MUMBAI: In 1898, colonial authorities created the Bombay Improvement
Trust on the heels of a devastating plague to upgrade living conditions in
the city. The trust opened up congested neighbourhoods, built housing for
workers, and laid down strict rules for ventilation and sanitation. Their
measures shaped modern Bombay.
Amidst a new pandemic, it’s clear the lessons of the last have been long
forgotten. The coronavirus that entered the city largely through its elite is
now a threat to its most vulnerable, many of whom live in conditions not
too distant from those of the 1890s.
Recent data shows the wards with the most cases are mostly those with the largest slum populations (Dharavi, Kurla, Govandi)
or highest population densities (Byculla, Worli). Meanwhile the outbreak is beginning to slow down in some affluent areas that
saw the first cases —like parts of D ward — as the middle-class have sealed themselves into apartments and gated
The spillover from highrises to slums isn’t surprising—42% of Mumbaikars live in slums, as per the 2011 census. When other lowincome housing are included, up to 57% families live in one-room homes where physical distancing is impossible. Public
housing, sanitation, and health infrastructure for the poor has been largely stagnant in the past few decades. Despite highprofile programs, there is a 1lakh shortfall in community toilets and an estimated 11lakh shortfall in affordable homes.
The neglect reflects in the delayed measures in poorer areas. “Migrant workers and slum-dwellers have been an afterthought,”
says Arun Kumar, CEO of Apnalaya, an NGO that works in slums.
Dharavi is the hotspot of the epidemic but the decadesold settlement is relatively well-supported by NGOs and the
municipality. By comparison, slums in the sprawling suburbs of Malad, Bhandup, and Govandi have fewer resources and get
less attention. The M/East ward that includes Govandi, for instance, has close to 80% living in slums. The ward ranks bottom on
the human development index and could be the next hotspot, says Amita Bhide of the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.
(However, M/East assistant municipal commissioner S M Dwivedi said testing and facilities are expanding and fatality rates
declining.) Slum cases may be limited to a degree by the exodus of poor migrants—an echo of the mass departures during the
1890s plague. Thousands have already left Govandi and Kurla for their distant villages, say local representatives. Still, many
who remain are at risk. Near Mithi River in Kurla, people seek help only when they find it difficult to breathe, says local
corporator Ashraf Azmi. “We take them to hospital, they are put on ventilators for a couple of days but they do not make it,” he
Apnalaya’s Kumar suggests more testing in areas with high populations or large slums. Azmi says there is no point increasing
testing unless more beds are made available. “Where do I take them for treatment?” he asks.
The lnerabilit of the orking class reflects a longterm shift a a from holistic rban planning sa e perts The er
discipline of town planning was founded to deal with epidemics like the plague, notes urban planner Kedar Ghorpade. Even in
the 1960s, he recalls, the government department was called ‘Health and Town Planning’. Sanitation, solid waste, and housing
were always considered the bedrock of a prosperous city. But “somewhere along the way, the focus moved from health to real
estate,” Ghorpade says.
Industries like textile mills once provided housing for their labour, he notes. But informalisation of work put paid to that social
contract. And advancements in medicine and technology have led to a separation of health and housing. Exhaust fans and
airconditioners allow apartments to be built closer together, with less ventilation, Ghorpade points out. Indeed, as an expert
assessment of a 2018 TB outbreak in a slum rehabilitation complex in Govandi found, some of the new working-class housing
is more congested and poorly ventilated than even slums.
“Over time, we have lost the understanding of humane habitats,” says Ghorpade. And now, like Bombay 120 years ago, “we
face a health bomb.”