Big city life in COVID-19 times

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An urbanist’s reflection on the hidden disparities in Indian cities

In the age of limbo, societies seem to suffer a deepening of existing fissures.

In the first week of the lockdown in Chennai, I stepped out to shop for groceries. The tiller at the store, whilst billing my vegetables, summarised for me her difficulty in reaching the store that morning. With public transport having been shut down to adhere to the norms of social distancing, she had had to walk over 8 kilometres that day. Her predicament highlights how much people in Indian cities rely on public modes of commuting. A 2018 study by the Centre for Science and Environment indicates that a minimum of 40% and in some cases up to 80% of trips in Indian megacities are through public transport.

I got back home with a stock that would last us the next week or a little more. With the need to limit the possibilities of outside contact, we insisted that our domestic help do so too. Much to our dismay, we spot her from our balcony buying necessities almost every other day. My instinctive response to this was that a lack of a refrigerator prevented her from stocking perishables. Rajesh Shukla’s How India Earns, Spends and Saves indicates that only 44% of urban households owned a refrigerator, more specifically — only 7% of working-class households. It turned out that she happens to be among the 7%.


Our domestic help, seen from our balcony, returns after shopping for essentials. | Ravi Anand Loknath

What then made her step outside and buy provisions so often? While the above study indicates that most working-class and labour households spend a maximum proportion of incomes on food; it also highlights that these households spend 93% of their income. With only 7% left to save there was also lesser to spend, especially for bulk purchases. Added to this is also the habituation of buying in smaller quantities based on immediate daily needs, giving one the mental notion of spending humbly. Were these her reasons or my efforts in comprehension? Honestly, I couldn’t arrive at a conclusive answer.

That said, I do know that if not for moving out regularly for purchases, she heads out to work at another residence in the neighbourhood, where she’s not been given ‘paid leave’ amidst the lockdown. Similarly, many others have been asked to continue their services too. Contrastingly, there have also been reports across the country depicting the dire conditions of domestic helpers over the last weeks — some fired, some temporarily relieved without pay, and some unable to collect salaries physically due to distance and with no access to bank accounts. The precarious nature of their situation, reiterates the need for a National Policy on Domestic Workers that has been in the making for a while now. Without legal validation, their rights are undermined especially in times such as this.

Adding to the list of domestic helpers, tillers and employees in supermarkets, I see electricity board staff quickly repair a faulty line amidst the lockdown; cleaning staff from the corporation continue to disinfect streets and clear garbage; vegetable and fruit vendors on pushcarts bring supplies to one’s doorstep even amidst “total lockdowns”; and delivery agents, from independent stores and larger establishments, supply essentials as required. These men and women go out in these untoward times — be it out of compulsion or personal need but go out nonetheless — to keep the city functioning.


A Swiggy delivery agent seen with a mask, taking a water break before he takes off again on duty. | Ravi Anand Loknath

Many others though remain in precarious circumstances as their means of livelihood are held in suspension. Cab drivers, autorickshaw drivers, staff in shops that continue to remain closed, workers in industries, factories and manufacturing units, construction labourers and many other forms of daily-wagers are deeply affected. Collectively, these men and women come under the unorganised sector in India. Anywhere between 85% (Niti Aayog’s Strategy for New India released in 2018) and 93% (Ministry of Finance’s Economic Survey 2018-2019) of the country’s working force falls under this category, contributing to 50% of the country’s GDP. The Periodic Labour Force Survey conducted in 2018 assessed that even amongst the regular-waged/salaried workers of the non-agricultural (informal) sector, 71% had no written job contracts; 54% with no paid leave and 49% with no security benefits. The International Labour Organisations Report in the early weeks of the lockdown in India, indicated that around 40 crore of these workers could be pushed into deep poverty.

The Wharton Finmart Research Report of 2017 highlights other financial findings. 56% of the country’s population is classified as “deprived”, earning less than ₹1.5 lakh per annum or an average monthly income of ₹12,500 or less. The other category of “aspirers” earn between ₹1.5 lakh and ₹3.4 lakh per annum, constituting 30% of the population. In a country where 1 in 6 urban citizens live below the poverty line, despite the Centre and State taking measures to aid relief, these are indeed demanding times for the urban poor.


A family makes more “room” beneath a makeshift roof, along their corridor. | Ravi Anand Loknath


As I research, reflect and pen this article, my eyes are drawn to households of a poor income community, separated from my apartment by a mere alley. They’ve been built over time, ad-hoc, some finished and some with bricks bare without plaster. Just outside my window, I see two households one behind the other, each only around 150 sq.ft. Every morning, the families there put up a blanket over some wires, converting the corridor into a space to sit, talk and play, beneath some shade. While many of you who are reading this might be sitting inside your home and, maybe even with a room to yourself, this isn’t the norm for most in our country.

As per the census of 2011, 35% of urban households in India have one room or less. Informal Housing, Inadequate Property Rights, a report published by FSG in 2018, states that 26-37 million households, or 33-47% of the urban population live in informal settlements, commonly referred to as slums. Informal households are known to have poor access to urban services such as water supply, sanitation and hygiene. The census records 29% of urban households not having sources of water within their premises. Adding to this, 18% have no drainage connectivity and 37% have open drains. Space, hygienic surroundings and safe social distancing remain as challenges that are, I daresay, unfeasible for many.


A somnolent haze drapes Mumbai, the city that supposedly never sleeps. Some buildings tower above the carpet of dwellings below, as if to exhibit the disparity inherent in our cities. | Shrikkanth Govindarajan


As an urbanist, I’ve been aware of these disparities for a while now in terms of how we live in our cities — how unequally we live in our cities. In the last few weeks, these disparities and inequalities are only more apparent than ever. The concealed ways in which the city operates are evident even to the average citizen. As many of us adjust to the “new normal” of life — maintaining social distancing, covering our faces with masks and hands with gloves, adapting to the absence of our domestic helps, rearranging spaces in our houses as work desks to continue working from home, stocking up and getting essentials home-delivered and in multiple other ways, there remains a large portion of our country that adjusts to a much more difficult “new normal”.

As people in the frontlines continue to fight the invisible enemy and sections of the urban poor continue to service the city so that it is kept functional, I hope the post-COVID-19 cities take into account those who keep its wheels moving day in and out, coronavirus or no coronavirus.

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