Responding to COVID-19 in a high-density low-income district in Mumbai

A representative from a grassroots federation in Mumbai describes how the community is self-organising for an effective COVID-19 response.

Selvi Manivanan Devandra's picture
Guest blog by
13 May 2020

Selvi Manivanan Devandra is a community leader with Mahila Milan

Three women sit on the floor for a meeting

Blog author Selvi Manivanan Devandra, centre, at a Mahila Milan meeting planning for COVID-19 (Photo: copyright SPARC)

Selvi Manivanan Devandra is a community leader with Mahila Milan, a federation of women’s savings groups, active in housing and basic service issues. Indian Oil is the name of their cluster of tenements

My name is Selvi. For four years I have lived in Indian Oil building no. 8/C, room no. 304. Most residents of Indian Oil are people who were displaced by city and state government projects, including many pavement dwellers. Previously, I was staying in slums near Kokari Agar.

I have three children. One daughter is married, and my other two children are college students. My husband works as a security guard. I have been working with the Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centers (SPARC) and Mahila Milan (MM) for the last nine years.

Coordinating and communicating through WhatsApp 

On the outbreak of COVID-19, all MM leaders took on responsibility for planning relief work in the area and to coordinate with Shekar sir from the National Slum Dwellers Federation and local politicians (Aktar Khureshi and Abbu Azmi).

Most buildings have an MM leader, and each leader is in touch with a central committee. Previously we were not involved with the central committee since we didn’t like the way they worked, and we worked to our own guidelines. But now with the challenge of COVID-19, we all agreed to come together and work for the people. We created a communal WhatsApp group. Whatever the committee decides, we come to know about it.

First we set about helping the many people who hang around because they don’t have any work. When the police visit our area, all these people run into the various tenement buildings. We decided to open the building gates at given times, such as 8-11.30 in the morning and 6-8 in the evening. Now, with permission to enter buildings at certain times these people avoid running into trouble with police who are monitoring the area. 

Supporting the vulnerable to self-isolate

Next we set about helping families in greatest need. This includes families that have been unable to pay maintenance charges for the last two months or so, those who are handicapped, medically unfit and senior citizens. Also those families who share accommodation and have more small children.

To such people and families, we give preference. Through the WhatsApp groups we sent the list of these families to Shekar sir and the local councillor so the families can be registered as needing help. To minimise the chance of virus transmission we asked people, using WhatsApp, to stay in their houses and explained we would bring goods to their doorstep. The building president also takes responsibility for sharing all the information. 

Approximately 10,000 families reside in Indian Oil, making up a huge population of around 25,000 people. The councillor provides only 200 packets per day; this is distributed to those families on the list provided by the society leaders. My son has been given an ID card (required to access subsidised food rations) and goes to Shivaji Nagar to get cooked food packets in the afternoon and at night.

It is mostly families that live here. Of course, there were many men who used to stay alone here but now they have gone home, back to their families.

The outside view of a large block of tenements

The bottom of the tenements at Indian Oil Nagar, Mumbai, India (Photo: copyright SPARC)

Shutting the local market was a priority: people were gathering around the shops or vegetable vendors and so risking the virus spreading. We asked the city government and police department to help us to shift the market to an open space nearby. It would open at specific times and the MM leaders would help check that people are maintaining a safe distance between each other.  

A local politician (corporator) arranged for masks and for cooked food to be provided. And for food packets for 300 families including rice, dal (two types), sugar, wheat, oil and bottles of sanitiser. The corporator has also given equipment to sanitise our area, since the city government lacks this. 

Trusted by the inhabitants and the authorities

Previously police would not allow us to leave our houses to check on families or bring food to their doors. We explained that if we didn’t, families wouldn’t get food, and that if we could deliver food to their doorsteps, they wouldn’t need to come out and risk virus infection.

The police began to understand that we leaders have an important role. Now we help them maintain the law and deal with crime in the area. They regularly visit our areas which prevents people hanging around.

The MM leaders build lists of how many families are in crisis, what kind of job the head of the family does, how many family members. We have been working in this area for four or five years so are familiar with most of the families in our building and our neighbouring buildings. We open our office at certain times so all leaders can come and submit their lists. Then we sit with Shekar sir and decide how and when we can provide them with food grains. 

Shekar sir informs us leaders of the time to come to the office and collect the food. With this crisis, we have started collecting names of those families who don’t have a ration card and those families who have ration card but are not linked to an Aadhaar card [identity card] which means that they are unable to get food grains from the ration shops.

The crisis has made us aware which families in our area who don’t have an earning member in their house, and so don’t have easy access to food.  

Alert to the dangers of fake news

Many news items are running around on the TV channels, but some news is fake. Some say that by taking certain tablets we won’t be affected by the virus. My neighbour, who works in the housekeeping department of a hospital, bought me some tablets, telling me if I took them, I wouldn’t fall sick.

I urged him not to give the tablets to anybody, explaining that they could be dangerous, particularly for people with diabetes, heart problems or asthma and so on.

I told him no tablet can cure this disease and to take simple precautions: only drink hot water, take a hot water steam every day and gargle twice or thrice with hot water and salt. Wash your hands regularly, don’t touch your face and stay away from others. This is only practical advice not medication, but it is possible for us to do this at home.


This blog is drawn from an interview with Selvi Manivanan Devandra, conducted by Sharmila Gimonkar on 18 April 2020. Sharmila has been working with Sparc for the past 30 years. With thanks to Slum Dwellers International (SDI) for its support in developing this blog.

About the author

Selvi Manivanan Devandra is a community leader with Mahila Milan, a federation of women’s savings groups active in housing and basic service issues

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