Homeless families sleep under the Chembur flyover at Amar Mahal Naka in Mumbai. (Source: Express Photo by Vasant Prabhu)
Civic schools and marriage halls are being converted into temporary shelters as part of an action plan drawn up by the state government to protect Mumbai's homeless and the stranded migrant labourers.
Mumbai, with most COVID-19 cases in India, has an estimated 2 lakh homeless population, who are caught in a vulnerable position following the imposition of a 21-day nationwide lockdown.
Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray on Friday directed officials to locate safe spaces or temporary shelters to self-isolate the homeless population. Empty civic schools were pinpointed as a readymade solution because they have water supply facilities and rooms, and can easily be requisitioned by the government. Along with schools, disused marriage halls were also discussed as possible solutions.
Accordingly, the offices of the Mumbai (City) Collector and the Mumbai (Suburban) Collector were instructed to find all such safe spaces and acquire them. The government has invoked emergency provisions under the Epidemic Act, 1857, to acquire these.
The collectors were also tasked with the responsibility of mapping the homeless population in consultation with BMC, and community outfits working for the welfare of the homeless.
By evening, a list had been drawn up, and the beneficiaries even shifted to the shelters in a few cases. Mumbai (City) Collector Rajeev Niwatkar said that his office had so far acquired nine schools across nine Assembly segments, and identified 3,200 migrant labourers.
The Union government and states had earlier invited some criticism for their "slow" response to the effect of COVID-19 and the lockdowns upon the country's homeless and migrant population. The Mumbai Metropolitan Region's informal sector, in particular, hires a large number of migrant daily wage earners, many of whom have suffered loss of wages and have seen no work since March 21, when the government had first ordered shuttering down of all non-essential services in Maharashtra.
Sources also said that chief ministers of Punjab, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bihar had earlier contacted Uddhav to inquire about measures that could be taken up for the welfare of migrants from their respective states, who are stranded in Maharashtra. "We can't let them travel to their states due to restrictions. It was decided to secure their food, water, and accommodation requirements till they are lifted," said a senior bureaucrat.
Uddhav on Thursday had asked BMC and the state food and civil supplies department to make arrangements to supply cooked food or ration for the homeless. Senior bureaucrat Bhushan Gagrani, who is overseeing efforts in control room set up for COVID-19 containment operations, confirmed the move to house the homeless in temporary shelters. "We will take care of their food and water requirements, and other basic needs," he said.
With a high prevalence of hypertension and coronary heart problems, lung infections, the homeless in the city is seen as being a medically high-rise group. Sources said that the government is also mulling the option of carrying out general health screening of those sheltered in such shelters.
Charities welcomed the move. Brijesh Arya, founder of NGO Pehchan, which works for the welfare of the homeless, said, "This is a welcome initiative. The government has shown sensitivity towards the dignity of the homeless population in such times. We would like to work closely with the government in implementation of the measure."
Sitaram Shelar, Director, Centre for Promoting Democracy, said: "Care should be taken to ensure that belongings of those being relocated to the temporary shelters are not misplaced or damaged.”