Chapter 1 of the ‘Indian Cities and Nation-wide Lockdown’ webinar series
YUVA’s first webinar of the ‘Indian Cities and the Nation-wide Lockdown’ webinar series was held on 26 May 2020. The panel, featuring Kamayani Mahabal of Jan Swasthya Abhiyaan, Shishir Joshi of Project Mumbai, and Parth MN an independent journalist, was moderated by Marina Joseph of YUVA, focused on the Mumbai Metropolitan Region.
Why the webinar series
As India completed two months of a national lockdown, COVID-19 positive cases have kept rising. Cities are the sites where the virus spread began and it has continued to increase since then. And this pandemic is exposing the brutality of cities — for the urban poor definitely, but given the economic slowdown it is affecting all classes.
Simultaneously, cities are throwing up questions that we have for too long, ignored — questions of planning, housing, access to affordable healthcare, densities, sanitation, social security, food security, and much more. This webinar aims to focus on the pandemic, its resultant lockdown and impact on the lives and livelihoods of urban poor vis-à-vis local responses (government and non-government).
Objectives of the webinar series
The series aims:
- To highlight the issues and challenges faced by the urban poor in the different cities
- To understand the practices in governance and responses that are emerging from different cities to tackle challenges
- To better understand the issues in cities that need to be addressed in the short, medium and long term
- To discuss, what are the changes to our cities that need to be made post Covid-19?
Why the Mumbai Metropolitan Region?
Mumbai is known as the country’s financial and entertainment capital. It has now also emerged as the epicenter of the nation’s coronavirus outbreak. Mumbai accounted for 61.2 per cent of the cases in Maharashtra and almost one-fifth of the total number of cases nationwide. Mumbai cannot be seen in isolation from the Mumbai Metropolitan Region (MMR). Cities within the MMR have unfortunately grown as feeders to Mumbai — with residents living in satellite cities and travelling into Mumbai for work and essential services.
Thus the crisis in Mumbai is one that is not restricted within its administrative boundaries but one that has severe implications for the entire region — especially neighboring Municipal Corporations that have a large number of high density settlements. Transportation networks, housing, infrastructure and the environment are concerns of the region. Mumbai is heavily dependent on rural MMR for essential services.
The original boundary of MMR has undergone a few revisions since it was first defined in 1967. The MMR was constituted in 2012 to include the whole of the area of the Mumbai City District, the Mumbai Suburban District and parts of the Thane and Raigad district. The number of Municipal Corporations, Municipal Councils has increased considerably since its formation. (MMRDA Regional Plan Report).The MMR today has a total of 9 municipal corporations, 9 municipal councils, 35 census towns and 994 villages
The 9 Municipal Corporations are Greater Mumbai, Thane, Kalyan-Dombivali, Navi Mumbai, Panvel, Ulhasnagar, Bhiwandi-Nizamapur, Vasai-Virar and Mira-Bhayandar; 9 Municipal Councils are Ambarnath, Kulgaon-Badalapur, Matheran, Karjat, Khopoli, Pen, Uran, Alibaug and Palghar; the villages are located in Thane and Raigad Districts.
Marina introduced the webinar series and mentioned the report that YUVA has been preparing regarding the status of the city’s urban poor residents in the wake of COVID-19. While a detailed discussion of the report will take place at a later date, two key points mentioned were that both banking access and ration cards were present with only around 63–65% of persons surveyed, raising questions about how effective direct bank transfers or public distribution system (PDS) strategies could take place, given these realities.
Kamayani Mahabal from Jan Swasthya Abhiyaan, a people’s campaign on access to healthcare, spoke about the Right to Health and Healthcare as a basic human right, and compared it to the response of government and state institutions. Looking at the pre-COVID healthcare system in Mumbai, she highighted how, despite the majority of people accessing government healthcare, the accessibility and quality of this system is sorely lacking. Even in public-private partnership models, the public side seems to face most of the burden, whereas the private side reaps more of the benefits, she added.
The Jan Swasthya Abhiyaan has filed a public interest litigation (PIL) arguing that without a few simple but concrete steps, government response would be misdirected. By not testing aggressively, there is no way to really know the true situation; by limiting free treatment to the Ayushman Bharat Scheme, huge numbers of people would be excluded; by failing to effectively rope in the private sector, the entire burden would fall on the government healthcare system. Add to this the ill-advised overuse of hydroxychloroquine; the lack of clarity on non-COVID healthcare; the apathy towards frontline workers; the carelessness in maintaining the standards of quarantine centres — and the government response begins to look increasingly precarious. In sum, she mentioned how it seems that a lack of co-ordination and communication between medical bodies, central bodies, the Central government, and the State government has led to avoidable lapses in the approach to dealing with the pandemic.
Mahabal then elaborated on how the rapid escalation of the situation could have been managed better by involving the community at an earlier stage. She questioned why the models of South Korea, New Zealand, and even Kerala could not be emulated. Even in the town of Islampur in Sangli, Maharashtra, there was a very effective approach in tackling COVID-19 cases that consisted of community involvement, rapid tracing and isolation, and access to essential goods.
