High population density and shared access to basic amenities make slums such as Dharavi extremely vulnerable to the spread of the novel coronavirus
Covid-19 cases recorded in Mumbai's G/S ward where the Worli-Koliwada slum -- the first slum settlement to be hit by the virus in Mumbai -- is located, shot from one to 68 in less than a week. And now, the novel coronavirus’ entry into the confined lanes of one of Asia’s largest slums, Dharavi, may spell doom for the slum’s densely knit population. Dharavi has recorded nine covid-19 cases as of now, including one death.
Slum-area outbreaks in a city as densely packed as Mumbai pose nightmarish problems for city authorities, who are struggling with containment measures in such areas.
According to the 2011 census, Mumbai has the biggest share of slum dwellers among the big metro cities, with 42 percent of its population residing in slums.
What adds to the gravity of Mumbai’s slum challenge is the densely packed nature of almost all localities in the city, including the slums. Mumbai’s population density of 20,634 people per square kilometre (sq. km.) provides a happy hunting ground for communicable diseases such as covid-19.
According to a 2012 National Sample Survey (NSS) report, three-fourth of India’s slum tenements are cramped within 2 hectares (or 0.02 sq. km.) on average. At an all India level, census data shows 50 percent of slum households in India accommodate themselves within one single room. The number is higher for slums in the western states of Gujarat and Maharashtra where close to two-thirds of slum households are roofed under a one-room facility.
In Mumbai, slums occupy just 7% of Mumbai’s total land area, but four in ten Mumbaikars live in a slum. Given that the slum censuses and NSS surveys mainly focus on the bigger slums in cities, the actual share of people in slums could be higher.
Estimates for Mumbai’s ward-level population density confirm Worli Koliwada to be a high-risk region. The slum falls under the G/S ward (Elphinstone), among the more dense localities in the city. The most dense is Ward C (which includes Marine Lines) with a density of 91,991 people/sq km, followed by the G/N ward (which includes Dharavi) with a density of 66,190 people/sq km.
Other hotspots in the city, based on ward-level population densities, are the southern wards D (Grant Road) and E (Byculla), and suburban wards such as L (Kurla) and P/N (Malad) with population densities above 45,000 people per sq. km. These wards account for a significant share of Mumbai’s covid-19 cases, and are also home to several large slums such as Madanpura, Malvani and Orlem.
In such congested quarters, physical distancing is virtually impossible. The limited access to safe water and private toilets adds to the public health challenge.
60% of the slum households in Maharashtra did not have a private toilet facility inside their homes, census data shows. And 35% need to step out of their homes to collect drinking water from public taps, tube wells, and wells. Things may have changed since then given that these statistics are nearly a decade old but the gap in access to amenities between slum dwellers and others remains.
Insanitary conditions coupled with people crowding around public taps due to hourly restrictions on water availability adds to the challenge of washing hands to keep away from infection. Slums in other big cities face similar conditions.
According to World Bank data, the slum-dwelling section of the urban population has been on a slow but steady decline globally.
However, projections for slum population as a proportion of total in 2020 show India to be more vulnerable than other developing economies. After China, India is expected to have the largest share of the world's population living in slums. The virus has already created havoc in the crowded refugee settlements of Bangladesh and the favelas of Brazil, and now the danger of contagion hovers over Dharavi.
For Mumbai, the city of dreams where the rich and the poor live in close proximity, the covid-19 pandemic has put the spotlight on the wide disparities in living standards within the same neighbourhoods.