’ve succeeded in doing so far," he said.

Dharavi has recorded 344 Covid-19 related deaths to date.

The sprawling slum houses 5,000 registered companies and another 15,000 single-room factories, manufacturing leather, food, pottery and textile items, that will become operational soon.

It is also the hub for international exports at an estimated annual turnover of over Dh3.67 billion.

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