S Irudaya Rajan and Anand P Cherian
The COVID-19 crisis, globally, began largely as an urban affair; New York City being one of the worst affected regions in the world with very high rates of infections and fatality. True to this trend, Indian cities also have been reeking pots of infections owing to its high population density and mobility.
The unprecedented pace of the virus made detection, prevention and cure extremely direful. Delhi, the national capital, is a major hotspot in India with over 118,000 confirmed cases, closely followed by Mumbai with over 97,500 cases as of July 15. With the fight against Coronavirus projected to be a long shot, a closer evaluation at the preparedness of our cities becomes very pertinent.
Even though the initial cases in India were carried by foreign tourists and migrant workers from abroad belonging largely to the middle-class, the urban poor has been at the receiving end of the high virulence and fatality of the virus, in addition to one of the strictest lockdown that followed, leaving them in a pernicious and precarious state. Worst affected were the migrant labour population employed in metropolitan areas belonging to destination states such as Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal. Left stranded and insecure with very meagre savings, many were forced to trek their entire journey home.
Though the biological phenomenon of the transmission of the virus from human body to another can be viewed as objective and non-discriminatory, the impact of the actual and possible infection and the measures taken in order to prevent, cure and treat COVID-19 has had a discriminatory impact based on one’s position in the social ladder. Systematic marginalisation and camouflaging, carried on with the intention to make cities ‘smarter’ and ‘sustainable’, is the result of a deep socio-economic divide along with decades of ill-conceived development projects.
The lives of those at the peripheries of society were ironically under the spotlight when the veil was removed from the stark socio-economic inequalities, with the unprecedented incursion of a virus. Despite the staggering number of infections, it is observed that fatality is not high among the elite but, on the other hand, the poorest of the poor are in a fragile situation. Dense and cramped neighbourhoods, inaccessibility of freshwater, social discrimination, underpaid or unpaid work, lack of civic amenities, shared kitchens and toilets, and a poor public healthcare system structurally uphold the status quo and the stereotypical representation of the slum-dweller as unhygienic and, therefore, a potential carrier of infections.
Though recent data from states report a widening of infections in districts other than the metropolitan cities, urban areas are still the epicentres of the crisis. As of July 16, Mumbai, Thane and Pune contribute 75 percent of confirmed cases in the whole of Maharashtra. Similarly, the city to state ratio of confirmed cases is presently 73.2 percent in Ahmedabad and Surat, 53 percent in Bengaluru and Dakshina Kannada, 55.02 percent in Chennai, 75.9 percent in Hyderabad. Unsustainable patterns of migration along with inadequate public health systems have made urban centres susceptible to various health hazards.
‘The World Cities in 2018’ report, published by the UN, projects that by 2030, 60 percent of the global population would be housed in urban areas. Along with population density, recognising the pattern of migration and occupancy is important in efficiently addressing the lacuna of data and policy measures in addressing the internal migration in India.
The Safe Cities Index 2019 report published by The Economist Intelligence Unit, ranks Mumbai and Delhi at 45th and 52th respectively, indicating unsatisfactory standards of infrastructure, health, personal and digital security. The present crisis points out the need for departure from the exclusionary top-down approach in providing sustainable civic services to the urban population.
Further, the health sector in India has been one of the most neglected in budget allocations for decades with just 1.28 percent of the GDP. The World Bank data suggests 65 percent of the country’s population spend out of their pockets for their medical needs.
The COVID-19 crisis has been multifaceted in terms of its impact, throwing light on the grossly inadequate basic amenities, social infrastructure and the unsustainability of our Indian cities. Social security measures must be strengthened in order to address the deep socio-economic disparities to achieve potential redistribution of wealth and growth. The perplexed and unsettled populations in our cities are the faceless hordes. A virus does not discriminate, but what we do and what we are doing does.S Irudaya Rajan is professor at the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Kerala. Anand P Cherian is Project Associate at CDS. Views are personal.