Dharavi in Mumbai is considered to be the largest slum in Asia and a month ago it was considered to be the COVID-19 hotspot. In fact, it was blamed for the spreading the virus in the maximum city. However, the latest data shows a different story and the continent’s most crowded slum has the potential to become a model for developing nations struggling to contain the pandemic.
Authorities have visited 47,500 doors since April to measure temperatures and oxygen levels, screened almost 700,000 people in the slum cluster and set up fever clinics. Those showing symptoms were shifted to nearby schools and sports clubs converted into quarantine centers. Fresh daily infections are now down to a third compared with early May and more than half the sick are recovering. About 51% of Dharavi residents who test positive eventually recovered, better than Mumbai’s 41% rate. The numbers are in stark contrast to the rest of India, whose daily tally of new infected cases has quadrupled since early May.
This achievement not only throws light on the best way to tackle the COVID-19 menace but also gives rise to a fresh debate on density of population. Is higher density of population really a bad thing? From Dharavi example it can be surely said that there is nothing wrong in the concept per se and problems arise because of wrong handling of the subject.
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 the World Bank. In India, it is not just the ratio that is going up but the overall population too is growing. At the same time, available land for human use will remain the same and will not change. In other words, in a country like India the density of population in urban areas is bound to go up in the coming years unless the pace of urbanisation slows down which is unlikely.
If higher density is, especially in post-COVID scenario is bad, sprawl is not a universal solution either and has its own sets of deficiencies. Sprawling development causes degradation of natural habitats of several species – a view which has been echoed by the biogeologists too. Sprawl is also responsible for spreading inequities among people by socially excluding residents of inner city neighborhoods, and creating longer distances between jobs, services, shopping, and communities making traveling more expensive, particularly for the disadvantaged.
Sprawl is also responsible for loss of valuable agricultural land resulting in artificially lower land values at the periphery on one hand, while adding costs on the homeowner in urban cores on the other. Further, infrastructure costs have been proved to be higher in the case of low-density sprawling development.
Thus, even if higher density is bad, the next best thing available, that is, urban sprawl is not good either with its own sets of inherent weaknesses. India with growing population which is soon going to have world’s largest population surpassing China’s number, has limited choices. Remember, India accounts for only 2.4 percent of the world surface are and yet it supports and sustains 16.9 percent of the world population.
It may also be wrong on our part to view density of population solely on the basis of COVID-19 outbreak and our response to the pandemic. Instead of blindly following the models established by others we in India need to develop our own models to suit our conditions and capabilities. After all, one swallow doesn’t make the summer.