Every time India’s commercial capital is hit by a disaster, the media can reliably be expected to invoke the “spirit of Mumbai” – a cliche that recognises that the role of society in everyday life often eclipses that of the state.

In reality, the celebration of this Mumbai spirit of mutuality and resilience often seeks to compensate for the weaknesses of state institutions. But with the coronavirus pandemic, the state has not only been visible: it has exerted tremendous power in citizens’ everyday lives.

It has placed restrictions on working, mobility, collective life and practices in public space. It has also formulated policies related to preventing the spread of Covid-19, testing, equipping and managing health care systems as well as trying to provide relief to the people who were hurt by the lockdown and the pandemic.

Despite this, the state failed to help the people who needed support the most – the homeless, migrant workers, the residents of informal settlements.

New patchwork

For instance, many migrant workers went hungry because the state government decided not to give rations to those who did not have ration cards despite the municipal corporation being prepared to do so. Instead, migrant workers had to depend on cooked meals arranged by corporate social responsibility programmes and non-governmental organisations initiatives whose delivery was uncertain and quantity and quality was variable.

The Mumbai experience indicates that rather than relying on institutions designated to handle situations like a pandemic and the accompanying lockdown, a new patchwork of institutions has been assembled.

This reengineering and the lack of coordination between various institutions seems to be a personality- and politically-driven exercise, resulting in a delay in responding to demands on ground. This was evident not only in the differences between the Mumbai municipal corporation and the Maharashtra government over distributing rations to people who did not have ration cards but also in the frequent changes in procedures for migrant workers to obtain repatriation permits, the lack of a uniform understanding between police and other institutions of what containment means.

Mumbai’s experience brings to the spotlight a question that has been frequently asked in the past decade: who is responsible for disaster management in the city?

Migrant workers and their families wait to board a train at Mumbai's Lokmanya Tilak Terminus. Credit: PTI

Preparing for disasters

According to the National Disaster Management Act of 2005, the key institution to handle crises like floods and pandemics is a District Disaster Management Authority. Clearly the act falls short of imagination for a metropolis like Mumbai that actually comprises two administrative districts – Mumbai City and Mumbai Suburbs. Despite this peculiarity, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai is the institution responsible for disaster management in both the districts.

In 2017, the Bombay High Court dismissed the idea of a single Greater Mumbai Disaster Management Authority with the municipal commissioner as its head and with the two district collectors as members. As a result, Mumbai has two District Disaster Management Authorities, one for the city and one for the suburbs – in addition to the Greater Mumbai Disaster Management Authority formed in 2011 with Municipal Commissioner as chairperson and key officials from the police, the railways and other institutions as members.

Despite being formed after the court order, the District Disaster Management Authorities have never held a meeting and they have not placed a district disaster management plan in the public domain. Besides, their composition is against the provisions of the National Disaster Management Act.

There has been a little more activity by the Greater Mumbai Disaster Management Authority: the website of the Mumbai municipal corporation says that a City Disaster Management Plan was drafted in 2018.

Guidelines for relief

The National Disaster Management Act has also prescribed guidelines for relief during epidemics. But during the coronavirus pandemic, these plans (which are part of preparedness for emergencies) and the guidelines were completely set aside. For example, the act has guidelines on setting up shelters and standards for relief but these were not followed.

The act also provides for significant involvement of NGOs and civil society organisations, requiring the authorities to create mechanisms to coordinate with them. But in Mumbai, this has not happened.

On March 14, the state government issued a notification under the colonial-era Epidemics Act giving Mumbai’s municipal commissioner significant powers to take any action deemed necessary to control the pandemic. The notification ostensibly strengthens the ability of the municipal corporation to act. Among other powers, it can demarcate containment zones, restrict movement, conduct surveillance of infected persons and acquire private buildings for specific uses.

Health workers in a Mumbai informal settlement. Credit: Francis Mascarenhas/Reuters

Instead, differences of opinion between officials of the state government and the municipal corporation resulted in tussles, culminating in the untimely transfers of key municipal officials. These differences impacted testing strategies (there was a debate about whether tests should be limited to people with prescriptions or whether anyone who wanted one should be able to get one), decisions about the nature of relief to be provided to groups that were facing a crisis of hunger due to lockdown (should thet be given dry rations or cooked food; should there be community kitchens or large-scale centralised kitchens) and the resources to be used for such relief (should these come from officials budgets, corporate social responsibility funds or others).

Ignoring key resources

The rigidity of the restrictions and the fact that it completely ignores the realities in informal settlements of Mumbai have meant that the police became a very visible face of the lockdown.

In a situation like this, the Home Guards – an auxiliary force of paid volunteers – could have been proved extremely useful. Home Guards are paid an honorarium of Rs 670 per day with a guarantee of about 180 days of service through the year. But the Maharashtra government has not been able to pay the honoraria for the past few months, placing the force in jeopardy.

In addition, the registration of all the volunteers of the Civil Defence was cancelled two years ago, dismantling this entire force of about 5,000 trained volunteers. The volunteers could have been of immense value in helping maintain law and order as well as in managing relief operations.

Though there was no formal process to engage them in relief efforts, people associated with the Civil Defence supported several voluntary organisations in distributing aid. They also organised essential resources such as masks and PPE kits for medical personnel. Above all, they organised a relief camp at Versova for 300 migrant workers and homeless for a substantial period of the lockdown. It operated largely on resources raised privately through well-wishers.

If the state government had involved the Civil Defence and Home Guards in a substantial manner, they could have alleviated some of the burdens of the police. They could have helped to distribute relief and move the homeless to shelters. When the movement of migrant workers was finally allowed, the police had to take on an additional function of issuing travel permits and coordinating the same with the railways – a task that required a citizen-friendly face. The Civil Defence and Home Guards could have been given charge of this.

It is well accepted that disasters and emergencies cannot be predicted but preparedness is critical to coping with them. But despite the frequency of disasters striking Mumbai in the recent past, the city has not made any effort to build institutions that can deal with crises. The city continues to be a victim of various political tussles between institutional leaders even in a time like the pandemic.

Amita Bhide is dean and professor in the School of Habitat Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. She has been deeply involved in issues related to urban poor communities, community organisation and housing rights movements and advocacy groups.

Mahesh Kamble is an assistant professor in the Jamsetji Tata School of Disaster Studies at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

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 other articles here.