No income, no ration card, hefty room rent; women in Mumbai’s slums struggle to feed their kids

Many urban poor women are the sole bread winners for their families. Due to the lockdown, they have lost their livelihoods. Now they are under acute mental stress to feed their children

Nidhi Jamwal
Deputy Managing Editor| Updated: Last updated on August 21st, 2020,

A stone’s throw from the swanky Bandra Kurla Complex, a business district and a commercial hub in the country’s financial capital Mumbai, Rubina Javed Ansari, mother of four young daughters, and a resident of Dyaneshwar Nagar slum in Bandra (East), hasn’t slept in the night for weeks together.

“Every night at 2 am, I walk till Bharat Nagar, about 15 minutes on foot, where cooked food is distributed to the needy. I bring that food home so that my kids don’t starve,” Ansari told Gaon Connection. “I again make a trip in the evening around 7 pm to collect cooked meal for our dinner. If these meals are stopped, we will die of hunger in the lockdown,” she added.

Ansari’s husband, a kaarigar (tailor), used to work in a tailoring factory and earn between Rs 10,000-15,000 a month, depending on the quality of his work. It is the third month and he is out of work due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown.

“My husband hasn’t earned a penny since the lockdown in March. The monthly rent of our room in this slum is Rs 3,500. Electricity bill and water bill is Rs 1,000 and Rs 100 a month, respectively. Our savings have exhausted. If it was not for the free cooked meals, we would have starved,” she said. Being a tenant with no permanent residence proof, Ansaris do not have a ration card. Hence, the family cannot access subsidised foodgrains under the public distribution system (PDS).

Rubina Javed Ansari and her family is dependent on the cooked meal distributed by others. Photo: Nidhi Jamwal

Almost every tenement in Dyaneshwar Nagar slum has the same story. It is the third month of the lockdown and families have zero earning. And, because it is Mumbai, the monthly rent for one small, claustrophobic room in the suburbs is between Rs 3,500 and Rs 5,000. And this is not all. Electricity bill and water costs are separate. Women in the slum, who used to work as domestic help or housekeeping staff or other part-time jobs, and were the sole bread-winner for their families, have lost their livelihood.

Fatima Suratwala, a widow in her 60s, used to work as a cleaner in a railway station in Mumbai and earn Rs 3,000 a month. Three years back, she was thrown out of her job as younger women were hired for the cleaning job. To make both the ends meet, she started working as a domestic help.

“Because of the lockdown, I have not been able to go to work. It is the third month without any income. My monthly room rent is Rs 5,000, and if I add electricity bill and water cost to it, then it comes to Rs 6,000,” Suratwala told Gaon Connection. “Landlord claims the rent has to be paid as I am living in his room. Without paying water charges, I am not allowed to fetch water. I have no support,” she added. Her son, who is mentally challenged, is fully dependent on her.

62-year-old Zubeida Saiyyad, who lost her husband two decades back, works with a local non-profit and has been helping distribute free ration to the poor women in the slum, but the need is huge and resources are limited. “We have distributed five kilos each rice to the poor families. But, we have limited resources. The government must come forward and support the people,” Saiyyad told Gaon Connection.

She is one of the earliest residents of Dyaneshwar Nagar and moved into this slum in 1999. “At that time there were kacche jhopade (hutmets) made of plastic sheets and bamboo. The lanes were unpaved and there was no electricity. We had to steal the electricity and fetch water from long distance,” she reminisced. “In 2000, we got power supply and electricity meters. Water meters have been installed, too. But COVID-19 lockdown has thrown our lives out of gear. Women are finding it very hard to run the household and feed their kids,” she said.

The fear of COVID-19 is also hanging in the air. According to her, following physical distancing in slums of Mumbai is near impossible. “We have narrow lanes in slums where even sunlight doesn’t enter, and seven to eight people live in dingy one-room tenement. It is suffocating, so people mostly remain out on the roads till midnight. Staying at home full day is not possible,” said Saiyyad.

Lalita Mahadev Kasbe hasn’t got any salary for the last more than two months now. Photo: Nidhi Jamwal

Loss of livelihoods of urban poor women

Lalita Mahadev Kasbe, a widow, lives in Dyaneshwar Nagar slum with her two kids — son in standard 10 and a mentally challenged daughter. For the last two decades, Kasbe is working as a domestic help, her only means of income, and earns about Rs 8,000 a month. She hasn’t got any salary for the last more than two months now.

“Whatever savings I had, I have used up in the last two-three months. Since the lockdown, we have not eaten any vegetable or fruit. We are surviving on potato, rice and roti,” she told Gaon Connection. “If this lockdown continues, I cannot feed my children,” she added.

