Urban India’s Achilles heel

YB WEB DESK. Dated: 6/27/2020 10:49:35 AM

Symmetric to global trends, urbanisation in India has spread rapidly. This has led to the reordering of the urban periphery through complex processes of displacement of the central population to the margins and the creation of new functional nodes away from the traditional core. Adaptation to such realities came to a grinding halt when the pandemic hit the country. As has been evident, people of urban India — especially those living in slums and peri-urban areas — are more vulnerable to the rapid spread of COVID-19. This has brought to the fore the importance of the ways in which city governments are working to combat the spread of the virus. There is no denying that the interrelated dimensions of mobility and demographic change, infrastructure and governance influence the preparedness of urban India in outbreak management, right from disease prevention to mitigation and possible responses. The dynamics of demography in the cities and COVID-19: High population densities in cities are major factors influencing the spread of disease. According to the Census 2011, India experienced a 37.14 per cent decadal growth in the number of slum households with 104 million people living in ghettoes in 2013, as per the data of Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA). Almost two-thirds of statutory towns in India have slums. An overwhelming majority of the families living in the densely-populated areas of slums and peri-urban areas are migrant workers who are engaged in urban informal activities characterised by low wages, severe competition, tenuous job security with the need to travel daily to the city core to earn their livelihoods. Lack of work opportunities during the lockdown forced many of them to return to their villages. Such mobility patterns, owing to myriad social and political economic factors, bear the risk of spread of contagious diseases to the peripheries. This points to the fact that infrastructure development for the benefit of this section of the urban population has not been adequate. A vast majority of the urban population, living in slums and peri-urban areas, lacks access to basic urban services, including water, electricity, sanitation, solid waste management and housing facilities. As per the estimates of the Technical Group on Urban Housing Shortages (2012-17) housing shortages are projected to increase to 34 million by 2022. According to the 2012 National Sample Survey (NSS), slums are incredibly packed spaces where three-fourths of India’s slum tenements are cramped within two hectares. In such a situation, an outbreak of Coronavirus in places with unsafe and precarious living conditions, where even the basic preventive measures like social distancing and frequent hand-washing are impossible to achieve, could easily turn into a grave public health emergency. Indeed, the outbreak of contagious diseases is less of a “natural” disaster but emerges alongside social and spatial inequalities in housing and access to basic services.


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