Expert Speak Urban Futures
Published on May 31, 2020
Unfolding of a lockdown disaster: From the perspective of M-East Ward, Mumbai

March is usually a month of impending exams, excitement of oncoming vacations, plans to visit hometowns and scheduling long-awaited family events for the first- and second-generation migrant communities in Mumbai’s M-East ward - the municipal ward infested with some of the densely populated slums in the city. Instead, this March brought in the news of a global pandemic that had slowly started inching towards India. There was some apprehension about what the virus was, but largely, life went on as usual. Mid-March brought in gradual restriction of activities, but the declaration of the national lockdown on the 23rd became the forerunner of a series of disasters which have been unleashed and intensified in the last few weeks. The current ethos is one of widespread distress and fear, transforming the vulnerable, but determined, residents of informal settlements and resettled colonies into desperate individuals and families dependent on relief and aid.

The M-East ward has emerged as one of the hotspots of the pandemic with increasing numbers of infected (As of 27 May 1,140 were recorded). More critically, however, the ward has a very high fatality rate (108 deaths) of nearly 10 percent. The ward with the lowest human development index in the city has thus emerged as a ward with high human suffering.

This article traces the various dimensions of the unfolding disaster, as experienced by residents of informal settlements. It elucidates the failure of the existing systems and the welfare measures instituted by the state in producing a reassuring and caring environment. It also exposes the process of deepening existing fault-lines in the city through the dominant narrative around the relationship between informal settlements that portrays them as the major cause of the spread of the pandemic in the city.

The vulnerable frontline: Migrant labourers

M-East is a peripheral ward, housing a large population of migrants in rental housing as well as those who stay in work sites i.e. small factories in the area. Following the sudden announcement of the lockdown, several hundred migrants attempted to leave the city immediately through trucks, as other modes of transport were not available. At least six trucks were commissioned by the residents. Three of them were nabbed at the toll nakas and the fleeing migrants were asked to return. Over the past two months, most migrants have lost their hard-earned savings and are left with no means of livelihood. In several instances, employers have abdicated them. Many were not paid pending wages. The labourers working in scrap yards, zari factories and at small construction sites were left to their own devices. As many of them did not have ration cards, they remained invisible in the worker boards registers. The decision to not give dry rations to those without ration cards and instead give them ready food packets made them dependent on the evolving dynamic of food aid and victims of the changing policies and delivery systems. The migrant workers have become victims of the current crisis of hunger and uncertainty.

Loss of livelihoods

As per a survey of more than 23,000 households in M-East ward by the Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS) in 2011, less than 20 percent of those employed were in regular jobs with monthly salary, about 40 percent were in casual labour, and the rest were self-employed (largely micro-enterprises such as vending, repairs, driving). Of those who did regular jobs, 88 percent did not have any work-linked benefits such as paid leave, medical cover, provident fund, and insurance. A majority of the households were thus economically vulnerable. There may have been some improvements in the economic status over the years, but economic vulnerability is still fairy substantive in the ward. The lockdown placed a ban on vending, shops that traded goods that were considered non-essential and economic activities such as construction, domestic work, repair works. The lockdown also impacted those in regular jobs; they were able to get by for a few days on past savings. The savings with more settled residents have also been wiped out after two months of the lockdown.

Clamour for rations

The loss of livelihoods is closely linked to the increasing clamour for rations. The nature of food relief policies in Mumbai has  been without a sense of entitlement as well as absence of  fixed food delivery points. Although with limited capacity, NGOs and civil society have attempted to fill the gap. There is also some confusion due to the parallel delivery mechanisms. With every household seeking rations, there are attempts to avoid duplication, but on the other hand, a large population has  remained deprived of the relief package. The arrival of ration trucks and other modes of food distribution has triggered mass assembly, incidents of looting and play of physical power. Other modes of distribution are coupled with accusations of manipulation, hoarding, favouritism and clientilism. The consequence of which is not food security, but widespread uncertainty and hunger, which has resulted in  increasing mutual distrust among communities that have lived together for decades.

Whither social distancing?

Much has been reported in the media about how people in informal settlements are crowding the inner streets and disrupting social distancing which has resulted to the spread of infections. What is not said in the media, however, is the lack of access to water and sanitation in such areas. The M-East is dotted with settlements which have a ratio of over 276 residents per toilet seat and over ten settlements do not have legal access to water. These conditions are known to the local administration. TISS’ M-Ward project has organised consultations with the civic authorities, proposed alternatives to improve the sanitation situation, made applications for the building of over 300 household toilets and regularly followed up for legal water access in settlements. Very few of these initiatives have led to concrete outcomes. The long queues outside toilets, crowds rushing to access tanker water that comes once in 2-3 days are therefore inevitable. Referring to the TISS survey, 73 percent households live in one room with tin roof houses of 10x15 feet. For such families, staying at home during the lockdown acquires a different meaning, intensity and oppressiveness altogether. When there is nothing available at the doorstep, stepping out is not a choice; it is a necessity.

Where is the state? Who is the state?

The everyday state operates through its functionaries and representatives. During the pandemic, however, the police have become the visible face of the everyday state. They police the non-compliant behavior in the settlements and provide the certification for movement outside the city. They are stationed when a lane or a building is declared as a containment zone, give protection when relief works are initiated by the state. Given the systemic weaknesses of the police system in relation to informal settlements which are regarded as dens of illegality (as well as a source of illicit power), the question is whether this should have been the most visible face of the state in the pandemic. In a ward like M-East, which is characterised by a highly inadequate health infrastructure – with only the peripheralised Shatabdi hospital at its apex and several missing links in the primary health infrastructure – in such a scenario, the police shouldn’t have been the state’s leading face. There was a need for health functionaries to be the state’s leading face, explaining preventive measures, initiating fever clinics, operationalising quarantine and care centres, explaining the significance of isolation, and attending to other morbidities and clinical conditions. Instead, what’s been observed is that other clinical conditions such as pregnancy are completely ignored, supplementary nutrition through anganwadis has been abdicated, private clinics in the areas are closed and both private and public health machinery has been subjected to top-down directives and single-minded agendas. For example, containment zones are declared but there is no communication to the residents about what does that mean. No other protocols are followed; people diagnosed with fever in the fever clinics do not know what the follow up to be undertaken. For several other ailments, there is just nowhere to go. The systems are highly complicated for even those found COVID-19 positive. Most elected councilors are being hounded by the public, largely for rations, and this has contributed to some of the parallel delivery systems discussed earlier. However, overall, the presence of the state which was already thin in M ward, has perhaps become thinner rather than becoming more extensive in a crisis like this. As a result, citizen care has taken a backseat to surveillance and policing stands in for protection and services.


The M-East ward is symbolic of the several fault lines of Mumbai’s planning and governance systems. Like all other large informal settlements in the city, its strength has been the vibrant communities that have shaped the ward. However, the series of crises have meant that people are losing all faith in the city and fear has taken root; if large-scale departures and significant emptying out of settlements is to be taken as an indicator.

There are few critical questions that need to be attended to, for instance, can reversals be possible. Further, for people who continue to stay in settlements and wards like M-East ward, is there a way we can offer some support and certainty of opportunities. It is important to understand that they too are citizens of our country and their vulnerability to the pandemic is not a behavioral problem but linked to decades of neglect. All these questions and concerns boils down to the need of the hour which is pandemic response in a more equitable manner.

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Amita Bhide

Amita Bhide

Amita Bhide is Professor and Dean of School of Habitat Studies Centre for Environmental Health Tata Institute of Social Sciences Mumbai.

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