At 8 pm on March 24, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared on national television that India was going under lockdown. He gave 1.3 billion people less than four hours’ notice. After that, he said, no one must step out of the house for three weeks.

Within minutes, panic-stricken citizens rushed to their neighbourhood markets, putting paid to the idea of physical distancing. Over the next few days, there were several instances of heavy-handed police action against people breaking lockdown rules. Meanwhile, crushes of migrant workers gathered at bus stops in cities such as Delhi, looking for a way to travel back to their hometowns and villages. The shock and panic in the cities was evident.

The countrywide lockdown, which some commentators have called abrupt, is based on a dominant model of city governance – one which assumes that urban activity, such as transport, food supply, fuel provision and waste management, can be streamlined and neatly organised through state action. But cities are defiantly complex.

Instead of streamlining, what the lockdown has achieved is the reordering of the city. It has tightened state controls, resulting in empty streets, orderly queues in supermarkets and stricter police patrols. It has also led to unexpected fallouts for people on the margins, including casual workers. A little over 80% of India’s workforce makes its living in the informal sector, and of them, a large section are casual workers in big cities. These workers live in temporary shelters, and yet are essential to everyday functions of cities.

Interlaced networks

Cities are made up of dense networks of informal systems, which resist being seamlessly governed and organised by state action and surveillance. A quintessential example of this is the urban food system. According to the Food and Agricultural Organisation, the informal sector forms a major part of the food network, right from connecting farms with city markets, to bringing produce to the doorsteps of urban homes. Street vending, which mostly comprises fruit and vegetable sellers, makes up around 14% of total urban informal employment in India.

These everyday urban activities do not fit into the aesthetic of a formal, regulated space. Nor can they, in their complete diversity, be addressed by a sudden lockdown. This is why they have been targeted for flouting the rules of the lockdown. In one video circulating on social media, the Delhi police can be seen attacking street vendors, tipping over pushcarts as piles of fresh vegetables tumble onto the road.

The unplanned lockdown has thrown urban interwoven networks into a state of precarity, leading to uncertainty in the lives of lakhs of casual workers. As Michele Lancione and AbdouMaliq Simone put it, state actions deployed to deal with the Covid-19 outbreak are in fact austerity measures – they involve excessive policing of social interaction, accompanied by job uncertainty. These measures have uneven implications for city dwellers, with less formal networks and activities being hit the hardest.

Temporary homes

Cities are constantly in flux. There is always an inflow and exodus of migrants. Homes are built, temporarily occupied and then vacated. The Indian government overlooked this transient nature of migrant populations when it imposed the lockdown, suspended all travel, and ordered states and union territories to close their borders. When it told migrants to stay at home and practice social distancing, the notion of “home” was in a more permanent sense, that is, where they are originally from.

But the typology of spaces occupied by migrants varies from temporary shelters near construction sites to group rental housing and other highly compressed living spaces. Their jobs are dependent on guarantee of regular work and income, access to food, water and other essentials. Without these prerequisites, the spaces do not offer the safety and stability of a “home”. When a majority of the population is expected to be confined to a space for 21 days, they must be assured of access to shelter, social security nets, essential goods and hand-washing facilities.

Admittedly, people in cities have found unique ways of adapting to the lockdown, while carrying out their everyday business. For example, many shopkeepers have chalked out grids in front of their stores to space out their customers and ensure physical distancing. Even neighbourhood vegetable markets, which have been notorious for thronging crowds, have managed to form orderly queues. This shows that despite the uncertainty around the implications of the lockdown, different types of businesses have created their own distinct order to avoid the risk of transmission.

Conceiving the city as a space that can be organised and regulated overlooks activities that are not easily governed by the state. But if cities are recognised as complex, changing sites, lockdown policies can end up being more inclusive, accounting for job precarity of informal workers and the transient nature of migrant homes. A fluid conception of urban spaces can also provide solutions to fallouts of a lockdown. Places like stadiums, marriage halls, concert spaces and public parks that are lying empty can be turned into temporary shelters to accommodate migrants or to set up community kitchens. This can help alleviate the panic and enable migrants to stay in the city.

Jasmitha Arvind is an urban geographer and graduate in urban studies from the London School of Economics. Vinita Govindarajan is a journalist, and a graduate in environmental governance from the University of Oxford.