Slums are congested, vulnerable spaces

Slums are congested, vulnerable spaces

The example of Dharavi slum in Mumbai is an illustrative one--there is one community public toilet for 1440 people.

Slums in India's metropolitan cities are under the threat of a multitude of disasters like urban floods, fires, malaria and most recently COVID-19. Urban slum dwellers are the most vulnerable physically, socially and economically.  As per the 2011 census, 206 towns and cities in Karnataka have slums. It is also reported that 81% of the slum population of India is concentrated in nine states--Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Rajasthan and Gujrat.

COVID-19 cases in Mumbai and Kolkata slums are warnings to all states to implement immediate containment measures that can prevent the spread of the disease.

Finding no access to shelter at affordable prices, labourers squat and encroach upon unsafe open places like drains, bus terminals, railway tracks and low-lying-flood-prone areas.  Although the primary objective of public housing and urban development authorities is to serve these poor groups, the cost of housing provided tends to be beyond the affordability of the poor.  The Ejipura, Economically Weaker Sections (EWS) housing project, for instance, that was implemented by BBMP was not affordable to the slum dwellers as the price of each house was Rs 7.5 lakhs per house.

Social vulnerability 

A study by the author revealed that there is very little that neighbours do not know about other families. Most family chores are performed in the line of visibility of others-- whether it is cooking, washing or even bathing. All this results in a sense of interdependence, reciprocity and a high degree of communication within the community.

The political and bureaucratic nexus in slums is often well defined. These very characteristics of slums make them vulnerable to COVID-19 as they find it difficult to maintain social distancing as a binding norm, as it is quite the opposite of their daily social life.

The solutions provided by authorities are not characterized by detailed analysis or understanding of slums or their needs and pattern of incomes. Although, new policies like Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, revamped Swarna Jayanti Shahari Rozgar Yojana (SJSRY) and other schemes focus on affordable housing for this target group, reflect a positive shift in the government policy.  

The example of Dharavi slum in Mumbai is an illustrative one--there is one community public toilet for 1440 people. Five to seven people live in a small house of 50-150 square feat; open drains and sewage flow through the area. Hazardous recyclable waste collected by rag pickers is dumped in and around the settlement. Inadequate water, poor ventilation, overcrowding makes the prevention and spread of COVID-19 difficult. One practical option is to locate schools, colleges, community halls and hotels nearby as quarantine places, instead of confining them to their own homes where social distancing, testing or monitoring is difficult. 

Most slum dwellers work in the informal sector and their wages are meagre, they face difficulty in making both ends meet. This means if they do not work, they do not get their daily bread. Middle and high-income groups have the privilege to work from home, but most slum dwellers do only physical work; they are forced to leave their homes to earn their living in crowded places, making them increasingly vulnerable to COVID-19.

Obviously, children, parents, the elderly, men and women alike are overwhelmed with the sudden burden of COVID-19 management. The new restrictions imposed by the authorities, the loss of social life, income, food, and water have put them under immense psychological stress. This, in turn, has forced many of them to return to their villages.

Many of them are stranded at railway stations, roads, bus stands due to lack of transportation due to the lockdown. Out of fear, many families are walking bare-foot for hundreds of miles. 

People in economically and socially vulnerable positions need not only medical but also psychological care. In addition to this, basic support must be provided wherever they are stranded. More importantly, the government must create awareness about the importance of self-care, hygiene, social distancing which will not only ensure safety against COVID-19 but also put an end to this abnormal situation soon.

(The writer is the Head of Centre for Disaster Management, ATI Mysuru) 

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