A general view of slums next to high-rise buildings in Mumbai, June 2020. Photo: Reuters/Francis Mascarenhas/Files.
In March, the world went indoors to hide from the COVID-19 pandemic. Officials knew little of how the virus spread, and in many places banned even solitary outdoor exercise, reasoning that the only real protection was to avoid other people. This level of control was largely unnecessary because the typical odds of contracting the virus in an outdoor environment are nearly 20-times less than indoors. Indeed, confining people within their homes couldn’t prevent clusters of infection in situations of extreme crowding – such as in Mumbai’s slums.
Seroprevalence (a measure of virus exposure in a population) in the slums of Mumbai has reduced from 57% to 45%. In non-slum areas, it has increased from 16% to 18%. The opposing trends aside, the figures indicate that simply living in slums seems to increase the risk of contracting COVID-19. Why?
From an urban-planning perspective, slum areas primarily suffer from two human-made afflictions: no formal planning, leading to very few roads within informal settlements and a lack of public spaces between buildings; and no formal status, causing buildings to be haphazardly constructed and difficult to expand. These issues are on display throughout urban India, but are epitomised in Dharavi.
The estimated population density in Dharavi is 3,547 persons per hectare – which is 12-times greater than Mumbai’s average of around 278 persons per hectare. Density does not automatically imply crowding; taller buildings can still allow people to have an adequate amount of living space per person to effectively facilitate physical distancing. In New York, for example, 1.5 million antibody tests showed that Manhattan, the city’s densest part, was actually one of the least affected as well.
In Dharavi, the lack of formal titles means no one is willing to risk investing in the construction of tall buildings. The average building height in the area is only around 2.5 floors. The actual built residential space per person may be as little as 4 sq. m – which is not nearly enough room to follow physical-distancing protocols.
Distancing is also impeded by the physical layout of Dharavi and other slums. Dharavi’s buildings and paths are irregularly laid out, with few straight routes. Based on calculations with OpenStreetMap routes and Google Earth imagery, it appears 68% of pathways and roads are less than 2 m wide. Such a dimension offers little space for air circulation, and reduces airflow relative to other, properly planned areas, and admits fewer air currents that could help break up the concentration of viral particles.
Ironically, many of the regulations that prompt the informal housing sector to exist — by making formal development inordinately expensive – were originally developed to reduce the burden of disease. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, members of the “light and air” movement pushed for cities in France, UK and the US, to require space between buildings and exterior windows in every occupied room. The goal was to stave off diseases believed to be caused by poor ventilation.
Indian cities followed suit. However, despite the existence of mechanical ventilation, and new medical knowledge about disease vectors, this argument has still been used to limit building heights and the amount of floor space per person, and control the use and design of interior spaces.
Similarly, zoning codes originally focused on eliminating ‘undesirable’ uses, such as prohibiting foul-smelling industries from residential areas. Mixed land-use where industrial, commercial and residential areas merge also continue to be prohibited, making it almost impossible to recycle land-use in post-industrial cities.
The over-regulation of land-use, construction and density precipitates shortages in buildable land and floorspace, forcing the poor to compete for space. Indeed, such artificially created shortages have driven up the cost of land to an egregious extent. Today, as a result, 42% of Mumbai’s residents – close to 9 million people – can’t afford formal-sector housing and are left to live in high-density slum areas where physical-distancing is wishful thinking.
Against this background, arguments that the results of the seroprevalence survey are good news are baffling. Yes, if Dharavi were a completely isolated area with no population mixing, it may have come considerably close to attaining herd immunity – but it’s not fair to paint this outcome as the product of a calculated risk. And this lesson is not unique to Mumbai; it’s likely to apply across the country’s dense and overcrowded slums.
In the short-term, the government must take swift and decisive action to improve slum conditions by planning and permitting housing to be improved. This begins with a wider network of roads and paths in slum areas that will allow for ventilation and provision of water and sewerage. Some buildings will have to be knocked down to do this, for which both owners and tenants should be compensated at above-market rates. Town planning schemes can be used to reorganise the land next to these roads and paths, and the land can be parcelled and usufruct titles given to the declared owners.
Finally, regulations should be eased to allow for the financing of building reconstruction. For example, the Reserve Bank of India could allow loans from the Mumbai District Central Cooperative Bank for self-redevelopment of housing societies to come under their purview rather than categorising it as commercial real estate, which they are not allowed to fund. This kind of slum upgrading is done in many countries at a piecemeal rate and it must be accelerated.
In the longer term, the government must act to ensure decent housing for all citizens – including those who wish to move to cities – by eliminating the need for slums. To do this, policymakers must relax the building codes (without compromising safety), simplify design requirements, and create a building and land management system that reflects the reality of urban development in India, with its rapidly growing cities, extremely high density, and voracious appetite for land. To build its urban future, India needs a system that makes large plots of land quickly available, on which large numbers of affordable and spacious buildings can be constructed by the private sector.
Slum-upgrading and land-management reform will do much to defuse the risk of pandemic spread and will have many other benefits that outlive disease outbreaks. The solutions are clear, reasonable and cost effective, and the devastating seroprevalence results should provide a good amount of political cover. Let us hope that the threat of a disease with a mere fatality rate of less than 1% is enough of a wake up call, and that something good will happen before the next, perhaps deadlier, pandemic.
Patrick Lamson-Hall is urban planner and a research scholar at New York University Marron Institute of Urban Management. Harshita Agrawal and Kadambari Shah are Associate and Senior Associate, respectively, at IDFC Institute, a Mumbai-based think tank.