Enabling Access to Essentials

By Meghna P. for #COVIDActionCollab

June 1, 2022

Dharavi is a lot of things. It is the world’s largest shantytown, housing about 6,50,000 people in 2.5 square kilometers. It is one of the largest producers of leather in India, having over 15,000 industries.

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Dharavi was in the news again. Naturally, when a highly infectious, and potentially fatal, disease runs rampant through the state, eyes quickly turn to the squalid labyrinths of areas with high populations; fingers readily point to the thousands, if not lakhs, of people who reside in Dharavi, without whom Mumbai’s fast-paced life is unimaginable. 

There were thousands of tests and camps held in the settlement; most migrant laborers had left for their native place with their families. Dharavi was a hotbed of infections,  but only momentarily. It soon got another label attached to its name: Dharavi, the slum that had beaten the virus. 

But had it, really? The repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic are not just skin-deep. It has had a profound impact on people and the way they live their lives, primarily by curbing their ability to earn. Repeated blanket lockdowns in the wake of increasing cases, and stricter regulations for social distancing are but two of the factors that have limited paid employment opportunities for the un- or low-skilled laborers that most inhabit Dharavi.

In such dire times, government aid is the only hope that the poor can have. India has a huge social security net in place for the underprivileged, which was widened with the advent of the pandemic. The Atmanirbhar package – launched in two tranches – consisted of schemes that aimed to protect the most vulnerable. Schemes like free food grain distribution, credit lines for small businesses, etc, were included. However, despite being targeted at the poor, social security schemes are seldom taken advantage of because of several factors, including complicated paperwork and lack of awareness. This is where civil society organizations step in to bridge the gap between announcement and implementation. Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action (SNEHA) has been working relentlessly in making the community of workers in Dharavi more aware, adept, and resilient to the economic ravages of the pandemic. 

Raheema’s* tryst with SNEHA began 3 years ago, when she encountered a procession of women on a street nearby, spreading awareness about a scheme for pregnant women. “One of my relatives was pregnant at the time and I took her to those ladies. They told us about the schemes, helped us with our cards, and we received the benefits.” 

SNEHA has been instrumental in helping people access their social security entitlements in several ways. Raheema, although a Ration Cardholder and user for a long time, did not know what she was entitled to. “As per my family of 4, I’m entitled to 20 KGs of food grain. However, I’ve always received 15 KGs of food grain, and never questioned the shopkeeper because I thought it must have been a mistake on my part.” 

After the lockdown, one of the SNEHA volunteers informed her about her exact entitlements. “I went to the Fair Price shop and straightaway told the shopkeeper that I’ll lodge a formal complaint. He immediately rectified the amount on my card.” This incident has caused a chain reaction, with many people approaching Fair Price shops for the correct amount of food grains they should receive. “Even though we receive food grains, and they help us direct our money on other necessary expenditures, I would like to point out that the wheat grains we receive are very sub-par. We received rations from SNEHA twice, and that was of very high quality. But sometimes we receive very, very poor quality, adulterated grains from the Fair Price Shops”, says Raheema. 

While Raheema had been receiving rations for a long time, there were those even worse off than her, who did not have a ration card due to lack of information or incomplete documents. When the lockdown was put in place, all economic activity was stalled. Many of those working as casual daily wage laborers were left in the lurch. Not having a ration card at this time in such a situation was a matter of life and death. Naaz* was clueless about obtaining a ration card. “But I got the right information from SNEHA”, she recalls. But Naaz had to spend hours in government offices in order to get her card made. “I even reached out to a third-party agency, but they straightaway demanded Rs 10,000, which I did not have.” 

Having acquired a letter from the municipal corporation’s office, she used to spend hours, and even days, at the nodal agency’s office till she finally got her card issued. “But I did not stop here. I spread this information in my community, among the needy. We women can also get things done, I told them.” Her intervention helped an ailing neighbor access a healthcare scheme. “There’s a cancer patient in one of the adjacent houses, and his wife told me that they cannot get a Mahatma Jyotirao Phule Jan Aarogya Card made since they do not have a Ration Card, so I asked a volunteer from SNEHA to help them out. Soon, they had their own Ration Card as well.” 

Besides food grains, volunteers from SNEHA have been helping out eligible people to take advantage of several other social security schemes. Seema Kasi Pathan* had almost given up on her application for the PM Matru Vandana Yojana. “I had filled in the form and submitted it to the office during the 5th month of my pregnancy, but I did not receive any benefits for some time”, she said. While governments have announced several social security schemes for the underprivileged, a majority of them are either unaware of these schemes or lack the proper documentation for applying. 

It was a volunteer from SNEHA, Sharda, who helped Seema at every step of the way to receive what she was entitled to. Sharda not only informed Seema of the non-submission of her application, but she also assisted Seema in filling in the form since Seema hardly knows any Marathi. “I had not even heard of this scheme before, just that someone mentioned it during one of my routine checkups. Sharda pushed me to pursue my application and accompanied me to the office a few times”, adds Seema. 

“At no point did I think I was alone in this journey”, says Yellama*, another resident of Dharavi who received assistance from SNEHA for accessing the Janani Suraksha Yojana. Yellama only recently had her second child, after facing alarming complications during her pregnancy. With the help of SNEHA, she accessed the scheme, which not only helped her get an institutional delivery but also took care of the expenses of childbirth. COVID was at its peak at the time of Yellama’s pregnancy, and there was general resistance towards vaccination among pregnant and lactating mothers. This is also where community mobilizers from SNEHA really helped. Solved all the doubts and answered all the queries. The volunteers at SNEHA’s Social Protection help desks explained everything to her clearly and calmly and also provided her with relevant nutritional aid. 

Access to Social Protection is essential within vulnerable communities. In urban cities like Mumbai, the most vulnerable need access to these schemes to tide over a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic. This is where the #COVIDActionCollab’s Social Protection initiative comes in. With the knowledge and how-to, the team at CAC has been training and enabling partners with the right tools to impact the communities they work with ensuring that the last mile is able to #BounceForward. 

*Name changed to protect the identity

About SNEHA: 

SNEHA is a non-profit organization that works with women, children, and public health and safety systems. Our innovative work in urban informal settlements aims to reduce maternal and neonatal mortality and morbidity, child malnutrition, and gender-based violence.


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