Indian slums have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. Then again, curiously, the spread of the pandemic could be mitigated successfully in many of these large informal urban settlements.
According to a research paper published by the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) co-authored by Jenia Mukherjee and Amrita Sen, “Densely packed urban environments with weak infrastructure and utilities can spread infections to multiple hosts. Unsafe water, inadequate sanitation, open drainage and refuse dumps are all factors attracting rodents and other parasites.”
According to the 2011 Census, 5.4% of the country’s population and 17.4% of its urban population live in slums. Infrastructural inadequacies like lack of good quality, unshared drinking water and sanitation facilities, inadequate attention to personal hygiene, poor living conditions, food and income insecurity and lack of access to quality healthcare and overcrowding posed serious challenges. Physical distancing and self-quarantine are also difficult propositions in the reality of Indian slums.
Additionally, many of these settlements are often categorised as ‘illegal’ and ‘informal’. They do not receive basic services such as piped water, sanitation or electricity and are not serviced by primary healthcare centres and regular solid waste collection.
Testing and tracing have been limited in India. Additionally, asymptomatic patients are rarely being identified. But given the contagiousness of the Covid-19 disease, Indian slums could have exploded with cases. This has not been the case as yet.
According to Mahalaya Chatterjee, Professor, Centre for Urban Economic Studies, Department of Economics, University of Calcutta, “It is a fact that low income settlements (formal/informal) have been able to win over the pandemic till now but it is too early to comment as the second wave is gaining strength. However, this success can be linked to the fact that immunity of the poorer section of the population may be higher with lesser incidences of comorbidities. They have adjusted with lesser infrastructure and amenities for a long time and they could do it - this time as well. In certain cases, the governmental authorities have also been very proactive.”
She also pointed out, “Our conception about the people in these settlements needs change. Census data of 2011 shows that the literacy and work participation rates in these settlements are not much different from the average city dweller. They mainly work in the tertiary sector. So, it is not prudent to assume that they have less understanding of the fearful situation. Rather, they were aware of their vulnerability and they abided by the instructions and advice compared to their richer counterparts in middle class settlements.”
The role of various social organisations in controlling the pandemic in these marginalised settlements have also been exemplary. Shibendu Ghosh, Secretary, Kolkata, Paschim Banga Bustee Unnayan Samiti, told BE, “Our organisation has tried to help slum dwellers in this crisis. We had focused on giving basic relief as many of the slum dwellers are engaged as daily wage earners. They could not find employment during the lockdown period. Secondly, we focused intensively on awareness creating, repeatedly stating important points like wearing masks and maintaining hand hygiene.”
The social capital in these settlements are more than affluent settlements. There have been various instances of dwellers identifying isolation accommodations for the affected in numerous slums in Kolkata.
A teenage girl living in the Panchanantala slum in southern Kolkata on conditions of anonymity, informed BE, “We need to use common toilets. However, our families pooled in money to buy sufficient soap and sanitising liquids. We have decided after every use, the user will be sanitising the public toilet to keep it sanitised for the next user.”
Dharavi in Mumbai has been a success story. With a population density of 3.54 lakh per square kilometre, the sprawling slum could have been unmanageable. Initially, the cases spread fast but due to timely governmental intervention, the situation could be controlled by June, 2020. Social distancing and lockdown were impossible to enforce and almost every resident of the congested slum settlement in Mumbai ended up being a high-risk contact. Governmental authorities focused on vigorous contact-tracing, creating large quarantine facilities and isolating vulnerable populations, regularly cleaning community toilets to maintain hygiene, taking over private hospitals for treatment and increasing testing.
Speaking to BE, Kiran Dighaokar, Assistant Commissioner, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), stated, “We kept screening and testing proactively. As per the results, follow-up actions were taken. Our approach was to screen everyone in Dharavi and seal it off completely from outsider intrusion.”
This unforeseen situation has given an opportunity to rethink and restructure urban informal settlements. Aligning them with the mandates of the sustainable development goals (SDGs) is a viable option. Learning from the pandemic experience, city administrations may well pay heed to develop these settlements into more inclusive and sustainable structures in the future.