One does not see disturbing images of oxygen and bed shortage in Mumbai as are being seen from other cities during the Covid crisis.

But he well-organised media hype over Mumbai’s handling of Covid is likely to give a very misleading picture to the outside world that all is well in the Metropolis.The picture is far from rosy.

It is true municipal commissioner Iqbal Singh Chhahal has taken some imaginative steps, he has improved oxygen and bed supply and communication between the civic body and other hospitals and organisations.

But communication with the public remains extremely poor.

Mumbai’s municipal commissioner obviously has his plus points. I saw the interview he gave recently to Shekhar Gupta on the Covid situation.

But I was surprised to see the number of times he addressed Mr Gupta as Sir. Almost every other sentence was interspersed with Sir. It is good to be respectful. But this was rather odd. His family’s army background, his enthusiasm for running and fitness and his public relations skills have helped his image, his efficiency in some sectors is visible. But there are many serious problems which remain unreported.

The Times of India, which normally promotes five star hospitals, did well on May 10 to report the truth about what the real situation is. It reported the plight of front line nurses doing Covid work in public hospitals. The nurses are poorly housed, fed and carried in shoddy vehicles.

Yet the civic body boasts about creating five star facilities for treatment of Covid on public spaces and entrusting them to managements of five star hospitals which are the last word in fleecing patients. Also the civic body has gone out of its way to cater to the rich by organizing drive in facilities for vaccination when millions are stranded completely.

I personally saw the humiliating treatment meted out at the civic Nair hospital yesterday and at other centres in the last few days.

It seems our system cannot or does not care to handle even such a small number of people as one hundred. One thought matters would improve with restricting vaccination to online registration and only a limited number in an allotted time slot of two hours.

Yet, many people in the age group of 18 to 45 were made to stand for hours in the heat. In the Bandra Kurla Complex BKC jumbo covid centre even when hundreds could converge without appointment there was no scope for complaint. Almost every one got space to sit down.

There was some space in Nair for senior citizens to sit down but not without making them go through a prolonged wait outside in the heat. Thee was no sitting space for youngsters who did not number more than 100 at a time.

In the tent for seniors a bunch of extremely affluent and well clothed people at the end of the queue managed to smuggle themselves past a number of policemen through means which one can imagine.

Then the server was down for a long time and even seniors were made to stand in the heat, the gates were not opened even after the scheduled time.

One couple had come from Mira Rod, the far off suburb on the Western railway starting journey at 6 a.m. to reach Nair by 8 a.m. One can understand the system being under pressure. But surely, small problems can be easily handled.

Thanks entirely to activist Hutokshi Rustomfram I was a member of a fact finding team which prepared a report on creeping privatization of public hospitals in Mumbai. That was under the auspices of Lokshahi Hakka Sanghatana in 2005. Hutokshi and Yogesh Kamble were the other members and it was their hard work entirely.

The report recorded the great contribution of municipal, government hospitals and warned against neglect of public health that was inherent in the new economic policy. Hutokshi has done research work for several public causes.

That is the background for my current concerns. I visited the municipal Bhabha hospital in Bandra last week around 7.30 to get information on a second shot of Covid vaccinatin for senior citizens. People were standing in a long line for hours in narrow, poor ventilated space to get coupons as a first step towards vaccination. There was no board anywhere in sight, no separate queue for senior citizens, no one to give any information.

The H West municipal ward office on a parallel road shifted to Hasnabad Lane in Khar recently without any public announcement in advance.

One understands the system is under pressure. But surely, it can do the basics. Basic information is being denied to citizens in these days when it is so easy to provide instant information at no cost with such advances in information technology. It is already difficult to breathe or smell and it is almost as if we are blind and deaf as well when it comes to basic information.

What is of more concern in the case of Bhabha hospital is that it looked like a huge construction site with a big yellow crane, a very big cylindrical machine jutting out in to the sky and very disturbing sound. This is already a multi storey hospital and apparently another high rise structure is coming up. The foundation is being laid for the past few days. This is the most horrible phase for noise pollution.

One can imagine the condition of the staff and patients. Obviously most rooms lack air conditioning and even with a.c. it is difficult to keep out pollution, noise.. During such huge construcftion the deafening noise and pollution go on for months and years.

One can imagine what is happening to the patients and what will happen to them later. Even with Covid the work is being carried out mercilessly.

No one seems to know what kind of construction is coming up, there has been no interaction with citizens of any kind.

