Interview | Varsha Gaikwad Mumbai

Dharavi needs a special plan to cope, says Maharashtra Education Minister

Varsha Gaikwad  

Education Minister Varsha Gaikwad, who represents the Dharavi constituency, is putting all her efforts into containing the spread of COVID-19 in Asia’s largest slum, which has become a key infection hotspot in the city. In an interview with The Hindu, Ms. Gaikwad talked about why coping with the pandemic is a unique problem for Dharavi since its population density is higher than the rest of the city, with physical distancing a challenge and common toilets the norm. Edited excerpts:

What is the situation in Dharavi as of now?

Till Monday, Dharavi had around 916 positive patients. We have taken measures like awareness campaigns, community quarantine, and provision of food for the needy to ensure that the number does not go up. We are supplying dry ration as well as cooked food, which are being arranged by the Congress, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), and police. A Central team had already visited the area while the State government is constantly monitoring the situation.

Despite all this, the number of cases is increasing. What could be the reason behind this spike?

Dharavi is a unique case. The slum spread over 535 acres has over one lakh huts with a population of 15 to 16 lakh. Maintaining physical distancing is a great task as 80% houses are less than 100 square feet. The other problem is common toilets. After the first patient was reported, we wanted to arrest the spread. But use of public toilets is unavoidable. One toilet seat is being used by 200 to 250 people daily and it is virtually impossible to sanitise it after every use. Among the measures to check the pandemic, we have started door-to-door screening. Initially, we had set up quarantine facilities at Rajiv Gandhi Sports Complex, Sai Hospital, and transit camp. As the number of positive cases increased, Raja Shivaji College and Maharashtra Nature Park were used as quarantine centres with a capacity of 1,000-1,200. Additionally, spaces in Bandra Kurla Complex too will be used. We have also said that quarantine facilities should be set up at Somaiya ground and in Vikroli with more medical staff and adequate equipment.

Why are you stressing on setting up more quarantine facilities?

Dharavi needs a special plan. I have written to the Chief Minister suggesting that we reduce the number of people staying in Dharavi, after which the crisis management can be improved. While train services have started to Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, we are sending migrants to Rajasthan by bus. Some wanted to go to Tamil Nadu, but sending them by bus is extremely costly. I am repeatedly making the demand that more trains start running from Mumbai. As many migrants as possible should be sent to their home towns, so that there will be less burden on the existing management system like providing food and putting up barricades. It will help us manage the situation better. I had even told the visiting Central team that States, especially Tamil Nadu, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, should give us permission to send their people home. I had even appealed to the healthy Marathi people from Maharashtra to check the possibility of going back to there native villages. Our aim is to bring Dharavi out of this disease at the earliest.

Did the State administration fail to anticipate the threat to Dharavi in initial days?

I don’t think so. We acted swiftly after the first case. But physical distancing is always the problem and only option I see is to reduce the population load by sending migrant workers to their home towns. Along with a special plan, I have also demanded that an IAS officer be designated for Dharavi to tackle this crisis. BMC officials are already overloaded with work. So we need someone for specific duties like coordinating transfer of workers and food distribution.

Dharavi hosts numerous small scale industries which are hurt due to COVID-19. What is your roadmap to revive them?

Dharavi is a manufacturing hub of a number of items, ranging from leather bags to chips. These small scale units are worth some hundreds of crores of rupees. Demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax hit them first and now COVID-19. This crisis will leave no capital to restart the small businesses. Closed businesses can’t give salaries to their workers, who now depend on the government for food. I have spoken to the CM and also raised the issue in a Cabinet meeting that we will require a special financial package to revive the small scale industries in Dharavi. It was expected that the Centre would make some announcement in this regard, but that dose not seem to be happening. There have to be incentives for the small businesses and their owners.

Had the Dharavi redevelopment project been completed on time, the scale of the crisis could have been reduced?

This pandemic has taught us a number of lessons. It has almost changed our manners of functioning in social life. I think had we moved ahead with the redevelopment in a timely manner, the picture would have been different. It is now hanging in between; nothing has progressed in the last five to six years. We will focus on redevelopment of Dharavi after the pandemic is tackled.

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Printable version | Dec 5, 2021 5:54:22 AM |

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