In the third week into the national lockdown, three blocks of Jahangirpuri, an informal settlement in North West Delhi, were deemed Covid-19 hotspots. The neighbourhood brought into focus the challenges of applying conventional coronavirus mitigation strategies to densely populated areas. For example, even as physical distancing is being advised, the dirty piped water in Jahangirpuri meant that many residents use bottled water, forcing regular interactions with suppliers. Similarly, the absence of door-to-door waste collection entails daily trips by residents to waste collection points.

Jahangirpuri is not an anomaly. Approximately 45% of all Indians live in informal settlements, having to share basic infrastructure services that are most often inadequate. For instance, in one section of West Delhi’s Raghubir Nagar, approximately 1,500 residents have access to only one arduously located, pay-for-use community toilet block. The sporadically functioning, insufficient community taps here often deliver unclean water, making regular hand hygiene a challenge.

Further northwest lies Savda Ghevra, a resettlement colony with over 50,000 residents moved by the authorities from informal clusters all over Delhi in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games. Set up 14 years ago, it is yet to be serviced with piped water and sewerage, creating a heavy dependence on water tankers supplied by the Delhi Jal Board, bottled drinking water and nominally priced, privatised pay-for-use water dispensing units known as Water ATMs.

To address the challenges to containment strategies of Covid-19 in India’s informal settlements, the authorities must take a long-term view of gaps in infrastructure, services and urban design. It also requires a study of how residents of informal settlements navigate their neighbourhoods to access services and relief measures.

Access to individual services such as toilets and piped water connections for households must be made a priority. Credit: Diptendu Dutta/AFP

Informal settlements are typically connected by a labyrinth of narrow lanes in which economic, household, recreational, and sociocultural activities unfold every day. They are especially used by women who step out to wash clothes and utensils, fetch water, and dispose of waste, and for other activities such as bathing and accessing toilets. During the lockdown, these lanes also take on the indispensable function of facilitating access to food, notwithstanding the exhortations to maintain physical distancing.

In these settlements, there is little that can be done to prevent life from spilling out onto the streets. As this article notes, slums are able to offer greater “informal outdoor spaces that can provide refuge” to residents, in contrast to the vertical slum rehabilitation housing being constructed in cities such as Mumbai.

Seeking improvements

In the first few weeks of the outbreak of the pandemic, as government authorities in Delhi anxiously raced to curb the spread of the disease, the quality and availability of some infrastructure services in some informal settlements in Delhi were quickly improved.

For instance, when community leaders in Raghubir Nagar complained about a sudden decline in the quality of drinking water supply to the Delhi Jal Board, which provides water to the city, it was attended to immediately. A similar complaint in Savda Ghevra resulted in immediate improvements as well. In Rajeev Nagar, community members reported that waste collection is carried out regularly, and the streets and garbage dumping areas are kept relatively clean.

In Raghubir Nagar and Jahangirpuri, the drains have been unclogged by municipal sanitation workers equipped with masks and protective gear.

However, services that require investment in physical infrastructure – community toilets, water pipelines and sewerage networks – cannot be introduced or improved overnight. These continue to potentially escalate the impact of the pandemic. In many settlements, the lack of clean drinking water for instance, creates an added regular expenditure that weighs heavily on residents in current times.

The quality of these services determines the daily experiences and choices of those who reside in informal settlements.

A woman outside her home in Mumbai's Dharavi, amid the Covid-19 lockdown. Credit: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

Immediate and long-term measures

1. The state should immediately supplement over-burdened, under-performing infrastructure by providing water tankers, mobile toilets, and free drinking water. Fortunately, as this article indicates, the Indian government has experience in the rapid delivery of water and sanitation infrastructure.

2. Shared facilities such as toilets and water ATMs should be made free-of-cost, reducing the financial burden on residents.

3. The relief being provided puts the spotlight on missing infrastructure to which residents should be given the right in post Covid-19 times. Most informal settlements in India are not fully serviced with adequate facilities owing to their weak land ownership status. This tenuous land tenure security needs to be delinked from access to infrastructure services – the latter should be viewed as part of an integrated public health infrastructure.

4. The effort to divorce land tenure from basic services entitlement could be ensured by implementing policies such as the PM-UDAY scheme to confer property rights to residents of 1,731 unauthorised colonies in Delhi, and MMAY a Delhi government scheme to rehabilitate slum clusters in-situ or within a radius of five kms of the existing slum. In informal settlements, access to individual services such as toilets and piped water connections for households must be made a priority..

5. Participatory and inclusive planning needs to be at the forefront in policy making. Community participation builds public support for policies and programmes, helps in monitoring of infrastructural gaps and promotes a heightened sense of ownership towards community assets.

The pandemic has shone a light on the state’s inability to deliver basic infrastructure to the urban poor who play a vital role in running India’s cities. In places like Delhi, the authorities have launched an accelerated response to clean up neglected low-income settlements to tackle the coronavirus. But these efforts must not be limited to containing this pandemic.

Around the world, access to basic infrastructure services is seen as a critical determinant of health. Many reports show that universal access to safe drinking water and sanitation services leads to substantial reduction in water, sanitation and hygiene-related diseases.

Smriti Singh, Sonal Sharma, Sukrit Nagpal work in the land rights programme at SEWA Bharat, in collaboration with Mahila Housing Trust. Research contributions from Sachitha Kondath, who is an intern at SEWA Bharat and is pursuing the Urban Fellows Programme at The Indian Institute for Human Settlements.