Stories of seven women from Dharavi navigating the economic spaces during and post the lockdown of 2020


I worked on a multimedia project for Journalism in Mumbai.

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When the nation-wide lockdown was announced in March last year, the  small businesses of seven women in Mumbai’s Dharavi took a hit. Their pincode, 400017, has been in the news since for how Asia’s largest slum-cum commercial centre battled the CoVID-19 virus. A year later, the daily cash flow is yet to begin for these women.

Manju Devi Jaiswal’s house in Rajiv Gandhi Nagar in Dharavi, like most  others, is in a lane strewn with garbage and debris. The big nallah, overflowing with waste, divides the row of houses along its sides. Perpendicular to the nallah are a row of tiny single-storey houses of which Manju occupies one.

It was a one storeyed home with stairs on the left of the main door leading up to the mala or mezzanine floor of her house. The kitchen, living room and dining room were all one. The mezzanine floor became an additional  bedroom for the family of five. Her youngest son laid on his stomach on the mezzanine floor and peered down to watch Shin Chan on TV but Manju’s voice overtook the sound of the television.

Kuch bik nahi raha tha, phir baad mein kya hua sab chori chori maal laate the  aur police wale baithne nahi dete the. Aisa kaisa leke jao, police wala aata tha.  Bhaag ke aao, maal leke. Aisa thaili mein le le ke bechte the aisa ek ek kilo ka  thaili banate the, koi aaya toh le le,” (There were no sales, later we would  sneak in our stock but the police wouldn’t let us sit. Somehow, we used to  take our stuff out to sell, but then the police would come. We would rush back inside with our stock. We were selling our goods out of polythene bags  weighing at a kilo each, hoping someone would come and buy) Manju Devi says, about her experience of trying to work during the lockdown.

A housewife by day and vegetable vendor by evening, Manju sets up her  small shop on the road close to her house. Business was not great during the  nationwide lockdown of 2020 but it is yet to pick up. Her husband, an auto  driver, sources all the vegetables she sells from the Vashi Market. But who buys these days? They barely make ends meet but going back to their village  in Uttar Pradesh is not an option for the family.

Jaane ka kyun? Jo haal yahan hai wohi haal gaanv mein bhi hai,” (Why go  back? The situation in the village is the same as it is here) Manju Devi asserted. They are a family of five, but the ration they were getting from the local shop was only for three people. “Phir mere aadmi udhar jaake jhagda ugda kiye phir jaake paanch aadmi ka ration dene lage” (Then my husband went and fought at the ration shop and after that they started giving ration  for 5 people).

Even in the pandemic, the family had to fight for their basic right to food, a struggle not unknown to many Mumbai residents. Help from her sister’s husband and bare minimum ration was all that the family had to survive the lockdown. However, Manju would still consider himself fortunate compared to a fellow vegetable vendor.

Mashamma, in Shastri Nagar, Dharavi, is a widow who sells vegetables for her livelihood. Hers is a makeshift miniscule stall of white plastic set up on the roadside. Every day for the last 20 years, she sets it up every morning and tries her luck. Her children do not support her. Her little business has not come back to its earlier rhythm after the nation-wide lockdown of 2020 was eased.

Mashamma’s routine is to get a stock of vegetables from Dadar’s famed vegetable market one day and sell that over three days in her Dharavi corner. “Ek din maal laata hai, teen din bechta hai.” (I get my goods one day, and  spend the next three days trying to sell it).

Before the pandemic hit, she would manage to make about Rs 200-300 in a day but now that seems like a dream. “Dhanda paani nahi hai, ek saal hone ko aaya,” (there has been no business for almost a year), says Mashamma. During various periods of lockdowns with varying restrictions, she found it difficult to keep track and did not venture out in fear of being caught.

Not far from Manju Devi’s house lives Salma Khatoon Ansari and her family  in Rajiv Gandhi Nagar. The Ansaris struggled to put food on the table since  the pandemic hit. Salma, a native of Bihar, lives in a rented house with  husband, mother-in-law, younger brother and two children. The house is the  size of a lobby of an upscale Mumbai apartment but within the space are crammed an open bathroom -- called mori -- with stored buckets of water, a platform that serves as kitchen space, and the rest as living space. A clothesline runs to and fro the two ends of the house like a web.

The pandemic and lockdown meant the family did not have money for rent of this cubby hole and Salma’s family was forced to dip into their deposit paid to the owner. When that amount ran out, the owner wanted them to leave. Salma’s family somehow convinced the owner that they would pay and kept  the house because returning to their hometown in Bihar was not an option.

Nahi, nahi, gaanv nahi gaye. Soch liye, agar marna hai, jeena hai, idhar hi  rehna hai, jaana nahi hai kahin. Apna gaanv mein bhi jaake toh kaam hi karna  hai,” (No, no, we didn’t go back to the village. We decided that if we have to die, if we have to live, we want to stay here, we don’t want to leave. We have to work even in the village), said Ansari.

One survival hurdle crossed, the family then tried to get allotted food rations.  They were told that they did not qualify because they were business people. They relied on the anganwadis and Manisha didi, a social worker to get by with rations.

The family’s business used to be a vada pav stall but when that stopped due  to the lockdown Ansari began to work as a loader for foodgrain trucks. Ironically, Ansari’s ‘dhanda’ became a reason for them to not have access to food and despite handling grain all day the family did not have enough. He earned about Rs 200-300 a day but the trucks tumbled in only twice or thrice a week.

