Monday, August 03, 2020

India's Social Division

Once more the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the surface the social divides in this capitalist world.

Cooking, cleaning, and food shopping have been a shock to Anisa Agarwal. Pre-pandemic, married to a wealthy tile manufacturer, her life in Gulmohar Park in Delhi involved a cook, maid, driver and cleaner who came to her house every day.

Despite her total dependence on them, Agarwal has not allowed her staff to enter her home in four months.

“They live in such crowded rooms that I can’t trust them not to bring the virus. They do try to be careful, I know, but their living conditions make it impossible. Social distancing or frequent handwashing are impossible,” says Agarwal. “You see, I was right,” she says on hearing about survey that found over half of the people living in Mumbai’s slums have had the coronavirus, compared with 16% of non-slum residents. “You can’t protect yourself against the virus when you share the same toilet with 50 families.”  Agarwal has never given much thought to slums – the fetid, dank, dark places where domestic servants, factory workers, plumbers, electricians and security guards live when not serving the wealthy. Whatever diseases were prevalent there could not possibly, it was thought, penetrate gated communities, high-rise condominiums or luxury homes.

It is the residents of these slums who go to work in affluent homes, offices, and shops – with some carrying the virus. The problem that India has resolutely ignored for decades – the lack of decent housing for the urban poor – has come to bite the top echelons of society.

“The indifference towards slums comes from the lack of any social obligation by the middle class and rich,” says Jitendra Awhad, housing minister in Maharashtra, which has Mumbai as its state capital. “No one bothers where or how their driver or maid lives. It’s of no concern to them.”

Social activist Harsh Mander points out that even when thousands died of bubonic plague in the 19th century in what was then Bombay, city administrators recognised that the surest defence against future pandemics was well-ventilated, decent housing for workers.

“It is a lesson we refuse to learn, because the lives of the poor have always mattered too little in India. In this pandemic too, we have effectively abandoned the poor in their crowded unhygienic habitats. Middle-class people fail to recognise how closely our destinies are tied, and indeed our survival,” says Mander.

Some 100 million Indians live in slums, a figure that will only grow with rising urbanisation. A 2010 report by McKinsey predicted that 590 million Indians will live in cities by 2030. With little or no planning, many cities offer toxic air, congested roads, crumbling infrastructure and no low-cost housing for the poor and migrant labourers.

Yet it is a rare event for any politician, TV channel, economist or policy maker to discuss the need to eradicate slums. In newly built luxury flats with huge rooms and open spaces, the room allocated for the servant is a windowless cell so small the occupant needs to curl up in a foetal position in order to sleep.

The one exception to the silence on slums is Dharavi in Mumbai. Talk of redeveloping Asia’s largest slum has dragged on for over five decades without progress.

Dr Rohit Roy, director of the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, believes the pandemic is a perfect moment to eradicate slums, if not for the sake of the poor, then for public health. “It is obvious from the Covid-19 situation that a slum-free India by 2023 should be our objective,” he says.

Rajeev Sadanandan, a former health secretary in Kerala, is not optimistic that lessons will be learned. “We must first start thinking of the poor as humans and I don’t see anything to indicate such a shift,” he said.

No comments: