While things may not have changed in terms of the human development indices, Cheetah Camp’s residents know how to bail each other out in tough times.

Cheetah Camp is home to nearly 15,000 dwelling units spread across one kilometer-square in Mumbai’s M-East ward that was once ranked the lowest among all city wards in the Mumbai Human Development Report brought out by the United Nations Development Programme. A decade later, the ward — spread across Govandi, Shivaji Nagar and Mankhurd — is still majorly populated by slums, and is witness to some of the highest incidences of coronavirus infection.

While things may not have changed in terms of the human development indices, Cheetah Camp’s residents know how to bail each other out in tough times.

In the past two months of the national lockdown, as employment opportunities have dried up for the slum’s migrant worker and labourer residents, 35-year-old autorickshaw driver Salim Shaikh set up a community kitchen that prepared meals for at least 250 to 300 residents every day.

Putting together the kitchen was the least of the problems, he said.

“We got funds from some people, some gave us ration and we got utensils from those in the catering business to set up this kitchen,” he said. The trouble was that Shaikh had never tried his hand at cooking before. The lockdown made him into one: he learnt to cut vegetables and plan meals and assist his friend Abdullah, who would do the most of the cooking. Another friend Shakir Shaikh, who owns a small shop in the area, would also offer help.

Set up in the chota maidan of sector D — a small field in the Camp where tents would come up during weddings or festivals — the kitchen begins operations at 2 pm. At least 20 residents of the Camp are involved: some like Shaikh chop vegetables; others sift out the ration available for that day; still others plan the meal. By 5.30 pm, the stoves are fired up, and everything from pulao to khichdi to egg curry is prepared. By 8 pm, the food is ready for packaging in plastic bags, which are then distributed among the residents by volunteers.

During the month of Ramzan, which culminated Monday with the festival of Eid, special treats like ragda and bhajiyaas were prepared for iftaar.

The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation has also supplied at least 300 food packets daily since March. As a result, Shaikh decided to keep the kitchen for evening meals. He has been an auto-driver for six years and lives in Cheetah Camp — named, according to historian Deepak Rao, after the Indian naval ship Cheetah, in the 1960s —lives with his wife, parents, grand-parents and sister in the Camp.

“People don’t know how long the lockdown will continue. They have suffered losses in their businesses also,” Shaikh said.

“An area in the camp where most migrant workers used to live is almost empty now. Many have left and most are planning to leave,” Shaikh said.

Several migrant workers from Mumbai have left for their villages in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, even as the number of cases in the city has crossed 30,000.

Courtesy Hindustantimes