Locked Down with Cancer on Mumbai’s Footpaths

Photo: Aakanksha.

“I survived on bananas which I had stocked up in my bag,” Surendra Ram told me on the phone, about how he got through the ‘Janata Curfew’ of March 22. That day, when most of the shops and businesses in Mumbai shut down and those who could stay indoors locked themselves in, Surendra sat on the footpath near the Tata Memorial Hospital in Parel.

Surendra is 37 years old and has oral cancer.

That footpath had been his ‘home’ for a week by the day of the curfew – no ‘locking in’ for him and many other patients living on the streets outside the government-supported philanthropic hospital in south-central Mumbai, which provides subsidised treatment to cancer patients. Many from poor families across India come here for treatment.

“My check-up has been done,” said Surendra. “The doctor has asked me to come after four months.” But he could no longer go back home to Potilia village in Samastipur district of Bihar once the train services were curtailed and then stopped with the complete nationwide lockdown from March 25. “Now they say for 21 days everything will be closed. I do not get any news. I have to ask people around. Till then do I live on this footpath?” Surendra asked.

When I had met him on March 20, Surendra was sitting on the ground on an orange plastic sheet, eating bananas from one side of his mouth. He had a pipe on the left of the nostrils. “Food doesn’t go down my throat so I need the pipe,” he said. On the sheet rested a black bag in which he had stuffed his clothes, medical reports, medicines and bananas.

There were rats running around on the pavement even in the daytime. Some rodents were lying dead near the patients. The nights are worse, with many big rats scurrying around.

Until the day we met, Surendra didn’t have a mask to protect himself. He covered his nose and mouth with a green towel. The following day, someone gave him a mask. He uses the public washroom and some soap that is kept there.

“They are asking people to wash hands and be safe, but why are they not doing anything to keep us safe?” he asks. “We are patients too.”

The World Health Organisation and the Indian Council of Medical Research have listed groups that are at higher risk of severe Covid-19 infection – and this includes people with cancer. If they are staying out in the open, with little food, water or sanitation, the risk can only be imagined.

The lockdown is aimed at minimising social contact and ensuring people stay indoors. But Surendra cannot afford to rent a room in Mumbai. “Every time I come to this city, I am lost. Where do I find a place to stay?” he asks. He is unaware of the subsidised dharmshalas (dormitories) in different parts of Mumbai. “I don’t know anyone here, whom do I ask?” he says.

Surendra has been coming alone to Mumbai for treatment at Tata Hospital for over a year. His wife and two children, aged five and two, are back in the village. “I worked in a dawakhana [dispensary] in Bangalore until a year back, till I was forced to leave the job because of my cancer,” he says. He earned Rs. 10,000 a month, used some of it for his own expenses and sent the rest to his family in the village. Now, without any source of income, he relies on relatives. “I have no money, my saala [wife’s brother] helps me financially when I come to Mumbai.”

Surendra has a ‘no-charges’ concession for his treatment at the hospital. “My chemo and other treatment fees are reduced and the rest is looked after by the hospital. But living in Mumbai is difficult every day,” says Surendra.

In the morning the patients on the pavements outside the hospital have been getting bananas and roti. In the evening they get rice mixed with some masala. Yesterday (March 29), he got milk in the morning for the first time, distributed by volunteers.

The doctor has advised Surendra to stay hydrated. “Some people get food for us but they don’t get water; it is difficult to get it during the curfew [lockdown],” he says.

A few steps from where Surendra was sitting, was Sanjay Kumar’s struggling family. When I met them on March 20, Sanjay was lying on the footpath on a mat, resting his head on a cement block. The 19-year-old (in the cover photo on top) has bone cancer and cannot move his right leg. His elder brother Vijay and sister-in-law Premlata had been staying with him on the footpath for more than a month.

On the phone some days later, Sanjay told me, “This curfew [lockdown] has made it worse for us, finding food is difficult. We eat bread and biscuit when there is no one to help.”

Sanjay cannot get up or walk easily, it is difficult for him to even go up to the public toilet near the hospital. “I lie here every day not being able to move my body. I cannot stay far from the hospital,” he says. His right leg would start bleeding if he walked, and the doctors put a plaster on it three days ago.

The family has come to Mumbai for the first time. “I was told the suvidha [facilities] in Mumbai are better. But living on the footpath and waiting to get one proper meal is all the facility we get,” says Vijay. They too have not been able to afford any subsidised accommodation, and say they don’t know of any dharamshalas.

“Every day, we have to wait for the doctor, for some check-ups to be done,” says Vijay. “We cannot go back home.” Home for them is in Baihar block in Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh.

