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The spectre of crowds in the COVID city

Distancing, isolation and the thinning out of public spaces in Indian cities have offered up new pastoral landscapes of delight for urban dwellers, with clean air, summer blooms, and assorted wildlife crossing streets. The quiet that overtook our cities during the lockdown was celebrated as a gift of the pandemic. Fuel-saving work-from-home arrangements, cost-saving virtual meetings, and spare social gatherings are seen as offering new, mellower possibilities of urban inhabitation that may save us from both COVID-19 and the ongoing climate crisis.

Key attributes

Before we celebrate this oncoming new normal, it is important to recognise what it puts at stake. Agglomeration, density and crowds have long been definitional attributes of the urban. Urbanisation is premised on the scale economies that urban agglomeration affords. But the transformative social effects of urban density have also been long acknowledged. Cities, as close-knit, dynamic constellations of human and non-human bodies, offer ideal grounds for the spread of a virus, but also facilitate other diffusions. Urban mixings have helped dissolve or remake categories of caste and gender. They have enabled socio-economic mobility, widened horizons of possibility, and allowed historically discriminated groups to forge new identities, claim public resources, take risks and assert rights. The unpredictability and possibility contained in motley urban communions make for the “cityness” of crowds.

The pandemic has stigmatised social density, recalling Dickensian spectres of overcrowding, contagion and disorder. Social distancing has been readily embraced by India’s caste society, which was always uncomfortable with the mingling fostered by cities. Crowding in markets, mosques or transport hubs were repeatedly highlighted as irresponsible and threatening to the health of the national body.

As infection numbers rose steeply in Mumbai, Chennai, and Delhi by late April, COVID-19 hotspots mapped onto thickly populated zones of these cities, and congestion was singled out as a major culprit in disease spread. Slums, the problem zones of pandemic management, had drones hovering overhead to monitor compliance with stay-at-home orders. But in their congested lanes, with 150-square-feet houses, everyday activities of cooking, washing, and sleeping occur in spillover spaces outside the home. In these liminal spaces, exchanges of information, food, labour, contacts, build a scaffolding of survival for marginalised urban residents. Daily arbitrations with unfriendly and friendly bodies — strangers, migrants, stray dogs, and landlords — create a matrix of relationships that transform a housing colony into a neighbourhood.

The months-long nationwide lockdown of Indian cities has seen spontaneous and repeated outbreaks of crowds, large and small, sparked by panic, hunger, anger, and by orchestrated celebrations of national unity. These suggest an irrepressibility to the crowd in the city.

Explaining crowding in India

Three conditions stand out as common catalysts of crowding in the Indian city. First, scarcity. Chronic scarcity, often induced by lopsided resource distributions, induces a repertoire of techniques such as the jostle, the push, the rush to reach the counter before rations or tickets run out. Inhabiting the Indian city means learning to anticipate and participate in the crush of bodies pressing into trains and buses, clinging to their doorways as they speed along.

Second, protest. The city is the staging ground for protesting crowds bringing diverse discontents from far afield, as in the jallikattu protests of January 2017 when throngs of agrarian protesters congregated on Chennai’s Marina Beach.

Third, ritual or celebratory gatherings such as funerals and temple festivals regularly take over city streets, sidelining traffic for a public assertion of communal emotions.

If scarcity, protest and celebration are catalysing conditions for crowds, India’s pandemic governance powerfully triggered each through its long and stringent lockdown. Scarcity-induced panic-buying crowds sprang up everywhere. In Tamil Nadu, Chennai’s wholesale market complex, Koyambedu, emerged as the new COVID-19 flashpoint in May, sending trails of infection across the State through truckers, loaders and vendors that converged there daily. City authorities had failed to anticipate and provide for the inevitable congregations at a large metropolitan market that generates livelihoods for a far-flung catchment of cultivators, traders and manual workers.

Propensities for public celebration also surfaced repeatedly, from the clanging of utensils on streets during the Prime Minister’s Janata curfew in March to the masses of devotees gathering around Odisha’s Jagannath temple in June.

Migrant distress

Protesting crowds repeatedly broke through city curfews. The most pronounced legacy of India’s lockdown is the explosion into public visibility of lakhs of inter-State migrant workers, hitherto hidden inside the urban machinery. To members of their host societies — officials, employers, landlords or the public — these workers form a barely acknowledged alien underclass, linguistically and ethnically “other”.

Within days of the unplanned lockdown which had entirely ignored their existence, these workers were spilling into the streets of every city — hungry, jobless, abandoned by employers and contractors, desperate to return to their families. By late May, as their appeals for transport to their homes went unheeded, the fierce yearning of urban workers for their rural homes sparked crowds everywhere. They protested at industrial campuses, converged at train stations, and walked in hundreds and thousands on highways in the searing summer heat. Peaceful walkers were turned into agitated crowds by the stunning ineptitude, mal-coordination and opacity of police, district authorities, shelter administrators and railway officials, who rounded them up on their journey and returned them to the city with no clear idea of what to do with them. The Indian urban story is indelibly marked by the tragic conditions of these workers’ mass exodus, stranded at State borders, dying of hunger and exhaustion, run over by trains and trucks on the highway. These crowds index a fundamental breakdown, not only of the lockdown solution but of the urban promise of material and social mobility toward a better future.

The pandemic has sharply exposed the faultlines of urban labour value chains, which valorise individualised work-from-home arrangements at the apex of the system, while treating the mass of physical labouring bodies as problems to be contained and controlled. As cities slowly open up, a perverted normal is unfolding, wherein private vehicles and taxis with limited occupancy are permitted, but safe mass transport arrangements, the economic and social lifeline of cities, are still a far cry. Our focus on urban agglomeration urges an imagination of post-pandemic cities that resists retiring into a closeted isolation that only the privileged can afford.

Karen Coelho is an urban anthropologist based in Chennai. Mathangi Krishnamurthy is a socio-cultural anthropologist interested in questions of work, labour and identity


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Printable version | Oct 8, 2022 1:12:28 am | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-spectre-of-crowds-in-the-covid-city/article32186256.ece