AMRIT DHILLON | 15 MAY, 2020
100 Million Indians Reside in Slums, A Virus Idyll
Where is the housing?
Dharavi is a place of disease and death right now with over 1,061 cases, 49 deaths and no sign of the ravages of the virus letting up yet. Why would it? The living conditions here are a virus idyll. Packed into those tiny rooms opening out onto sewers and lanes barely wide enough for a wide-shouldered person to pass without turning sideways are nearly one million people who call these cells ‘home’
In the commentary on the pandemic, little has been said about the abomination that passes for housing for the poor in cities – an abomination conveniently ignored in normal times but which merits a cursory observation during a pandemic when the crowded hovels in which domestic staff, drivers, and guards live could be harbouring viruses that might sneak into leafy middle class enclaves.
Few write about it or debate the subject on television. Even politicians rarely address it. It’s as though, through some strange silent consensus, the matter has been settled as an immutable law of nature: this is how the poor in urban India live and will continue to live - in dungeons with no ventilation or light where 6 or 8 people in a 10 x 10 space. Even the alleys that lead to a room inside a slum have low roofs, adding curvature of the spine to the many ailments of the inhabitants.
Indian slums are places of unspeakable horror. The worst, shuddering detail is sharing a toilet with 20-50 families, or more. What do they do on days when the queue is long and the need urgent? When they have diarrhoea? A dodgy prostate? Women with periods? The old and frail with weak bladders and bowels? Cancer patients?
During the coronavirus crisis, commentators have rightly pointed out that social distancing in slums is an oxymoron, as is hand washing and they have talked of how hard it will be to contain the virus in these conditions but hardly anyone has made the wider point that these monstrous living conditions per se are a disgrace.
When large apartment blocks come up anywhere in the country, the assumption is that the maids and drivers and guards who will service the need of the families in them will come from the surrounding shanty. The builder makes no provision for any adjacent low cost housing for these people, whether to rent or own.
The families themselves living in the high rise blocks seem unconcerned that those who enter the sanctuary of their homes every day to cook food for them have come from shacks full of rats and stagnant water and live in conditions where, without reliable running water, keeping themselves and their clothes clean is difficult.
It is a sobering thought that Matthew Engels’ description of a neighbourhood in Manchester in The Condition of the Working Class in England, written around 180 years ago could apply to some Indian slums today, the only major difference being electricity:
“At the entrance. ….there stands a privy without a door so dirty that the inhabitants can pass into and out of the court only by passing through foul pools of stagnant urine and excrement. ….. the only entrance to most of the houses is by means of narrow, dirty stairs and over heaps of refuse and filth…. “
“At the bottom flows, or rather stagnates, the Irk, a narrow, coal-black, foul-smelling stream, full of debris and refuse…In dry weather, a long string of the most disgusting, blackish-green, slime pools are left standing on this bank, from the depths of which bubbles of miasmatic gas constantly arise 40 or 50 feet above the surface of the stream….here each house is packed close behind its neighbour and a piece of each is visible, all black, smoky, crumbling, ancient, with broken panes and window- frames….”
Engels concludes: "The race that lives in these ruinous cottages, behind broken windows, mended with oilskin, sprung doors, and rotten door-posts, or in dark, wet cellars, in measureless filth and stench, in this atmosphere penned in as if with a purpose, this race must really have reached the lowest stage of humanity."
Some 100 million Indians live in slums. Decent low cost housing for the millions of migrant labourers and other poor Indians is something successive governments have failed to provide. If such housing were available, men would not have to live alone in cities, enduring separation from their families for a year or more. They miss out on seeing their children grow up, spending time with their wives or providing companionship to their parents in what is effectively a form of internal exile. They way millions live now is no way to live.
It’s true that there are numerous government schemes aimed to providing housing for the poor such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, the Integrated Housing and Slum Development Programme and the latest, the Modi government’s Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana. But the results, such as they are, are too slow. Urbanisation is sky rocketing. A 2010 McKinsey report predicted that 590 million people will live in cities by 2030.
The coronavirus has thrown into stark relief the impossibility of India’s affluence classes feeling safe in their homes as long as they are surrounded by slums where the living conditions militate against cleanliness and hygiene and any action needed to fight viruses. How can viruses be fought when the population density in Dharavi for example is 270,000 people per square kilometre?
Middle class women today would not be fretting today about the ‘risks’ of letting their part time domestic staff return to work if they knew they lived in clean, hygienic conditions with space to breathe and plenty of running water of handwashing.
It is the working class that has built the roads, bridges, flyovers - and homes - in cities and yet when disaster strikes, it is they who have to flee for safety somewhere else. It isn’t too much to ask, surely, that they get affordable housing. Not a pen but a home worthy of the name.