The Mumbai Factor: A tale of the city and its people

Looking back at lockdown weeks, what stands out is how the city came together to support its own.

The Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR), like other places across the world, was forced to hit pause in late-March 2020 with the onset of COVID-19, putting a complete halt to life as it was. The lockdown caught people off-guard, with no food or income to fall back on for millions of the region’s poorest. With governmental support kicking in only weeks later and still leaving many people outside its ambit, uncertainty was high. 

Looking back at those weeks, what stands out is how the city came together to support its own. While the pandemic unleashed a massive humanitarian crisis, it also launched a wave of giving unlike others seen in recent times, which cut across boundaries and locations and was not restricted to monetary contributions alone. People across the city came together to look for ways to tackle deeper systemic issues and vulnerabilities. Although their efforts remain ongoing, it is a promising start and speaks volumes about citizen participation for change, even in the face of a big crisis. 

With labour nakas (congregation sites for work) remaining shut for weeks on end, naka (daily wage) workers struggled to secure basic income and necessities during the lockdown. Kareem*, a naka worker in Koparkhairne, Navi Mumbai, worked as a painter and depended on the naka for work daily. With complete suspension of work, he could not pay his rent or access any food supplies. ‘When we heard that Kareem had no money and a member of his family was unwell, we decided to collect whatever small sums possible and hand it over to him’, says Naresh*, one of Kareem’s friends. ‘Throughout the lockdown we have supported one another in this manner. Till date, we have supported 12 naka workers and their families financially’, he adds. 

Purnima Waghmare and her husband also saw families battling hunger in Ambujwadi, an informal settlement in Mumbai’s Western Suburbs, where they reside.  Their family of 9 members received sufficient ration quota from the ration shop to survive the lockdown. Using the surplus ration that her family did not need, Purnima distributed the foodgrains to the needy. She and her family also tried to help those who had problems accessing ration.

‘We saw that many families staying nearby had a ration card but they were still not receiving any ration from the centres. The shopkeeper used to say that the ration card is not valid or the income bracket does not fall under the eligibility criteria and so on. My husband used to go and reason with the shopkeeper to ensure that they receive what is rightfully theirs’, she shares. 

Additionally, Purnima and her husband took many needy families with them to the nearest grocery store to buy them food supplies. ‘A family with an infant stays near our house. They had no earning members during the pandemic, which created a serious food shortage. We bought them milk and foodgrains and have continued to buy their provisions for two months,’ she says.

Given her long association with our non-profit Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA) and participation in many community empowerment processes led by us, Purnima was well placed to initiate relief responses for her fellow residents and also demand for what was rightfully theirs. She continues to support as many families as possible even today. 

The strong winds of cyclone Nisarga that hit the MMR region amidst the lockdown in June 2020 saw the youth group members of Ekta Vichar Manch (a youth group facilitated by YUVA) in Panchsheel Nagar, Navi Mumbai, spring to action to support their fellow residents. The winds destroyed a house where the husband and wife were both physically disabled. ‘The cyclonic winds completely wrecked their house and they had no money to rebuild it as their vegetable vending business was non-operational due to the lockdown. We, Ekta Vichar Manch members, decided to support them financially in every way possible’, says Mittal Nishad from the youth collective. 

The youth raised money from door-to-door collections in the settlement. ‘Residents contributed how much ever they could. Even the ones struggling financially due to the pandemic and lockdown came forward to help. They said, ‘what if something like this would have happened to us, it’s important that we support each other in times like these’’, Mittal adds. Youth group members have used their rights-based training to lead change efforts in the community, from spreading awareness on safe practices to follow at this time, to stopping the spread of misinformation.    

While micro initiatives like these, led by people and groups at the grassroots, helped provide relief to the needy in their immediate environment, many individuals with access to wider networks approached social organisations invested in relief initiatives to see how they could best support their city at this time. They wanted to go beyond just raising money to address deeper issues. 

Hearing about our relief efforts, entrepreneur Juveca Panda reached out and, over the coming weeks, kept expanding an ecosystem of supporters across the city and beyond, to connect more people and find ways to address emerging needs of the urban poor and migrant workers. She helped anchor a webinar series with eminent personalities such as Justice B. N. Srikrishna, Harish Salve, Rahul Dravid, Zaheer Khan and many others, which put the spotlight on urban vulnerabilities and encouraged people to participate to support those in need. Producer Anupama Mandloi too helped hundreds of people get an in-depth understanding of the challenges of the urban poor through an online screening of her documentary Aunty Sudha Aunty Radha. ‘I feel it is time for policy makers to invite organisations such as YUVA to the table and work with their understanding of the people as well as the existing ground issues and formulate policies that will ensure there is never again a repeat of the horror we witnessed from our homes in the month of May 2020’, she said. 

In the time of physical distancing, digital connections and conversations played a crucial role in the amplification of people’s demands and collective voices could demand more accountability from elected officials on people’s access to food, jobs and security. With more people connected online, a petition anchored by us on the needs of migrant workers garnered 400k+ signatures.  Advocacy efforts onground were strengthened by these support initiatives. 

When well-known voices lent their support, the demands could be taken further, such as in the way noted actress and director Soni Razdan shared posts on the needs of migrant workers. 

Others, such as media professional Vaibhav Modi, offered insights on impactful media material, to further increase support for the city’s systemic challenges.   

The weeks of lockdown were challenging, but in the absence of individual and community-led initiatives they may have been starker still. While responsiveness and accountability from the government still remains a priority, the pandemic has shown the power of people coming together. When efforts are in collaboration, with communities, civil society organisations and those who want to see change in their cities, the dream of an inclusive and just city is co-owned. And no effort is too little to make this possible.

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