Informal settlements are experiencing a greater surge in COVID-19 cases than other urban neighbourhoods in Mumbai, India. Their high density, narrow streets, tight internal spaces, poor access to water and sanitation leave residents highly vulnerable to the spread of coronavirus.
One of Mumbai’s poorest and most underdeveloped neighbourhoods, Shivaji Nagar, is one of three informal settlements I have been studying. More than a month before the Indian government imposed a national lockdown, Shivaji Nagar residents, supported by the NGO Apnalaya, adopted their own measures to counter the pandemic.
Here, 600,000 people, 11.5% of Mumbai’s informal settlement population, are crowded into an area of 1.37 square kilometres next to Asia’s largest dumping ground. There is one toilet for every 145 people and 60% of residents have to buy water. There is a severe lack of health facilities.
Unsurprisingly, residents’ health suffers. The settlement is a tuberculosis hotspot. Respiratory illness makes COVID-19 even more threatening for residents.
By April 13, Shivaji Nagar had 86 COVID-19 cases – an increase of 30 in two days – making it one of Mumbai’s hotspots. As the virus started spreading rapidly, COVID-19 data for individual areas became hard to get. The release of cumulative data for the entire city was much less useful for understanding the growth in cases.
On March 24, the Indian government announced a national lockdown. Barricades were installed on Shivaji Nagar’s main streets to curb people’s movement. TV and radio broadcasts urged residents to stay at home, practise good hygiene and regularly sanitise shared toilets and main streets.
Once the first few COVID-19 cases were detected in Shivaji Nagar, the government shifted patients and their families to isolation facilities outside the settlement. Fever camps were set up in parts of the settlement to screen people with symptoms. While the lockdown allowed essential services to continue, vegetable markets were shut down as cases increased.
After facing a backlash for not considering the impacts on the poor, the government eventually announced a nationwide relief package. Residents could receive free food by producing their ration cards.
Some measures worked while others created new problems. Quarantining people outside the settlement was effective (since home quarantine was not possible), as was setting up fever camps. However, the stigma and fear of being COVID-19-positive stopped many people from coming forward.
The sudden lockdown and market closures left most residents without food, water and medicines. Some 35% of Shivaji Nagar residents didn’t have the ration cards needed to get free food. Enforcing social distancing and stopping people from venturing out of their homes, by beating them, didn’t work either.
The lack of official figures on case numbers and testing rates made it hard to track the spread of the virus in Shivaji Nagar. Volunteers working for Apnalaya kept track on the ground.
As early as the second week of February, before India’s borders closed, Apnalaya had decided to drastically reduce contact between the residents and outsiders. The aim was to minimise residents’ risk of contracting the virus.
Apnalaya enrolled 40-50 volunteers from the neighbourhood to distribute relief supplies instead of bringing in staff. It arranged a year’s health insurance for all volunteers. Elderly and pregnant women were encouraged to stay home and contact the volunteers for help with their daily needs.
Even before the government announced its relief package, Apnalaya was providing food and essentials to residents. Distribution began within the containment zones, but later extended to the entire settlement.
A dashboard was used to document, plan and monitor the distribution of relief supplies. As the government’s relief scheme excluded one in three residents, Apnalaya’s door-to-door relief delivery ensured no family was left behind.
Apnalaya’s permanent staff members were now managing everything from outside. The telephone became a medium to reach families who didn’t have a TV or a radio and to monitor the situation. Staff regularly phoned residents to give advice on hygiene and how to get essentials and contact doctors for other ailments.
Not everyone was in their database, but this didn’t matter. The residents played their part too.
As residents, the volunteers were committed to their community even when facing extreme hardships. Relief distribution was particularly tricky in areas where drains had overflowed on streets and foundations built on garbage had slipped. Yet these volunteers reached all residents, knowing they relied on their efforts.
The community even found a temporary way to deal with the water shortage. Parts of the settlement with piped water shared it with neighbours who previously had to buy water from private suppliers. One supplier, a resident of the settlement, now provided water free of charge.
Shivaji Nagar’s story offers some important lessons. While the government acted pre-emptively, it failed to consider local conditions and needs. Apnalaya filled the gaps.
But the NGO’s reach was limited, too, and the resident volunteers became the missing link. Acting as community leaders, they took stock of the situation on the ground and reported back to the NGO’s office.
Some of the strategies that have worked have been tailored to local conditions and adapted to the evolving crisis. But the shortage of health facilities and lack of data transparency pose a great challenge.
Mumbai’s M East Ward, which includes Shivaji Nagar, now has the highest COVID-19 death rate in Mumbai. At 9.7%, it’s more than double the city’s overall rate. Can Shivaji Nagar withstand the storm?
Papua New Guinea
Last week, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown for India’s 1.3 billion people. With just four hours’ notice, the government instructed everyone to remain in their homes, banned public events, closed schools and colleges and shut commercial and industrial outlets across the country.
The World Health Organisation has praised Modi’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis. The lockdown may also be crucial in preventing the spread of the virus.
But the recent move to prevent community transmission is having an enormous impact on those most in need in India – the hundreds of millions who live in poverty.
Over 90% of India’s 500 million non-agricultural workers are employed in the informal economy, for example, as construction workers, food vendors, rickshaw drivers or in sales. After the lockdown was announced, many people found their industries or operations had closed, or new rules about travel and social distancing prevented them from working.
One such individual, Anand, belongs to an adivasi, or tribal, migrant community living in a slum colony in the outskirts of Nagpur, a city in Maharashtra, central India. We met Anand (all names in the story are pseudonyms) in the context of research we have been undertaking on social transformation in contemporary India.
Since the start of the lockdown, Anand has not been allowed to work in his usual job, cutting trees. Like most others in the informal economy, he relies on his daily wages and has no employment rights, paid leave, insurance or savings.
With no regular access to clean water or even soap, Anand is concerned about COVID-19. He his even more worried about hunger.
I’m so afraid. How long will this last for? If we can’t go to work, how will we get money? And if we don’t have money, how will we eat?
Last week, the federal government announced direct cash transfers to poorer households, mainly through existing government schemes, and provided the elderly, widows and disabled people pension payments for three months in advance.
Two days later, Modi established a Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations Fund (PM CARES fund) to solicit donations from companies and individuals to help those in need.
Several state governments, including Maharashtra, are engaged in similar measures, offering cash transfers and free food to the poor.
But the amounts of money and food provided through government initiatives are insufficient and sometimes delivered slowly. Many migrants are also not formally registered to receive support through existing schemes. Instead, they have to rely on NGOs or find some way to “make do” themselves.
Anand has been relying in recent days on a local NGO, which delivers a small bag of food to feed his family of six. Commenting on the tiny parcels that arrive, he said: “It feels like a joke.”
There are millions in similar situations across India. Yogesh is a rickshaw driver living on the outskirts of Meerut, a city in Uttar Pradesh, not far from New Delhi. He told us that when his work dries up, “even my shit stops.”
The Uttar Pradesh government has promised one-off cash transfers to its residents, but these amount to just 1,000 rupees, or roughly A$21.50, which is hardly enough to feed a family for five days.
Anand and Yogesh still had some form of shelter, but since the lockdown a large number of India’s enormous migrant worker population – many of whom receive housing through their employer – have become homeless.
In Delhi, night shelters are grossly overcrowded and thousands of people are stranded at bus and train stations. Many have begun walking home, often journeys of hundreds of kilometres, only to be forced to return to the cities.
These struggles are not confined to urban areas. Vandita, who we also know well through our research, lives in a remote village in the Himalayas. As a subsistence farmer, she has some stores of food and even some savings. But the lockdown scares her.
Last year’s crop stores are running dangerously low, and the spring harvest in the mountains is still some months away. Social distancing measures restrict effective agricultural work, particularly the cooperative labour groups so essential to survival in these harsh environments and for the social lives of rural women.
Disrupted supply chains is also making it increasingly difficult to find food to buy at the markets.
The sense of fear and uncertainty is already affecting people’s mental health. Vandita speaks about growing rates of depression as isolation measures disrupt the collective work and cohesion on which the social and economic life of the village depends.
If migrant labourers return from the cities, Vandita predicts her village will be “in crisis”. Like other villagers, she lacks access to decent health care. Reaching the nearest major hospital would be a journey of several days. If there was an outbreak of coronavirus in the village, it would have rapid and tragic consequences.
India has so far avoided the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, though there has been a spike of cases in recent days. The short-term security of people like Anand, Yohesh and Vandita will depend on the capacity of government to expand its distribution of support.
For many of India’s poor, time is running out.
Craig Jeffrey, Director and CEO of the Australia India Institute; Professor of Development Geography, University of Melbourne; Febe De Geest, PhD Candidate, University of Melbourne, and Jane Dyson, Senior Lecturer, University of Melbourne
Last week, India’s capital, New Delhi, experienced its worst communal violence targeting a religious minority in more than 30 years. The death toll currently stands at 43 and parts of northeast Delhi remain under lock-down.
