Social distancing is a privilege of the middle class. For India’s slum dwellers, it will be impossible.
For two days, Jeetender Mahender, a 36-year-old Dalit sanitation worker, has dared not leave his family’s shanty in the Valmiki slum of northern Mumbai, India, except to go to the toilet. Mahender is trying to comply with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s 21-day nationwide lockdown, His situation is desperate. The tiny home has no running water or toilet, his family is low on food — and when he doesn’t go to work, he doesn’t get paid.
Social distancing might work for India’s middle and upper classes, who can hunker down in their condos and houses, preen their terrace gardens, eat from their well-stocked pantries and even work from home, using modern technology. But for the 74 million people — one sixth of the population — who live cheek by jowl in the country’s slums, social distancing is going to be physically and economically impossible.
“The lanes are so narrow that when we cross each other, we cannot do it without our shoulders rubbing against the other person,” said Mahender. “We all go outdoors to a common toilet and there are 20 families that live just near my small house. We practically all live together. If one of us falls sick, we all will.”
In Dharavi slum in Mumbai, there is only one toilet per 1,440 residents, according to a recent CFS study — and 78% of community toilets in Mumbai’s slums lack a water supply, according to 2019 Greater Mumbai Municipal Corporation survey.
Water is one of the biggest reasons India’s poor need to leave home every day. Sia, a slum dweller and migrant construction worker in Gurugram, near New Delhi, wakes up at 5 a.m. and defies the call to stay indoors. The reason? She needs to walk 100 meters (328 feet) to a water tank that serves her slum of 70 migrant construction workers. Most women from the construction site slum wash together there every morning and collect water for the day. With no showers or bathrooms in their homes, this communal tap is their only water source.