Residents queueing to be tested for Covid-19 at the Dharavi slum in Mumbai. Photo: AFP/Indranil Mukherjee

Mumbai – Mangesh Waran, 40, is terrified of joining any of the half a dozen queues outside his shanty in central Mumbai’s Dharavi slum.

He lives in Asia’s largest cluster of huts and shanties in central Mumbai that house more than one million people, packed with a density of about half a million per square kilometer. 

“At any given time at least 50 people are in the queue to visit the toilet, and there’s no respect for distancing or wearing masks,’’ said Waran, who migrated to India’s financial capital from the southern Tamil Nadu state about a decade and a half back, and earns a living as a driver.

His “car-sized” shanty, which he described over the phone, houses his five family members. Residents line up for groceries, vegetables and other things, but only until the police wield the cane.

Half of Mumbai’s 20 million people live in similar shanties and cramped spaces, making social distancing, a key element in India’s strategy to dodge the coronavirus, almost impossible to achieve. Most major cities face the challenge of managing a large migrant population living in slums. Of the 342 deaths in the state, 223 were in Mumbai. 

Mumbai is a turning out to be a hot-spot with the number of cases and deaths rising unabated. Even at the best of times, Mumbai was bursting at the seams. Its suburban trains carry more than twice the maximum permitted passengers, for example.

To make matters tougher, India reported a jump in the number of cases by 1,990 to 26,500 on April 26. Maharashtra accounts for about 30% of all cases in India, making it virtually impossible for the financial capital to begin relaxing the movement of people, opening offices and other activities that may require people assembling. 

The state government on Sunday declared 813 sections of the city containment zones or red zones, each of which includes dozens of localities or residential buildings. The announcement came within a week of a review of the national lockdown, which runs until May 4. 

What makes matter worse is that most of the areas have been under lockdown since midnight on March 24. The strict countrywide lockdown, widely described as draconian, has been successful to an extent in containing the spread of the virus. Still, pockets of cramped habitations, especially migrant workers who shared space when working in shifts, is making the task of containment almost impossible. 

The prime minister is scheduled to have a teleconference with all state chief ministers before deciding on extending the lockdown. Yet the actions by various state governments already suggest their intention to extend the lockdown in some way. 

Maharashtra chief minister Uddhav Thackeray on Sunday said the virus is concentrated mainly in the cities and any relaxation would begin from the rural and least affected areas. Health minister Rajesh Tope also said the state was yet to reach a stage where the number of Covid-19 cases is seen to be stabilizing. The state cannot afford to have people gathering in large numbers and avoid social distancing. 

The most populous state of Uttar Pradesh has banned all gatherings until June 30. This includes all religious gatherings during the entire period of Ramadan, the festival of Eid-ul-fitr and Buddha Poornima. The states of Punjab, Odisha, Delhi and West Bengal have indicated they are likely to extend the lockdown in some form beyond May 3. Southern Telangana state has already extended its lockdown until May 7. 

Interestingly, a study by the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) predicts the peak for the world has already been achieved and 97% of the epidemic cases would be over by May 29. 

The SUTD predicts 97% an end for the United States by May 11, Italy around May 7, the UK around May 15, Japan around May 18 and India around May 21.