According to the latest data released by the government, 25 urban districts in states like Maharashtra, Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Telangana are driving up daily positive rate of CVID-19 affected people in the country. Among these 25 districts, Mumbai suburban’s daily positive rate is the highest in the country. In other words, cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai and Hyderabad which were once considered growth centres of the country are now becoming the breeding ground for the pandemic. With reverse migration of the migrant workers from cities, in recent weeks even small cities and villages too have become unsafe.
It’s a well-known fact that slums are part and parcel of our cities and on many occasions, they are the lifeline of the mainstream. Nearly 1/5th of the population in our cities lives in informal settlements which do not have basic amenities like drinking water and sanitation facilities. These informal settlements are densely populated which makes it easier for the diseases to spread. For example, in slums like Dharavi in Mumbai (which is the largest in Asia), an average 200,000 people live per square kilometre. No wonder, Dharavi has become one of the hotspots for COVID-19 in Mumbai. Further, these slums majorly consist of migrant workers who are engaged in short- and long-term employment in the unorganised economy which is very sporadic in nature, with constant job insecurity.
Most of these people have migrated from villages and small towns in pursuit of better opportunities. Cities present better opportunities as they usually become the hub of economic activities. Government programmes like Smart City Mission (earlier JNURM) are city centric programmes and are aimed at creating job opportunities in cities.
Slum-dwellers rehabilitation programmes have remained only on paper and haven’t made much headway on the ground. Even where they have made some progress, they have only been able to convert existing slums into vertical slums which was not the original intention of the programme.
What’s even more worrying is the present pace of the urbanisation – not only in India but also world over. Population residing in urban areas in India, according to 1901 census, was 11.4%. This count increased to 28.53% according to 2001 census, and crossing 30% as per 2011 census, standing at 31.16%. In 2017, the numbers increased to 34%, according to World Bank. According to a survey by UN State of the World Population report in 2007, by 2030, 40.76% of country’s population is expected to reside in urban areas. As per World Bank, India, along with China, Indonesia, Nigeria, and the United States, will lead the world’s urban population surge by 2050.
Unless we have enough well thought out strategy and plan to accommodate the expected surge in the urban population, we will only be creating urban chaos along with urbanisation. For example, in Mumbai, the government had chalked out slum rehabilitation programme about 25 years ago but we have been seeing ever growing slum population in the city all these years. Rehabilitation programme has remained only on paper gathering dust which is cleaned only during election times. All the government programmes to rehabilitate slumdwellers are nothing but elbow sweeteners just to secure their votes.
We are not going to learn any lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic though thousands have lost their lives and lakhs have lost their jobs. God forbid, if a similar situation arises in future, consequences will be much more severe because our city population (along with slums) would have grown substantially by then. We have to regulate/control the pace of urbanisation through sufficient job creation in rural areas and also through proper planning to accommodate increased population in cities. Urbanisation is welcome only when we are prepared to face situations like COVID-19.