Somehow, Salma managed to set up a tiny table of assorted things in March  this year to make ends meet but a municipal corporation truck came and scooped it up. She could not afford the ‘hafta’ or pay a fine of Rs 1200. In a cruel twist, as India’s billionaires, many of them in Mumbai, became  wealthier during the pandemic, Salma had to choose between paying  protection money or a fine to continue her “business” from a table in  Dharavi. The divide could not be sharper.

“India has no wealth tax,” wrote well-known journalist and editor P. Sainath  in his article on how India’s billionaires acquired money in 2020. They rake  it in as Salma hides her wares or rations from officials who come around inspecting. How much a family like Salma Khatoon Ansari earns in a day depends on the mood of municipal corporation or police officials on a given day.

Behind the gigantic ONGC building is a lane where Sunita, her husband and seven-year-old son live in a one-storey house. She is at the tiny kitchen counter making rotis even as an aroma of freshly cooked dal and aloo ki sabzi fills the room. It is almost lunch time and lunch boxes have to be prepared.

Sunita and her husband have been running a tiffin service for the last two years. It began as a breakfast centre that she tentatively launched but grew into a regular dabba service. The couple then quit their jobs to focus on the business and they now supply lunches to people working in the hospital, banks, karkhanas and shops.

Fortunately, their work was not greatly affected during the lockdown but the  people they sent lunches to did not always have the means to pay them. Those who did not have a job, faced financial crisis, or were unable to go back home ate the food but still owe them money. “Unka payment abhi abhi aa  raha hai woh,” says Sunita of the five months of lockdown. The couple does  not earn a lot but are able to keep heads above water. “Abhi dikhane ke liye  zyaada income nahi hai, ki baba haan itna kamake rakha hai, jo bhi hai chal  raha hai” (we don’t have much of an income, but the way things are it’s ok),” adds Sunita.

In Dharavi's Shastri Nagar lives Anita who works for Lijjat Papad. One of the  faceless workers behind the trusted brand of papad across India, Anita is a single woman who has been living with her brother, his wife and their daughter. After 40 years of rolling out papads, she is an expert at it and can do the task as she speaks. In a day, Anita rolls out six kgs of papad.

Her workday begins at 7 in the morning when the company van picks up all Lijjat employees in the area and drives them to Bandra where women deliver the papad they rolled out and dried, and collect dough for making another batch. Once home, Anita rolls out continuously putting the papads on huge wicker baskets to dry till 3 PM.

At night, she thoroughly checks the dried batches, packs them and keeps  them ready for her trip to Lijjat premises the following morning. For all this, Anita barely earns Rs 200-300 a day. During the lockdown last year, she earned nothing from March to July. She and her brother’s family lived on free rations or somehow managed.

Half a kilometre from Anita’s house, in the small lanes that open up at Holi  Maidan, is Vinita’s metal cupboard that doubles up as a general store for the  area. With an array of biscuits, chips, sanitary napkins and other daily items it is Vinita’s means of survival. She runs mehendi classes and takes on tailoring jobs, but started this “shop” last July. She opens it only in the  evenings.

90 Feet pe, wholesale mein se laate hai,” (I get the items from 90 Feet Road  from the wholesale market) says Vinita. “Abhi thoda thoda laate hai toh aisa  5000 rupees lagta hai, lekin agar poore mahine ka bharenge na toh 10,000 rupees hota hai.”(We buy little now so it costs around 5000 rupees, otherwise if we buy for the whole month the total comes around 10,000 rupees) She gives an approximate estimate of the  costs of the items purchased for the shop. The family keeps a few for  personal use, puts up the rest for mini-retail, and makes a small profit.

Just off the 90 Feet Road lives Vijaya Jethwa. Her home and workplace to sell pottery is the same. She moulds earthen pots for water, earthen bowls, diyas and a number of other pottery goods. These line her shop which has existed since her father-in-law ran it. Pottery business did not pick up after the  lockdown was eased.

Vijaya earns an average of Rs 30 per item or even less for what is sold, the  major part of the price goes to the craftsmen at Kumbharwada. Their shop was shut during the lockdown but they managed to make do with food  rations which were supplied by NGOs. “Sab jo bachela paisa tha pehle woh  sab abhi lockdown ke wajah se khatam ho gaya. Dhanda hoyega toh paisa aayega.” (All our savings were used up during the lockdown. Now, if business picks up, we’ll get money) says Vijaya about the financial burden faced by her and her family. They do not know what the future holds.

The policy brief by the United Nations listing “The Impact of COVID-19 on  Women” of April 9, 2020 says, “Emerging evidence on the impact of COVID 19 suggests that women’s economic and productive lives will be affected disproportionately and differently from men. Across the globe, women earn  less, save less, hold less secure jobs, are more likely to be employed in the informal sector. They have less access to social protections and are the majority of single-parent households. Their capacity to absorb economic  shocks is therefore less than that of men. While men’s economic activity  returned to pre-crisis levels shortly after preventative measures subsided,  the impacts on women’s economic security and livelihoods lasted much  longer.”

In Mumbai’s Dharavi, these women are the face of the phenomenon that the  UN policy brief described. There are economic recovery plans but no one is sure where and how women earners in the informal sectors have been  provided for. The discussion tends to be around women in formal jobs which too were affected but those in the informal sector, like these seven women of Dharavi, Mumbai 400017, tend to fall off the radar.