Early April was marked by policy confusion as the Covid-19 crisis escalated. Two weeks into lockdown, the Maharashtra government’s policies to tame the spread of the coronavirus and provide food and shelter to vulnerable populations were often ambiguous and continuously changing. Nobody was sure how the policies were being translated into action in the mohallas of Mumbai. The Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, the city’s elected local government, was uninterested in disseminating information about the essential services being provided to its citizens in formats that were useful to them.

Lists of services were not compiled in one place or signposted for citizens to easily access. The multiplication of Covid-19 cases and containment zones, and the shutting down of public transport, made the need for spatial information (not just where services were, but routes to access them) critical both for relief workers and vulnerable populations.

Forming a team based out of TISS Mumbai, we decided to convert municipal address lists of essential services into precise locations on a Google map and make these publicly available. Google maps were chosen for easy accessibility, because the tool invited people to interact with maps to understand how their neighborhood was faring compared to others.

The mapping began with the aim of helping people access municipal services, but revealed important insights about how public policies are designed and state attitudes toward building publicly accessible city information systems critical for the public health response.

Mumbai residents queue up to be tested for the coronavirus. Credit: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

Identifying lists of services and doing ground-level functionality checks posed innumerable difficulties. The Mumbai municipal corporation’s usual approach to sharing information is marked by secretiveness – this did not change during the pandemic. But the severity of the crisis exposed its negative consequences like never before.

On the face of it, the maps reveal problems of space: there was a disjunction between where informal settlements and industries with a preponderance of daily wage and migrant workers are located, and where services are established.

But maps also present us with problems of time. Some areas of the city – neighborhoods, wards, suburbs – have been systematically neglected, even abandoned, through a process that academic Rob Nixon calls “slow violence”. It is cumulative and typically not seen as violence until a disaster like a pandemic makes it visible as such.

Multiple socio-spatial inequalities in relief

The first service we considered essential to map was shelter homes (with associated community kitchens) targeted at migrant workers, the homeless and other populations that had been rendered homeless and jobless with the lockdown.

Source: MCGM, 2020

The map revealed two major insights. First, that the number of shelter homes was insufficient to cater to actual needs. For instance, in L Ward (the city’s Kurla area), 84% (or 7.5 lakh people) of the population lives in slums. The area is a hub of informal industrial activity and job opportunities for inter-state migrants. Despite this, it had only one shelter with a capacity of 30 people. Besides, Mumbai’s shelters were not located where there was greatest need.

When a community organisation leader in M/E ward (the Govandi-Mankhurd area) said that access to medicines for poor people suffering from tuberculosis, diabetes and hypertension was a critical need in the lockdown, we focussed on mapping Jan Aushadhis, a national scheme to provide cheap, generic medicines via exclusive outlets.

Source: Bureau of Pharma PSUs of India

In Mumbai, most Jan Aushadhis were clustered in the northern part of the western suburbs with very few in the poorer eastern suburbs (Figure 2). With local trains and buses halted, getting across town to these shops was virtually impossible, rendering the outlets largely unusable for people further away.

The map above clearly shows that the distribution of Covid-19 relief infrastructure is not targeted to populations or areas that need it the most. If we consider the presence of informal settlements as an indicator of need for services, Figure 3 shows that Covid-19 relief infrastructure is not distributed according to need.

Sources: (i) % of slum 2011, Census 2011 (ii) Shelter Homes (iii) Shiv Bhojan canteens, mahaepos.gov.in (iv) Jana Aushadhis, janaushadhi.gov.in/

Wards with very high slum populations (M/E and L) have little infrastructure unlike wards A (the Colaba area) and R/C (Borivli) that received larger shares of the relief despite fewer slums. The reason for this is that policy design is not spatialised or aligned to the work and living needs of various kinds of settlements and their residents.

For policies to be appropriately spatialised, we need more granular information about how and where people in Mumbai live, what work they do in what kind of spaces, and what kinds of neighborhood- level amenities and infrastructure they need for living and working activities. But what information is collected and how it is used is intensely political and subject to an insidious process that we call “invisibilising”.

Invisibilising informal settlements

Currently, spatial records of the Mumbai municipal corporation, like the city Development Plan, choose to invisibilise areas designated as “slums” by marking them brown. Because they are deemed illegal and the people who live in them don’t own the land they occupy, browning them out literally means excising them from the city and not planning for their future.

In Mumbai municipal corporation maps, 30% of L ward is marked brown as slum. Figure 4 takes the bustling Khairani Road area in L ward to show how the homogeneous category of “slum” on paper masks a variety of informal manufacturing, waste recycling and hospitality industries and residential settlements on the ground. There are small industrial units that accommodate work and living spaces. Residential clusters for single male migrant labour who sleep on a shift basis are present as well as families who stay on rent or are the owners of these units.

The pandemic has exposed how little we know about the workings of complex spaces like these, and how ill-equipped we are to cater to their needs amidst lockdown. This was made evident by the steady flows of migrant workers out of Mumbai.

The corporator as the ward information system

If official records contain little detail on informal settlements, how does the municipal corporation get essential services to the people in them? Mapping food distribution centres demonstrated the important role played by the elected municipal corporator in this process.