This plot is simply not big enough for a huge project to come up. Already there was very little open space, no greenery. This hospital has always presented a rather bleak image. Some other municipal hospitals like Cooper have much more open, green welcoming space, ambience.

Surely, Bhabha simply does not have enough space for such wild expansion. Civic amenities need to decentralize, not concentrate like this in one space.

Communication with your municipal ward office is the key during these difficult times of Covid. But what does one do when not a single telephone line is working as in the HWest ward office in Mumbai. The area of the ward extends from Mahim Causeway to , Bandra west, Khar, SNDT university at Juhu-Santa Cruz and Milan subway in Santa Cruz. The irony is that the ward office recently shifted from St Martin’s road, near the Bandra police station, to Hasnabad Lane in Santa Cruz. It is a big new building with a spacious underground car park.

With some difficulty I got the new telephone numbers of the new office from a lawyer. These are officially announced by the BMC and made known apparently only to a select few. Yet, not a single line is working.

And to think that the BMC ward’s war room is in this new building on the fifth floor, next to the chamber of the ward officer. So, how does it function ? It has got emergency telephone lines.

And how do other municipal and government officials get in touch with this ward office. They all have good communiations among themselves it seems with their own cell phones.

So in that case,who cares for common people ? The municipal office building must have been under construction at least for a few years. So obviously there was all the time in the world to get at least a few lines to get working.

I ran into city BJP president and former minister Ashish Shelar near the lift. He told me out of concern for my well being to stay at home and not to move about. Good of him. But what does an ordinary citizen do when communication is so poor. And the system almost criminalises people’s movement , especially if someone is poor and walking.

I was lucky I went by my neighbour’s expensive car, we were let a free entry into the underground car park without any questions.
An ordinary person trying to walk is asked any number of questions.

Besides, the disaster management cell website still mentions the old address of the ward office as in Bandra.

Am not blaming the ward authorities or anyone in particular. The problems are deeply embedded in the system for years.

The new commissioner seems well meaning and sincere. He should take a few minutes from his busy Covid schedule to see that the hideous BMC website is completely overhauled, becomes people friendly and communication with people is improved.

This is no way to treat senior citizens for second dose covid vaccination, giving them wrong information, making them visit the centre again, making them stand for hours on the road and then turning them away.

This happened at the old office of H West ward office at St Martin’s road in Bandra now converted into a vaccination centre.. People were told they could register physically on the spot the next day and they would be given the vaccine.

So people stood up in queue from 7 a.m. This building now has all the space in the world as the office has shifted to Santa Cruz. Surely, it does not cost anything to let seniors sit inside. There are a lot of chairs in the compound.Yet, senior citizens were made to stand in a long line outside without any announcement. After two hours they announced that only those with online registration would be allowed.

Hardly anyone among the sufferers had registration done online either because they had been told it was not necessary and secondly because the registration system simply was not working. I spoke to a number of people in the line who were technically savvy and had tried to register and failed miserably, repeatedly.

All that the authorities needed to do was to put up a simple notice early in the morning making the announcement instead of humiliating senior citizens. Of course they had no decency to apologise.

Municipal commissioner Chahal did well to announce that several facilities are being set up for vaccination including jumbo centres at Kanjur Marg, Malad and other places.

So we do need big open spaces not only to breathe fresh air in normal times but in emergencies like Covid. This should be a big lesson from Covid.. This is the time for citizens to wake up and bring pressure on the civic and government authorities to preserve such spaces.
Unfortunately, corrupt and irresponsible sections in governance are out to sell these spaces.

A gloss is being put on the vicious exercise by giving it a fancy name. monetization of land .. That does not take away the sinister nature of the exercise. Unfortunately, this vicious idea is being freely aired by ministers and bureaucrats at seminars and conferences. All in the name of raising resources for civic projects. This is a completely fraudulent excuse.

There are far better avenues of raising resources. But the whole idea is to capture common land which belongs to people. These elements must be told emphatically that urban areas need such open spaces for public purposes.

So to tackle Covid we need not only good hospitals and doctors but much more importantly we need a strong grassroots health care network with emphasis on public health, preventing illness, educating people in basics and we desperately need open spaces for recreation as well as during emergencies like Covid.

The current focus on saving lives, hospital beds, doctors is o.k. For a long term solution we need to start from the bottom upwards, improve things at the base. We don’t need five star hospitals. We need basic health care.

Vidyadhar Date is a senior journalist and author of a book seeking democratization of transport


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