When the coronavirus pandemic struck in March, tens of thousands of fishers in Mumbai and neighbouring Palghar district were suddenly rendered without a livelihood. They were unable to take their boats out to sea – and even if they had been, there would have been no way for them to take their catch to market.

It didn’t take long for young people living from many coastal communities to start a relief effort to ensure that no one went hungry. They put into place safety protocols to ensure physical distancing and began to sanitise their neighbourhoods. In order to ensure transparency and accountability as well as to benefit from government schemes, they asked community members for proof of identity and address, and details of their Aadhar card and ration cards .

At the same time, they began a census of the most vulnerable people, listing those disadvantaged by gender, age, income, disability and more. They also began identifying and addressing the needs of fishers who did not have access to basic household facilities such as kitchens, bathrooms or toilets.

In a completely organic way, Mumbai’s Koliwadas became a reflection of a civic politics and civic ideal based on solidarity to address shared vulnerabilities. The recognition of the needs and dignity of the vulnerable, and the potential of locally produced knowledge all combined to offer a promise of an effective pandemic containment and risk mitigation strategy.

Official guidelines

In theory, their endeavours reflect the goals that the National Disaster Management Authority has been attempting to achieve with its Incident Response Guidelines and the Guidelines for Biological Disasters. These guidelines specify the need to identify and address the needs of the most vulnerable people in India’s cities and villages.

The guidelines emphasise the need for local-level decentralised data gathering and developing community-level plans to effectively address disasters such as a pandemic.They suggested that experts, community organisers, local associations, and government officials should collaborate to jointly come up with community-level risk and vulnerability assessments and coping strategies.

The guidelines also advocate the need to pay attention to cultural and religious sensitivities as part of education and awareness campaigns. Given the social inequalities and ethnic divisions among the population and the cultural understanding required for designing and implementing pandemic containment, this is vital.

However, more than a decade after the National Disaster Management Act was passed in 2005, administrations at all levels have failed to implement the above guidelines which came out in 2010 and 2008 respectively.

The fishing village of Woli-Koliwada was declared a containment zone. Credit: Indranil Mukherjee/AFP

Whether in the periodic flooding that occurs in Mumbai or the current pandemic, we see that the design as well as the implementation of disaster management plans and guidelines fall far short of this civic ideal. They have abysmally failed to address the inequalities that exacerbate the impacts of the pandemic and its containment measures.

In the process, the informality and opacity of government measures, along with a reluctance to substantially implement the decentralisation and devolution measures made possible by the 74th amendment of the Constitution, prevents communities such as Mumbai’s Kolis from effectively deploying their associational strengths, local knowledge, capacity for resilience, and the inherent empathy for others in times of crisis.

The lack of transparency in the support and relief provided by the government agencies also meant that local associations could not access necessary supplies – food and medicines, PPE kits, sanitary pads – to enable local Registered Medical Practitioners to resume services.

They had little knowledge of supply chains through which they could access relief material using donations collected. They did have some knowledge of supplies meant for them, and were aware that these were being hoarded, but couldn’t do much about it.

Ignoring local knowledge

The government’s highly centralised, top-down Incident Response System delegated powers without responsibilities to selected officials; the system neither sought nor used available data on the vulnerable who needed immediate support; It had no way to integrate local teams with disaster management teams, and to identify skills and resources for risk mitigation and post-disaster recovery.

In Worli Koliwada, despite being well-organised, local associations could not do much as pandemic containment measures by the authorities involved a lot of secrecy and the use of force in implementing these strategies. There were also suspicions that lhe lockdown was being used to advance the Coastal Road project to build a 29 km motorway along the shore from Marine Lines to Kandivli they had been opposing, since it affects their fisheries activities on both land and sea.

A similar situation was evident in the case of migrant workers. Once the system, after much delay, woke up to provide transport to migrant workers to go back home, much of the information was transmitted to a few leaders, and spread through informal social media channels.

Fishermen who were refused entry at two ports because of the nationwide lockdown imposed to fight the coronavirus disembark in Dahanu in Maharashtra on April 17. Credit: Prashant Waydande/Reuters

These were amazing in the speed with which migrant workers from each region of the country got to know of local transport across Mumbai that could take them to bus depots and train stations, which would then take them onward to their destinations. Migrant community associations such as the Uttar Bhartiya Sangh played a role as intermediaries between the government and workers, getting permissions and tickets, arranging for food and water, and helping those who stayed back in various ways, especially street vendors who needed to negotiate with municipal agencies and local police stations to merely survive and subsist.

However the sheer informal nature of these networks meant there were rumours, false information, and breakdown of communication resulting in many unavoidable and stressful situations for migrant workers and their families.

If Mumbai wants to manage the pandemic better and prepare for future disasters, it must learn its lessons: officials must avoid secrecy, allow for greater transparency, better integrate disaster management responsibilities and state resources at different levels, rely more on locally generated data, and on the strength of local networks and associations.

This requires city and state agencies to be willing to entrust more power to a diverse set of local actors who are immeasurably more knowledgeable and better placed to address vulnerabilities and risk.

D Parthasarathy is with the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences and Centre for Policy Studies, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay.

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.