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Issues and options for COVID-19 management in slum settlements

By Dr Ashok Sanganal

Dr Ashok Sanganal

Mysuru, May 2:- Having been closely associated with the research and projects on urban development, slum development, housing and disaster management earlier in HUDCO, GoI and now in ATI, Mysuru, it is my little endeavour to draw out issues related to slums and containment of COVID-19, that need urgent attention of the government.

So far slums in cities like Bengaluru, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai and many city corporation areas in Karnataka and whole of India have been threatened by a multitude of disasters like urban flooding, an outbreak of fire, communal violence, Malaria, with the recent addition of COVID-19 leading to increased morbidity and deaths. Urban slum dwellers are the most vulnerable physically, socially and economically.  As per 2011 census, Karnataka’s 206 towns and cities have slums.

It is also reported that 81% of the slum population of India is concentrated in 9 large states namely Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Rajasthan and Gujarat.

Why slums are most vulnerable to COVID-19

The recent COVID-19 cases in Mumbai and Kolkata slums are the warning bells to the authorities in all the states to take immediate containment measures that could practically prevent the spread of the disease. Since slums have households ranging from a few tens to hundreds which are haphazardly located with unplanned streets, drains without open spaces, it is difficult to implement containment measures as per the guidelines issued by Government of India with respect to quarantining and other lock-down measures as these settlements are densely congested.

Finding no access to shelter at affordable prices, they squat and encroach unsafe open places like bus terminals, railway track, low lying flood-prone areas, etc. Also, the city authorities/industries/service users of this population do not have any plans to accommodate this population. As a result, they force their own affordable solutions by establishing slums and squatter settlements at any open land in a bid to derive and give their benefits to the city.

Although the primary objective of public housing and urban development authorities is to serve these poor groups, the cost of housing and services provided by them tends to be beyond the affordability of poor and price them out of the reach. In the case of Ejipura EWS housing project implemented under PPP model by Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), it was not affordable to the slum dwellers as the ceiling was fixed around Rs 7.5 lakh per house.

Over a period of time slum dwellers are beginning to see themselves as citizens contributing to the economy and therefore deserving their own place in the sun, it is the slum dweller who provides a vast network of services that the middle and upper classes enjoy at cheap rates. These services include the entire food supply network (vegetable, milk, eggs, bread, butter, meat and restaurant services). The slum dwellers if united, have the power to bring to a halt the entire urban system, so powerful is their role in the economy.

Social vulnerability in slums hampering COVID-19 management

From the field survey and informal discussions carried out by the author in his research, it is seen that there is very little that neighbours do not know about other families, most family chores are performed within the sight of others- whether cooking, washing or even bathing. All these results in a sense of interdependence, reciprocity and a high degree of communication within the community. On the other hand, the slum- political/ bureaucratic nexus is often well defined. These very characters of slums make them vulnerable to COVID-19 as they find it difficult to maintain social distancing as a binding norm that is far unusual from their daily social life. If one of them falls sick they all will. The solutions by the authorities are not characterised by detailed analysis or understanding of the slums, their felt needs and pattern of their incomes. Although, the government’s programmes such as JNNRUM, revamped SJSRY, AMRUT, model law on street vendors, affordable housing in partnership, etc., meant for this target group, reflect a positive shift in the government policy to address the key concerns of urban poor and slums.

Physical infrastructure hampering COVID-19 management

The example of Dharavi slum in Mumbai is the best example to illustrate, where there is one community public toilet for 1440 persons, 5-7 persons living in a small house of 50-150 sq ft, with open drains and sewage flowing and scattered solid waste including some hazardous recyclable waste that is collected by rag pickers dumped in and around the settlement,  open defecation, inadequate water, poor ventilation, overcrowding with a high density of population make the prevention and spread of COVID-19 very difficult to authorities. The feasible option is to locate nearby schools, colleges, community halls, hotels, etc., to be identified as quarantine places, instead of their own homes where social distancing, testing or monitoring of people inside slums is difficult.

Economic vulnerability hampering COVID-19 management

Most of the slum dwellers work in the informal sector with wages being meagre to meet their daily needs, if they do not work, they do not get their daily bread. They live cheek by jowl in slums. Whereas middle and high-income groups work from home, but what if these poor do only physical work, they are forced to leave their homes outside to earn in crowded places, making them a recipe for an imminent disaster like COVID-19.

Psychological vulnerability to COVID-19 management

Obviously, the children, parents, aged, women, get overwhelmed with the sudden burden of COVID-19 management. The new restrictions by the authorities, loss of social life, income, food, water, etc., have made them suffer psychological stress, this, in turn, forced them to go to their villages. In the process, many of them get stranded at railway stations, roads, bus terminals as they cannot get transportation due to lockdown.  Out of fear we have seen many families walking barefooted hundreds of miles resulting in deaths. A few of them committed suicides as they could not sustain daily needs. These people require not only medical care but also mental health care by providing counselling and ways and means of facing COVID-19 and by encouraging them that the disease is only short-term and things will be normal soon, in addition to providing basic support wherever stranded.  More importantly, they must understand the importance of self-care, hygiene, social distancing which will make them not only safe against COVID-19 but also to end this abnormal situation much sooner to normalcy.

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

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