On his first day in office this Saturday, 9 May, Mumbai’s new Municipal Commissioner, IS Chahal, got himself acquainted with the minutiae of the city’s fight against COVID-19, checked on hospitals dedicated for COVID-19 patients, and stepped out for a ground check. Among the areas he visited was Dharavi, which, in the popular imagination, has become the epicentre of the coronavirus epidemic in Mumbai, India’s city with the maximum number of cases at 12,864 on Saturday.
Dharavi, with less than 6.5 percent of the city’s cases, is not the manifestation of Mumbai’s COVID-19 problem.
In fact, the spate of COVID-19 cases across Mumbai reflects the problem with its urban design and policies.
Nothing to Suggest that Maharashtra’s COVID Crisis Could’ve Been Handled Better By a BJP-Led Govt
Mumbai’s tryst with the deadly virus began on 9 March, when a Pune-based couple landed at its Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj International airport, and later tested positive for coronavirus in their home city. On 11 March, two people linked to the couple tested positive in Mumbai. Two months later, cases hover around 13,000, and deaths inch towards 500. Mumbai has been shuttered down since mid-March in a way that it never was in history.
Despite this, Mumbai accounts for the majority of nearly 20,000-odd COVID-19 cases in Maharashtra. The numbers pile up every day, even as the state government prepares large facilities such as the Bandra Kurla Complex ground, Mumbai Exhibition Centre and National Sports Club of India stadium, anticipating thousands of patients in the weeks ahead.
Most experts say that Mumbai’s worst is yet to come, though nowhere near 6,56,000 cases by mid-May that the high-powered central team had predicted.
Chief Minister Uddhav Thackeray is naturally in the line of fire. Thackeray, a first-time administrator, has sought information and opinions from a wide range of experts regularly, and honestly communicated with citizens, and delegated responsibilities wisely.
The BJP has used the occasion to try to destabilise the Maharashtra government and unseat Thackeray.
There were missteps especially in the early weeks, but there is little to suggest that the COVID-19 situation in Mumbai – and Maharashtra – would have been different if there was another government or BJP’s Devendra Fadnavis was chief minister. Fadnavis’s skills in disaster management were evident last year when parts of Maharashtra were battered by unseasonal rain and floods; he had to be chastened into calling off election campaigns to focus on basic administrative decisions.
What Makes Mumbai Susceptible to Coronavirus Spread?
Just as Dharavi is an inaccurate lens into Mumbai, to read Mumbai’s COVID-19 numbers merely from the lens of governance would be to miss the obvious reality that urban design and policies play their part during an epidemic. Geography, architecture, commerce, policies and decisions – that manufactured Mumbai into the high-populated and super-dense city that it is – enabled the virus to spread as it has. Mumbai’s COVID-19 numbers expose the city’s lack of public health facilities, but they also point to the structural and systemic drawbacks in urban design itself.
At least three factors intersect each other. The first is the density of population. Cities are synonymous with density where large crowds of people live, work and play in close proximity. Data from UN Habitat in the last two years placed Mumbai second in the list of the world’s most dense cities – with a jaw-dropping 31,700 persons per square kilometre.
Mumbai’s density collides with its geography. Its peninsular layout means land is more or less finite, packing urban growth tighter in the city or pushing it longitudinally into far suburbs.
Within this are clusters with ultra-high densities such as Dharavi, with an average of 2,00,000 persons per square kilometre (2,70,000 according to data from World Economic Forum). Such unimaginable densities mean epidemics like COVID-19 turn disastrous.
The second is its weird housing matrix in which two facts stand out. Informal settlements or slums house nearly 45 percent of the city’s population, or a staggering nine million Mumbaikars. However, they occupy less than ten percent of the city’s land – a fact that is often overlooked when more land is released from no-development zones for the housing sector.
Why Is Dream of Low-Cost Housing In Mumbai Elusive?
The utterly skewed demand-supply equation is another strand in this matrix. The demand has been for low-cost or affordable houses, but the housing industry has focussed on high-end or luxury housing, where margins and profits are greater. The result is that lakhs of these units lie unsold or unoccupied, even as millions struggle to make homes of one or two room shanties – and make physical distancing impossible during an epidemic.
Nearly 2,20,000 houses lay unsold or unoccupied in 2019, according to property consultancy firms.
Arvind Subramanian, India’s former chief economic adviser, linked this to economic slowdown. Shorn of all else, the imbalance should spark outrage, but it does not. Affordable houses, according to internationally-accepted definitions, are those that cost the equivalent of the cumulative earning of five years of an average income-earner; Mumbaikars require nearly five times as much for a basic one-bedroom house.
Low-cost housing is not pursued even by government agencies such as Maharashtra Housing and Area Development Authority (MHADA), and the huge inventory of unsold houses cannot be made affordable because of the high notional value built into them.
Mumbai’s housing market ceased to be driven by demand-supply long ago. It’s a speculative industry in which the sector underwrites electoral politics in return for disproportionate influence in policy-making. Housing and property policies are tuned not to the city’s needs, but entirely to profit. The human cost is that millions are forced to live in tiny and inhospitable dwellings, accelerating the spread of any epidemic.
Mumbai’s Public Transport Crisis
The third is Mumbai’s transport sector. Mumbai, like most large cities, is a commuter city where more than 12 million use some form of transport a day, and lakhs of others walk to work and back. Public transport keeps the city going. Shutting down Mumbai in COVID-19 times has meant putting its network of suburban railway lines to sleep, which carry nearly 7.5 million a day, and parking its fleet of BEST buses in depots which carry nearly 3.5 million a day.
However, public transport issues do not receive attention or allocations proportionate to its importance in the city.
Let alone the municipal corporation, even the Maharashtra government has little say in the suburban railway network which continues to be owned, operated and managed by the union ministry of railways. When the BEST bus undertaking piled up losses in the last few years, the municipal corporation wanted to downsize it instead of exploring ways to ramp it up.
Statistics tell the story: in eight years till 2014-15, bus services increased by only 23 percent, western and central railway lines by 25 percent and 33 percent respectively, but private cars increased by 57 percent and two-wheelers by 64 percent.
This, transport analysts say, follows the primacy given by successive governments to private transport infrastructure.
Despite this, more than 77 percent of daily passenger trips are by public transport, according to studies by Mumbai Vikas Samiti, a research and advocacy group. The 29 km Coastal Road, linking south Mumbai to north Mumbai on its western sea front, will cost Rs 12,000 crore for only a third of its length. Imagine the augmentation of public transport possible in that sum.
What Politicians & Planners Should Review in Mumbai
Easing of lockdown in Mumbai and allowing the city to resume even half of its economic rhythm calls for putting its trains and buses back on track. But the super-crush load they carry every trip would make a mockery of the one preventive tactic against COVID-19 used so far – physical distancing. If only there was a larger fleet of BEST buses on Mumbai’s streets, and a denser or parallel network of trains, some of this load may have spread out.
COVID-19 should make Mumbai’s planners and politicians review not only the city’s health facilities but also its housing and transport policies. These are, of course, idealistic expectations.
(Smruti Koppikar, Mumbai-based independent journalist and editor, has reported on politics, gender and development for nearly three decades for national publications. She tweets @smrutibombay. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)