A wake-up call for Mumbai
Covid-19 has exposed the city’s many underlying weaknesses
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.