A wake-up call for Mum­bai

Covid-19 has ex­posed the city’s many un­der­ly­ing weaknesses

Hindustan Times (Jalandhar) - - COMMENT -

In­dia’s fi­nan­cial cap­i­tal, Mum­bai, now has over 30,000 cases of the coro­n­avirus dis­ease (Covid-19); more than 1,000 peo­ple have died due to the in­fec­tion. On May 24 and 25, the city re­ported the sec­ond high­est num­ber of cases among cities any­where in the world, right af­ter Moscow. One in ev­ery five cases in In­dia can be traced back to the city, while one in ev­ery four peo­ple who has died na­tion­ally has been a Mum­bai res­i­dent. It has sin­gu­larly made Ma­ha­rash­tra the most se­verely af­fected state in the coun­try, with cases go­ing be­yond 50,000, and ris­ing ev­ery day.

There are, of course, im­me­di­ate trig­gers for the surge in cases. To its credit, Ma­ha­rash­tra has also tested more peo­ple than the na­tional av­er­age. But the sys­temic weaknesses are clear — the de­lay in screen­ing pas­sen­gers in the ear­lier part of the year (which was not unique to Ma­ha­rash­tra but ap­pears to have had a greater im­pact in terms of spread), the fail­ure to use the lock­down to ramp up health in­fra­struc­ture, the ab­sence of proper co­or­di­na­tion which has re­sulted in pa­tients hav­ing to rush from hospi­tal to hospi­tal in search of crit­i­cal care ser­vices, and the high num­ber of health care work­ers who have got in­fected.

But these are symp­toms of a wider cri­sis. Mum­bai is a sym­bol of In­dia’s flawed ur­ban­i­sa­tion and poor plan­ning. It has a high den­sity of pop­u­la­tion, with the least pro­por­tion of open spa­ces per 1,000 peo­ple. Slums oc­cupy 7% of the city’s land area, but, ac­cord­ing to the 2011 cen­sus, four out of 10 res­i­dents lived in slums — a pro­por­tion that may have grown. A cor­rupt nexus be­tween po­lit­i­cal au­thor­i­ties, pri­vate busi­nesses and real es­tate de­vel­op­ers has meant that pre­cious pub­lic land, which could have been used for pub­lic hous­ing, has been taken over by pri­vate op­er­a­tors. Sixty per cent of the slum house­holds don’t have toi­lets and there is a sub­stan­tial short­age of pub­lic toi­lets. But in­stead of erad­i­cat­ing the squalor, the city has taken pride in it — to the ex­tent of ro­man­ti­cis­ing it. The dis­par­ity in health sys­tems is stark, with su­per spe­cialised pri­vate hos­pi­tals coexisting with an abysmal pub­lic health care sys­tem. While the over­crowded lo­cal train may be an iconic sym­bol of the city, it ac­tu­ally rep­re­sents the weak­ness of pub­lic trans­port sys­tems. De­spite hav­ing the rich­est lo­cal gov­ern­ment body in the coun­try, mu­nic­i­pal gov­er­nance is weak. All of this — the ab­sence of ad­e­quate pub­lic hous­ing, pub­lic health, pub­lic trans­port, san­i­ta­tion — has to­day come back to haunt the city. Mum­bai must, for its sake and for the sake of In­dia, use this cri­sis as a wake-up call.

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