Social distancing has been echoed time and again for the past over three weeks as this is expected to be the most potent vaccine to fight the corona pandemic. While this is no doubt necessary, what needs to be taken note of is that in a country like India with a high density of population, can this be possible? The poor and the economically weaker sections live in slums, squatter settlements and next to railway tracks. The condition of these areas may have improved to some extent over the past decades or so but even then it’s far from being liveable and satisfactory.
The problem of densely populated slums is almost the in all metros and big cities where families of at least 5-6 people have to make do in one small room. In the immediate vicinity, there would be over a hundred of families who would be living in degrading conditions. Obviously, after work and not feeling cramped they would like to spend a considerable time in the by-lanes. This scenario must remain the same since decades as it would not have got due attention by successive governments. Perhaps since the last decade of the past millennium has any upgradation of slums been accepted and carried out in a rather slow manner.
The widening gap between the upper and lower sections of the population has resulted in a planning strategy that caters to the privileged class. One is reminded of the surprise, expressed by the Registrar of a private university in Bhubaneswar at a conference that people who drive to star hotels are indifferent to the pitiable conditions in unrecognized slums and squatter settlements that fall on the way.
Those who plan and most of the upper layers of the academic community are totally ignorant of the conditions of slums and such other settlements and how people live there. The case of migrant workers and their sufferings due to the lockdown – and its continuation — as also the fact of stoppage of earnings is something that needs to be given equal attention as is being given to tackling Covid-19.
Remember, India has around 49,000 slums of which 24 per cent is located along nullahs (drains) and around 12 per cent along railway tracks, as per a report released a decade ago in May-end by the National Sample Service Organization (NSSO) titled ‘Some Characteristics of Urban Slums 2008-09’. Not surprisingly 57 per cent of slums came up in public land, owned mostly by local bodies and State governments. Though sanitary conditions in terms of toilet facilities till say 2015 showed an improvement since 2002, a lot more needed to be done. Around 10 per cent of notified and 20 per cent non-notified –though down from 17 and 51 per cent — did not have any toilet facility and even if there was such facility, the water supply was inadequate and the overall sanitary environment was poor.
The NSSO report also found that around 10 per cent of notified and 23 per cent on non-notified slums did not have any drainage facility as against 15 for notified and 44 for non-notified slums. In only 64 per cent of notified and 50 per cent of non-notified slums, the buildings were pucca (concrete). Moreover, 40 per cent of slums were usually affected by water-logging during the monsoon months – 32 suffered severe water-logging inside the slum as well as the approach road. This situation has still not improved, even in metros. However, the report pointed out that 78 per cent of notified slums and 57 per cent of non-notified slums had a pucca (concrete) road inside and 73 per cent notified and 58 non-notified slums had a motorable approach road.
All these clearly point to the lack of knowledge about the working poor and if this is not clear, enforcing measures aimed at improving their conditions would be immensely difficult. Keeping in view the cramped living spaces where urban workers live, the question of social distancing seems close to impossible. Moreover, analysts are of the opinion that most places of work are better than their places of stay.
The government should be aware of this and should give a thought to what extent social distancing can be practiced and scattered that the disease does not percolate to the community. However, sadly reports indicate that hundreds of people in Dharavi slum have been affected by the corona pandemic as also many others in squatter settlements in Delhi and Kolkata. And while doctors would be well aware of this, there is very little to do as health infrastructure, specially testing, is very poor in the country.
While the upper and middle income sections will remain protected, lack of health infrastructure in the sub-divisions and blocks and unsanitary conditions of living may have an effect on the lower segments of the population. After and when the situation normalises, there are expectations the government would give priority to upgradation of slums, including looking at insanitary conditions and also poor availability of water which still exists in most places.
The whole issue boils down to the rapid and unrestricted increase in population growth as well as an undeveloped rural economy. In addition to this, rising unemployment as well as underemployment has been responsible for the migration from rural areas to nearby cities in search of jobs and livelihood. But due to lack of adequate infrastructure in big cities, these migrant workers find shelter in slums and slummish type settlements, which have proliferated over the years. One is reminded of a programme our late President, Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam was keen to implement called PURA (providing urban facilities in rural areas). But it was not implemented and squatter colonies saw no marked improvement
It is difficult for frontline planners and political leaders to face the harsh reality or rather they would prefer not to take cognizance of it as it will unnecessarily complicate problems further. Providing better shelter facilities in urban areas is undoubtedly a big challenge, while in rural areas, the hutments should be in a position to withstand natural disasters, specially floods, which is a normal phenomenon almost every year in most parts of the country.
Shelterlessness continues to remain a critical problem even after decades of independence as also the need for upgradation of slums and squatter colonies. The big question is whether the government’s target of achieving ‘Housing for all’ by 2022, which is unlikely, can at all be accomplished by at least 2024? Meanwhile, surveys have recommended an additional 3.54 crore prospective beneficiaries over the originally estimated 2.95 crore. The situation stands severely complicated not only due to the lockdown but that economic slowdown is continuing since the second half of last year. Only time will tell how and when the government would give top priority to the shelter needs of the poor. Had it done so long ago, the virus may have been better tackled.