Back in the village, their parents wait for their sons and daughter-in-law to return safely. Vijay is the sole working member in the family. He works on construction sites, and earns Rs. 7,000-Rs. 10,000 a month. This income stopped after he came to Mumbai to assist Sanjay. The family is living off their modest savings.

“We used to buy some food from shops and hotels, some puri and bhaji to get by, but how long could we eat it? Dal-rice is expensive here. To use a washroom we need to pay, to charge our phones we pay, we pay for everything in Mumbai. I am a majdoor,” says Vijay. In a day Vijay spends between Rs. 100 and Rs. 200 on these necessities, and more if medicines are needed.

Several organisations and individuals do regularly help the patients and their families on the pavements outside the hospital, and give them rotis and bananas and milk. But the lockdown has made that more difficult. “We got food only at night,” says Vijay, about the day of the ‘Janata Curfew’. They managed with some bread and some leftover sabzi from the previous day.

At times, during these lockdown days, some of the patients are called into the hospital for check-ups when the food is being distributed outside, and they miss out on getting the meal – as did Karuna Devi last Monday. Karuna Devi has breast cancer. She has been waiting for weeks for a vacancy in a dharamshala near Dadar station, around two kilometres from the hospital. Some dharamshalas charge Rs. 50-Rs. 200 per day, which many of the patients cannot afford.

On March 20, Geeta Singh was also among those sitting on the footpath along with her husband Satendar. A dead rodent lay squeezed between two stones nearby. Geeta was diagnosed with liver cancer six months ago and has been in Mumbai for four months. They have come to the city from Maharashtra’s Solapur district.

Until over a week ago, they were staying in Goregaon in north Mumbai with Satendar’s cousin, but with the Covid-19 fear the cousin requested that they leave. “She said that we travel to hospital every other day, and she is scared that her son might get infected. So we had to leave. We were staying at stations and on the footpath for two days,” says Geeta.

After a lot of pleading, Satender managed to contact a distant relative in Dombivali in Thane district, around 50 kilometres from the hospital. He and Geeta then shifted there, and are paying the relatives for stay and food.

Geeta’s next check-up was scheduled for April 1, followed by chemotherapy and a surgery in the first few days of the month. But the doctor has told her that the appointment on April 1 is cancelled, and has asked her to keep following the routine medication and precautions advised so far. “We cannot even go back home to our children. And here we cannot go to the hospital. We have no access to anything. We are stuck here,” says Satendar, increasingly concerned about Geeta’s health. “She keeps vomiting.”

They have two children, 12 and 16, who have been living with Satendar’s elder brother in Solapur. “We promised we would return soon, but now we don’t know when we will see their faces,” says Geeta. Satendar worked in a powerloom factory earning Rs. 7,000 a month until five months ago. The Tata Memorial Hospital Trust covers half their medical expenses, he says, and the rest he manages with his savings.

Jamil Khan, who has oral cancer, is beset by the same fears. He had been living on the footpath near the hospital for seven months along with his mother Kamarjaha, brother Shakil and sister Nasreen. They came here from Gondawa village in Balrampur district of Uttar Pradesh. Most of the family members work as agricultural labourers, earning Rs. 200 as daily wages when work is available, or migrate to the cities during off-season looking for work.

After the lockdown, they moved to Nalasopara, some 60 kilometres from the hospital, to a distant relative’s home. “They have allowed us to stay for a while, but we never thought it will be for so long…”

Jamil’s relatives in Nalasopara are struggling with the additional four family members. “They were five already and now they have us. It is difficult to stock so much of food. Our medicines cost around Rs. 500 a week. We are running out of money,” says Nasreen. On Saturday, they stocked up on some medicines, and are unsure of how they will  manage after this. The boil on the left side of Jamil’s face requires frequent cleaning and bandaging.

Jamil feels staying on the footpath was better, “At least the hospital was nearby. If it [the left side of the face] bleeds or pains, I can rush into the hospital.”

“Here [in Nalasopara] if anything happens to my brother who will be responsible?” asks Nasreen. “Does it matter to anyone if anything happens to him?”

Nilesh Goenka, who is on the public relations team at Tata Memorial Hospital, told me on the phone: “We have been trying to send back the patients to their homes if they are not in need of urgent treatment. We are trying our best possible measures.”

In January this year, Mumbai Mirror had reported on the conditions of cancer patients living below the Hindmata Bridge flyover, not far from the hospital. Following the report, many of the patients and their families were swiftly shifted to dharamshalas. The city’s municipal corporation suggested measures such as temporary shelters with mobile toilets under the flyover. After that, no one on the pavements, whom I spoke to, has heard more on this.

Aakanksha (she prefers to use only her first name) is an assistant content coordinator at PARI, where this story originally appeared.