Social distancing: A luxurious myth for most

Cramped homes, crowded by-lanes a norm in most city slums


March 31, 2020

/ By / Mumbai

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Social distancing is a luxury for most Indians just as the slum dwellers in Wadi Bandar (MIG photos/Varsha Singh)

While the government has been advocating social distancing as an effective tool in the battle against the Covid-19 pandemic, it is at worst a myth and at best a luxury for most of the poor in urban India.

‘‘There are 22 of us in a one-room apartment. We all have to manage to sleep within the extremely confined space. Earlier, it used to be a question of just the night as during the day, we all went out to work or the kids to the school and other members doing the household chores. But with the lockdown now, we are all crammed into this small space round the clock. It is just unbearable,’’ recounts Sharada, a middle-aged woman who is a fishmonger, who lives on the fifth floor of a decrepit building that is barely 15 years old.

The extent of crowding in the apartment is visible just from the door. In the sole room, the family has made a mezzanine floor which is used by some members as a sleeping area, while the rest of the apartment is full of beddings and clothes. Sharada says that half her family members end up sleeping in the passageway. Though cramped and crowded, Sharada can and does consider herself luckier than many others in Mumbai. She was indeed fortunate enough to be allocated an apartment in the building that stands amidst a ghetto-like formation of 60 other buildings, housing well over 40,000 persons, in a redeveloped slum in Govandi, a north-eastern suburb of Mumbai.

The complex, built under a highly controversial slum redevelopment  scheme, was constructed in 2005 and barely 15 years on, it has begun to resemble a slum. Yet, with piped water and a concrete roof over their heads, the families living here, previously occupants of slums in various parts of Mumbai, do consider themselves to be better off than a person like Chhaya Kale, who has built for herself and her family a small shanty on the kerbside in Wadi Bandar in the docklands of southern Mumbai.

‘‘There are nine of us living in this small hut that is hardly 1.5 sqm,’’ she says. She is not unique. All her neighbours have a similar tale to recount. Large families try to squeeze in small huts that are hardly meant for a couple. In this situation, a concept like social distancing seems to be a joke.

Most of the people, even in the slums, say they are aware of the need for social distancing. ‘‘We have been watching on television and also the police have come to tell us about the importance for keeping a minimum distance,’’ says Kale. 

‘‘But what is the point of us knowing about it, when there is no option but to be in a crowded room all the time with this large family. How can we keep a separation of a metre, when all of my house measures less than 15 sqm,’’ asks Sharada.

Social distancing or rather the absence of it was also clearly visible in the days leading up to lockdown when the last few trains were packed with migrants as were the special buses organised by the Uttar Pradesh government to ferry migrant workers from Delhi to their home state last week. The idea is also lost during distribution of food and other essential commodities as was seen in numerous pictures and videos over the last week.

For the NGOs working with the slum dwellers and the homeless, this is one of the biggest reasons why the government needs to ramp up testing and treatment facilities in these areas. The current testing levels in India are amongst the lowest and India’s poor healthcare spend is also reflected in the low availability of number of hospital beds, which at 0.7 per 1000 inhabitants is lower than even the neighbouring Bangladesh. NGOs working with the slum dwellers say that the residents of these areas are amongst the most vulnerable as neither can they afford to keep social distancing, nor any other preventive measures such as regularly washing their hands or even using sanitisers. ‘‘The idea of social distancing in a densely populated country like India and mainly in its crowded cities and towns is simply wishful thinking,’’ says a social worker in a slum in central Mumbai. 



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