COVID-19: Containing Dharavi?
Once again, Dharavi is in the crosshairs of world media attention. A nationwide lockdown in India since 24th March has served to exacerbate the divides between those citizens who can safely self-isolate in comfortable homes, and those who are forced to shelter together in crowded and confined spaces. The potential of the virus to wreak havoc through rapid person-to-person transmission in one of the most densely populated urban zones on the planet has understandably made Dharavi, and many other informal settlements across the country, a focus of ‘containment’ efforts. The gaze of the state, the media, and the broader public is focussed hard on informal settlements like Dharavi.
More than half of Mumbai’s inhabitants, who at other times provide an essential supply of low-cost labour for the city’s multiple infrastructures – in waste management, transport, cleaning, manufacturing and commerce – are housed in densely packed bastis - made up of substandard, usually self-built structures. Recent media responses expound narratives of moral outrage at the everyday realities of Dharavi - stories of 1400 people sharing a toilet seat, and densely packed marketplaces - tending to represent informal settlements as zones of deprivation that harbour dirt, filth and disease. This suppresses more thoughtful analysis of the consequences of the gross inequalities and inappropriate models of urban planning that have led hundreds of thousands to make their homes in the self-organised labyrinth of streets and alleys that make up Dharavi’s patchwork of neighbourhoods.
Everywhere in this crisis is evidence of the biopolitics of disposability, described by Henry Giroux as ‘a political system actively involved in the management of the politics of life and death’. Under ‘normal’ everyday conditions in Dharavi, market forces determine the fate of individual workers and their families. The Covid-19 crisis challenges the assumption that one must ‘work or die’, but when work is no longer permitted, living conditions become even more stark. For those with few resources, unsafe homes and no savings, it is only solidarity and networks of mutual support that can keep people alive.
Most people in Dharavi rely on daily wages to survive, and all work has stopped. Domestic workers cannot visit their employers, labourers are laid off, and the thousands of workshops and small factories that make up Dharavi’s economy have fallen silent. Although some migrant workers have made it home to their villages, often hundreds of miles away, many others are trapped in a limbo state - unable to work, unable to travel, unable to earn and thus unable to support themselves. The air is suddenly cleaner, the incessant noise of traffic and commerce has stopped, and birdsong is audible, but there is a lot of anxiety and fear: about the future, about being locked down even harder, and about whether business can survive the inevitably bruising economic consequences of a complete halt for more than a month.
Unverified stories and rumours constantly circulate. Fear of being quarantined and detained is widespread. Often people with underlying health conditions unrelated to coronavirus cannot or will not seek medical help. Many residents resist being tested or visiting doctors because of the shame and stigma associated with having the virus, or because of lack of money to pay for treatment, or because of the potential consequences for their neighbours of being subjected to even more punitive lockdown and containment measures. Even obtaining or distributing food is full of health risks, with protective equipment in short supply. Most sanitation workers, even those officially employed by the BMC (Mumbai’s city government) have no access to protective gear, in a sign of the ‘disposability’ attached by the authorities to their work roles. One of our C13 artists, Aqui Thami, has written eloquently about the importance of solidarity and empathy for those who through little choice of their own find themselves at the very sharp end of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Almost all of the activities we were undertaking as part of our programme of work at Compound 13 Lab are now on hold. No workshops, classes or public events can take place. The only ‘fieldwork’ that is taking place is virtual – via phone, social media and internet. No-one apart from the authorities and medical workers can travel in and out of Dharavi. All international travel has been curtailed. But communication and community has not stopped functioning - far from it, social media and family/business networks are buzzing with activity. 3G and 4G smartphones, in widespread use even amongst the urban poor, provide opportunities to communicate, connect and share experiences beyond the confines of the locked-down neighbourhood.
In the meantime, various technologies of the ‘smart city’ – drone surveillance, contact-tracing apps, thermal imaging and movement sensing technologies are being deployed in an attempt to contain and control the spread of the virus. Building trust rather than sewing suspicion between the people and the authorities will be critical in Dharavi’s battle against the virus, as our colleagues at Urbz have observed.
The image of the ‘slum’ as an ungovernable zone to be contained and controlled risks playing into the hands of those politicians who wish to summon inter-communal hatred and deflect attention from their own failures over years to promote policies which meet the needs of the urban poor. The politics of ‘blaming and shaming’ obfuscates the broader brutality of states of unpreparedness for pandemic, and the underlying global inequalities that leave millions without access to clean water, sanitation, housing and any form of economic security.
Meeting immediate needs
Our partners Acorn Foundation India, who host Compound 13 Lab, have stepped up efforts to provide food to people living in their neighbourhood who are confined to their homes.
If you can help support this work, please donate to ACORN International’s COVID-19 Global Response Fund. If you are outside India, please donate via PayPal here. Please add a note with your donation that it is intended for Acorn India and the money will be transferred through.
If you are in India, please use this link to donate funds. All money will go directly towards providing food for vulnerable people who cannot work and cannot feed themselves.