The pandemic couldn’t have come at a worse time for the constabulary. While it has claimed the lives of 70 from the force in Mumbai and 165 across the state, living conditions continue to keep them in the line of fire.
Unless front line workers such as police personnel and civic staff get their due, the city will not have the resilience to withstand a public health crisis. Their housing situation is a wake-up call for the city’s administrators.
At Khetwadi police colony in south Mumbai, shared toilet blocks are a worry. “A coronavirus infection can spread quickly through common toilets. But we have no option except hand hygiene and sanitising toilets,” said constable Vatsala More*. On each floor is a shared toilet with two units for men and two for women. When Covid cases were detected here, one block was reserved for patients and the rest kept for other residents.
Mumbai Police claims to have 26,000 housing units for a workforce of 42,000. Around 19,000 are occupied and the rest under repairs. So acute is the crisis that more than half the work force have to find their own means of accommodation, which is often in distant suburbs due to their inability to pay high rent.
Even among the ones with official quarters, barely 35% are satisfied. Former DGP Pravin Dixit says the old structures are “unfit for human living” due to poor upkeep. For instance, in the 12 buildings at Ghatkopar, sewage water backs up from toilets after rains. Leakage is a common complaint too. At Worli, cracks have appeared on buildings and plaster has fallen off ceilings. The Public Works Department is in charge of maintenance for buildings constructed by MHADA. Ajit Sagane, secretary in-charge of buildings at PWD, said maintenance is carried out “as per need.” “Work has been stalled during the pandemic as contract labourers are not available,” he said.
Experts say the move to send cops over 55 years on mandatory leave during the pandemic will not save lives unless living conditions change. Many of them live in distant suburbs such as Ambernath, Badlapur, Virar and Panvel. “A constable’s house rent allowance varies from Rs 5,000 to Rs 8,000. One can’t rent a decent accommodation in that amount in the city. Some cops travel 30 kms (one way) between the workplace and home and frequently work overtime,” said Dolphy D’Souza of Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative, a non-profit.
As police chief, Dixit had filed a proposal for redevelopment of police colonies and construction of 30,000 new houses. The plan was for high rises with an independent toilet in every unit and a provision for an ownership stake for the occupant. The Prithviraj Chavan regime cleared it, but there has been no progress since. DGP and MD of the Maharashtra Police Housing and Welfare Corporation Bipin Bihari said, “Several housing projects are in the pipeline and would be completed in the next few years.”
(* Names of policemen and women have been changed to protect identities)