As per usual after incidents of violence against minorities in India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi responded with days of silence. Finally commenting on Twitter, he said, “peace and harmony are central to our ethos” and appealed for “peace and brotherhood at all times”.
But under Modi, India’s ethos is Hindu, and peace and brotherhood requires religious minorities to know their place. It is this sort of Hindu nationalism that led to the attacks on Muslims, their homes, schools and their places of worship.
Modi was elected in 2014 on the promise he would bring his “Gujarat model” of high growth rates driven by private-sector-led manufacturing to national prominence.
But the Gujarat model also involved the promotion of a vicious right-wing populist politics, which sought to create and elevate a Hindu majority out of a socially and economically diverse population to act as a voting bloc for Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
This strategy relied on the creation of a common enemy in Muslims and secular liberals. It involved the strategic use of violence to polarise communities in areas where the BJP faced the most electoral competition.
Critics warned that although Modi had seemingly adopted a technocratic focus on governance and development during the election campaign, his right-wing populist politics of division bubbled just below the surface and would be unleashed if the BJP came to power.
As polarisation has intensified over the past six years, the critics were proven right.
Muslims and Dalits have been the targets of lynchings by Hindu activists in the name of protecting cows, a long-standing Hindu nationalist preoccupation.
Yogi Adityanath, a militant Hindu monk, was also appointed as chief minister of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh.
Since being reelected in May with an even bigger majority, the Modi government has claimed a mandate to fulfil long-standing Hindu nationalist demands to further marginalise minorities in India.
The Citizenship Amendment Act was one of these demands. The act violates the non-discriminatory spirit of India’s constitution by allowing persecuted Hindus, Parsis, Jains, Buddhists, Sikhs and Christians from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan – but not persecuted Muslims – a fast-tracked route to citizenship.
Modi’s government has also promised a National Register of Citizens that will require Indians to provide documentary evidence of their citizenship.
A version of this exercise was conducted in the state of Assam, with disastrous effects. About 1.9 million Assamese were declared non-citizens and will now have to go through a long appeals process in special courts that function poorly.
The joint CAA-NRC agenda of the Modi government has stirred millions of Indians into peaceful protests around the country, showcasing a spirit of collective resistance not witnessed since India’s independence movement in the 1940s.
The most powerful protests have been led by Muslim women – a first in Indian history – in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh area. The protesters have occupied a public space here for two and a half months, braving the bitter cold of northern Indian winters.
Shaheen Bagh has also inspired over a hundred other women-led permanent protests around India.
Last week’s violence in New Delhi is a consequence of the ruling regime’s campaign against the protests. This campaign intensified during the BJP’s election campaign when the party mobilised public support against the protesters by accusing them of fomenting violence and disrupting public order.
Travelling to Delhi to energise voters, Adityanath, the militant Hindu monk in Uttar Pradesh, said the protesters should be fed “bullets”. Anurag Thakur, a BJP member of parliament and minister of state, chanted “shoot the traitors” at an election rally, referring to protesters.
This was followed by two incidents of shootings at students and protesters by individuals who identified as Modi supporters.
Despite being roundly defeated in the Delhi election, BJP leaders have continued their campaign of polarisation in preparation for future elections.
Last week’s violence was sparked when BJP leaders and supporters mobilised to break up protests against the CAA and NRC in Delhi. It was no accident the violence was concentrated in fiercely contested electorates where BJP leaders had urged voters to show their anger against the Shaheen Bagh women by voting for the party.
The perpetrator of the hate speech that sparked the violence, BJP leader Kapil Mishra, continues to make provocative statements against opponents. The police, who are accused of being indifferent and complicit in the violence, have yet to charge him with an offence.
While parts of Delhi burned, Modi was entertaining US President Donald Trump, who praised India’s tolerance. Australian Trade Minister Simon Birmingham was also visiting India with a large trade mission and touted India’s rule of law and tolerance as its strengths. Both declared the violence to be a matter for India.
The tide is beginning to turn, however. Potential Democratic presidential nominees Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have both criticised the Modi regime. (The BJP president, BL Santhosh, responded by threatening to interfere in the 2020 US presidential election.)
The Greens’ Mehreen Faruqi, meanwhile, has moved a motion in the Australian Senate that is critical of the Indian government.
Mounting international criticism is unlikely to alter the BJP’s policies or approach, which are rooted in its Hindu nationalist raison d’etre.
But international support will bolster resistance within India against a regime striving for political domination through violent polarisation.