Food distribution constituted the lynch-pin of lockdown relief efforts because the food was free and did not require beneficiaries to show documents like ration cards. Speaking to the designated nodal officer in one ward showed that the list of 734 food distribution sites released by the municipal corporation apparently had no relation to reality. The officer explained that ward-wise allocations of food packets were decided by the elected municipal corporation and sent to him as ward-level nodal officer. He then delivered the food packets to corporators within the ward for further distribution.

The decision about how many food packets are distributed to whom and through what system are left up to the corporator. This points to the informality embedded in the system.

What are the consequences of this disconnect between how the municipal corporation actually works (the informal system in practice at the electoral ward level) and how it claims to work (the list shared publicly for administrative wards)?

On one hand, decision-making is devolved down to the corporator in the electoral ward, which effectively uses the corporator’s knowledge of his/her ward to distribute food – a de facto system for spatialising policy.

On the other hand, this is discretionary: we do not know who is left out. There is little accountability because municipality does not formalise the corporator’s role or align information systems with decision-making – indeed, by making information at the electoral ward level opaque, the municipal corporation weakens democratic accountability of the corporator toward voters in the electoral ward.

Keeping the delivery of essential services opaque means that people have to depend more on informal social relations with powerful individuals like the corporator. Such a system clearly has limits, especially for migrants who might be non-voters or minority communities who might be disadvantaged by communal politics.

Building public health in informal settlements

We use the concept of slow violence to describe processes of gradual public disinvestment in basic services as well as erasure in official records and planning imagination. Figure 5 highlights processes of slow violence occurring particularly in M/E and L wards, with poor environmental health and abysmal rankings on the Human Development Index. This renders them vulnerable to not just high rates of Covid-19 transmission but also high case fatality rates. (The case fatality rate refers to the proportion of deaths compared to the total total number of people diagnosed with a disease.) The case fatality rate for M/E ward is 9.86% and for L ward it is 8.23%, both much higher than the average figure for Mumbai is 5.71%.

Aources: (i) Slum population, Census 2011 (ii) HDI 2009, UNDP (iii) Covid cases (July 17), MCGM

Covid-19 has brought to the fore inequalities that result from decades of slow violence. It highlights how even current provision of relief infrastructure follows ingrained lines of inequity that persist across space and time.

Addressing both spatial and temporal inequalities is necessary to make the municipal corporations “containment”’ and “unlock” strategy viable and build the longer-term public health of informal settlements. This will build the entire city’s resilience.

Co-producing public health

Traditional planning exercises, such as the Development Plan prepared every 20 years, have erased existing social infrastructure in informal settlements that could have emerged as vital community Covid-19 relief infrastructure on ground during the crisis. Community-based organisations in these “invisibilised” spaces serve as the sole source of tacit knowledge, plugging huge gaps in the government’s relief efforts.

For instance, in Cheeta Camp, an informal settlement in M/E ward in north east Mumbai, the municipal corporation could not easily identify institutions to serve as quarantine facilities because of the paucity of official information in this area designated as slum (See Fig 6 a). However, community members identified and mapped existing amenities through local planning.

The richness of local knowledge that countered Cheeta Camp’s “browning out’”is demonstrated in Fig 6b. This spatial information enabled community groups to identify several potential Covid-19 quarantine centres and reach out to the municipal corporation, offering to lead their activation.

Acknowledging the value of community support and compelled by the severity of the coronavirus crisis, the municipal corporation handed over the Shahji Nagar Municipal School that it had marked as a Covid Care Centre or quarantine to community organisations in Cheeta Camp. Community groups undertook the responsibility of cleaning, setting up the facility, and assisting in bringing people to be tested while the municipal health staff did testing and maintained records.

Creating a city-wide policy that systematises such cooperation without unduly burdening poor communities could catalyse more partnerships.

Thinking beyond the pandemic, tacit community knowledge provides a strong foundation for building a more complex and dynamic planning process, which better reflect the incremental ways in which migrants and slums make the city.

But to reverse an inherited, static and deeply unequal planning imagination that is Mumbai’s bane, communities from invisibilised areas need to be in the driving seat.

Lalitha Kamath is an urbanist who teaches at the School of Habitat Studies, Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.
Sanjana Krishnan is a researcher, data analyst and partner at CPC Analytics, a public policy consulting firm.
Purva Dewoolkar worked as a programme coordinator for the Transforming M- East Ward Project, an action research project of Tata Institute of Social Sciences, and is now a SEED funded PhD Scholar at the University of Manchester.
Avinash Kaur is an architect and urban designer who works as an assistant researcher for the Transforming M-East Ward Project at TISS.
Aradhana Paralikar is an urban designer who has worked on spatiality of informal livelihoods in Kurla. She is a mapping expert for the Tacit Urban Research Network project at TISS.

A time of unprecedented social suffering and uncertainty, Covid-19 serves as a moment of crisis as well as possibility for making urban policy differently. This article is part of an eight-part series that seeks to address the question of how the pandemic could be used to transform Mumbai into a more inclusive, resilient city. Read the entire series here.