Manju, a 20-year-old young woman, sells flowers at Kalyan station everyday. But, with cases of COVID-19 rapidly rising in Maharashtra, the government had it under complete lockdown. So, Manju's shop is now closed and life has thrown two big questions her way – firstly food, and second, a place to stay in.
Manju is homeless. Normally, she used to stay at Kalyan station’s platform at night, but, the police has now stopped her from sleeping there. At a time when she cannot earn, Manju is also deprived of the place that resembled a house.
"An NGO gave me two boxes of biscuits on Sunday. A family which lives near the station gave me food on Monday. I don't know when this epidemic will leave,” she said. Manju now lives under an old railway bridge, and she knows that “I can’t stay here forever.”
The organisation that gave her the biscuits is Pehchan, an NGO working for homeless people in Maharashtra. Brajesh Arya, also convenor of Homeless Collective, a forum of 40 such organisations working for homeless people, looks after it. As per him, there are more than two lakh such homeless people in Mumbai alone, and many more all over Maharashtra. As of this moment, all these people have a serious challenge before them: don’t starve.
"We work daily to give food to these people. But, we have very few resources. We request the state government to provide food and shelter to these people. It is only how this section of people will get relief in these tough times," said Arya.
As per Census 2011, there are 57,450 homeless people in Mumbai city and 1,80,000 homeless in Maharashtra. The Supreme Court had ordered to build one shelter for a population of one lakh. But, there are only 75 shelters in the state. There are only 26 shelters in Mumbai and out of these, 13 are for children. Only eight are functional at the time of writing. As per the apex court’s guidelines, the state needs a minimum of125 shelters. As the infrastructure is almost negligible, homeless people of the state are left to their own devices.
As per a study by Field, an organisation working in the sector, almost 70% of the homeless in Mumbai have been so for generations. They left their native places due to drought or a similar epidemic and shifted to this mega-city. “You will not get to see this kind of homeless people anywhere else. Only 30% of the labourers who have migrated from different states are homeless. So, the state government will have to use vacant government buildings for these people. We have made this request to them," said Brajesh Arya.
There is a kind of panic in government machinery to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Measures taken by the Centre have been forced on governments everywhere. And in such times, it is the government that has to look after its own.