Ruksana, another widow and a resident of Dyaneshwar Nagar, has a 13-year-old son and a 10-year-old daughter. She works as a domestic help, and also takes up tailoring work to make both the ends meet. “I earn Rs 1,000 a month by working as a domestic help. Additionally, I get garments home on which my daughter and I do some thread beading work,” she said. “My garment work has stopped since the lockdown. Now my only source of earning of Rs 1,000 a month as domestic help. But, my room rent is Rs 2,500 a month,” she added.

Shakeela Ansari used to work as a housekeeping staff in a hospital and earn Rs 11,000 a month. Her husband works as an assistant to a LIC (Life Insurance Corporation of India) agent. “While working at the hospital, I tested positive for COVID-19 and was kept in the hospital. My family was sent to a quarantine centre. After that I lost my job,” Ansari told Gaon Connection. “Hospital says it wants housekeeping staff that can stay there 24*7. I have two young kids. How can I leave them and stay at the hospital?” she asked.

For the last two months, she hasn’t received any salary. When she tested positive for COVID-19, she was given Rs 10,000 (a kind of compensation), which she has used up to run her household in the lockdown. It is the third month when her husband has earned nothing.

Ab bhookhe marne hi naubat aa gaye hai [We have reached a stage of dying due to starvation],” said an exasperated Ansari.

Almost every tenement in Dyaneshwar Nagar slum has the same story. It is the third month of the lockdown and families have zero earning. Photo: Nidhi Jamwal

No access to the PDS

Whereas the Indian government claims it has been helping the poor by providing additional foodgrains during the lockdown through the public distribution system (PDS), a large chunk of the urban poor are unable to access it.

Take the case of Ansari. She has a ration card, but claimed she was unable to get any foodgrains through it. “When I went to the ration shop, several excuses were made. Later I was told I could buy foodgrains in black from the ration shop — Rs 12 a kilo rice and Rs 8 a kilo wheat,” she told Gaon Connection.

Bindu Gupta belongs to Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh, but has been living in Mumbai for the last 20-23 years. She has three daughters and a son, and her husband is an autorickshaw driver. She works as a domestic help. The family does not have a ration card.

It is the third month and both Bindu and her husband are out of work. Their monthly room rent is Rs 3,500 and electricity bill comes to Rs 900-1,100. “I have four kids to feed and we have no ration card. For the last one month, my husband brings hara masala (coriander, mint, ginger and green chilli) from vegetable markets and I sit on the roadside to sell it so that my kids don’t go hungry,” Bindu told Gaon Connection.

Somewhat similar is the condition of Poonam Gupta, who belongs to Azamgarh in Uttar Pradesh, but migrated to Mumbai three years back, as her husband had a panipuri stall in the metropolis for the last 12 years. Since the lockdown, his panipuri stall is shut. The family does not have a ration card.

To feed their two kids, every night at 2.30-3am, Poonam’s husband leaves home on his bicycle and pedals 7-km to reach Dadar market from where he picks up hara masala. Poonam then sits on the roadside — morning and evening — to sell it and earn some money in the lockdown.

“Police does not allow us to sell on the roadside due to corona lockdown. So many times it threw away all the hara masala and even took away the hand-cart I had taken on rent [Rs 30 a day]. But then how else do we feed out kids?” she asked. Her monthly room rent is Rs 4,500; add electricity bill to it and it becomes Rs 5,500 a month.

In the absence of public toilets, residents are forced to visit the ‘Pay & Use’ toilet. The existing ones are dilapidated and extremely unhygienic. Photo: Nidhi Jamwal

Not sure of the next meal, but ‘pay and use’ toilet

While people living in Dyaneshwar Nagar have no surety of their next meal, they have to pay to use the toilet. “On July 26, 2005, when Mithi river swelled and flooded the city, our toilets were washed away. Since then we have not got proper toilets from the government. The existing ones are dilapidated and extremely unhygienic,” Saiyyad told Gaon Connection. The only thing separating Dyaneshwar Nagar from Mithi river is a boundary wall.

In the absence of public toilets, residents are forced to visit the ‘Pay & Use’ toilet. “Before the lockdown, the contractor used to charge Rs 2 per use of the toilet facility. But during the lockdown, he increased it to Rs 3 per use. Families in the slum do not have any earning, but have to pay Rs 15-20 a day only to use the toilet,” lamented Saiyyad. Women and girls face additional challenge as during the menstruation, access to toilet becomes an additional cost to the family.

“We slum women are facing multiple challenges. Physical distancing is not possible as slums are over-crowded. How do we keep our kids safe? We have lost our livelihoods, but have hefty room rent, electricity bill and water costs to bear. Subsidised foodgrains are not accessible. Starvation next?” wondered Ansari.