Finally, she touched on the importance of not disregarding certain groups of society, giving the example of how inmates of Arthur Road Jail, where nearly 200 people had tested positive, were relocated to Eversmile Complex in Mahul, which itself had been declared unfit for habitation earlier and a breeding ground for asthma, tuberculosis, and other respiratory diseases.
In conclusion, Mahabal stressed that the lockdown in itself cannot be considered a response. It must be accompanied by physical distancing, by symptom-based surveillance, by implementing a comprehensive testing strategy, and by involving civil society and communities. It is not that the COVID pandemic has broken the healthcare system, it has only exposed it’s weaknesses, she said.
Shishir Joshi detailed how Project Mumbai has been closely involved in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic by delivering essentials, operating helplines, enabling care for senior citizens, providing meals, and providing personal protective equipment (PPE) kits, since there is a huge shortage of the same.
He described the response that the city and state governments had taken and pointed out a few crucial early missteps, like not effectively testing or screening people who were returning to the country from abroad. While government machinery initially acted quickly and managed to get many stakeholders involved, after this the coordination effort dropped off drastically and there has been widespread mismanagement and inefficiency. Joshi questioned why it had been so difficult for a clear and coherent operating procedure to be implemented. When civil society organisations had been able to create and execute plans, why could senior bureaucrats and public officials not do the same? The lack of a clear plan was seen in a lack of data, in the confusion and inefficiency of cross-department communication, etc.
One cannot treat the emergency as being only of the pandemic, there are a multitude of issues that must be addressed simultaneously . Joshi mentioned how, when they started their helpline, a majority of calls were about how to get food. There is a clear need to have both a current plan, and a future plan, and to address the critical areas of health management, communication, food supplies, and migrants and transport, he added.
Joshi then spoke about the role of the non-profit sector, and how the over-reliance on this sector could be disastrous. Both the non-profits themselves and their sources of funding are under serious strain, and unless a robust public system is put in place, it will be impossible to sustain their operations for long enough. The government also seems to be content with allowing the non-profit sector to do a majority of the relief work and then take credit for it, which is neither sustainable nor accountable. Finally, he touched on a few other points that could be considered in a response, including how to allow education to continue for children; how to deal with transport by consulting with urban planners; and thinking about the entertainment industry as a source of employment for a large population.
Parth MN, an independent journalist who has been reporting on the status of the migrant workers in Mumbai for weeks now, mentioned the apathy and mismanagement he has been seeing onground. Without any preparation time, the lockdown had proven disastrous for thousands of people. For many, even a few days without work makes it impossible to make ends meet, so extended periods like this were catastrophic. He also mentioned how so many people were domestic workers, and the unwillingness of their employers to pay them had left them without any money, adding them to the overall pool of vulnerable people whom the government and civil society workers were finding difficult to reach.
There is a clear bias against the most marginalised sections of society, evidenced by the planning that went into their welfare — those stranded abroad were flown back at no cost and housed in 5-star hotels. Meanwhile, schools or community centres could have been converted to safehouses for workers, which would have improved relief work as well, but this was not done. The mismanagement in terms of helping people return home was also evident — people were being given wrong directions, not being updated on the status of the trains, being asked to wait several days before any confirmation. This was forcing them to resort to expensive and dangerous methods of traveling back home. Many were forced to sell most of their possessions just to try and return home. He ended by stressing on the importance of understanding the situation of these migrant workers, who were forced to come to urban areas because their rural livelihoods had been systematically destroyed, making agriculture and artisanship impossible to survive on. Still, while urban centres provided economic opportunity, they did not provide social security, and this was why so many of them were desperate to leave.
This brought up the question of the inefficiency of urban governance that has been a common theme in urban issues. Mumbai, with its numerous state bodies and overlapping jurisdictions, was often paralysed by a lack of clear decision making. Joshi suggested that adding to this was the removal of officers from posts, making continuity impossible. What is needed is to have a clear plan that can be executed over time. The overlapping institutions also makes transparency and accountability difficult, because each institution places responsibility on the other. Perhaps a centralised ‘war-room’ where decision making could take place was needed, and execution could then be decentralised from there.
The conversation also touched on the role of planning and planners, and how a return to the principles of housing and public health were crucial in dealing with situations such as these. Indeed, a systematic devaluation of public housing and the subordination of planning to land and real estate markets were also responsible for creating these vulnerable conditions.
A number of questions and comments were brought up by the viewers of the stream, including the need to push for making healthcare a political agenda. The incapacity of the National Urban Health Mission was also mentioned, along with that of the National Rural Health Mission meeting some success. Questions were also raised about the role of slum policies following this pandemic and how they should respond. Further emphasis was laid on the need for investing in the rural economy and spreading out economic opportunities so as to prevent this situation of dependence.
In conclusion, there were a few common themes that tied together the webinar. The lack of foresight and planning had led to easily avoidable hardships, and the lack of coordination and planning continued to do so. More broadly, the systematic devaluation of the public healthcare system and the rural economy had already created deep vulnerabilities, and this crisis has quite effectively exposed them.
To watch the complete webinar, click here.
Compiled from the original webinar by Andrew deSouza