Professor K.Stevenson

Clustered houses, minimum air flow. High rates of humidity in rooms. Hot and humid interiors as aluminium / tin sheets used as construction material do not buffer heat, narrow lanes and by lanes that allow one single four wheeler and not fire engines to pass through. Enter, Hyderabad’s city slum NTR Nagar.

This is a typical scene in Hyderabad slums which have remained untouched by the lethal corona virus. After having identified the containment clusters and imposing tough measure, disinfecting/ sanitizing  the slums dotting the city, making citizens adhere to social distance norms work, though an uphill task,  is not something unattainable  and cannot be ignored.

There are at least 1,476 slums in Hyderabad with a population of at least 1.7 million, 66 per cent of whom live in the core of the city that made up Hyderabad before the expansion in 2007. The remaining live in 491 tenements. Nearly one-quarter of the slum-dwellers in the city came from other parts of India in the 1990s, with at least 63 per cent having lived in slums for at least a decade. Around 30% of the slums have basic services while others depend on general public services from the government, according to the World Population Review website. The 2011 census data reveals that there are 5.07 lakh slum households and 22.7 lakh slum dwellers. Most of them are daily  labourers, maids, factory workers, hawkers, rag pickers, artisans, painters and private sector unorganized workers etc who migrated for their livelihood.

Cramped, often poorly-ventilated dwellings housing large numbers of people, some slums with no basic amenities of regular water supply, proper sewage system, lack of public health infrastructure, are potential petri dishes for COVID-19. Queuing to use shared toilets or draw water from tanks or simply walking past others in narrow lanes heighten the risk of exposure.

This would add to the burden of the over worked civic staff engaged in the humongous task of disinfecting and maintaining better sanitary and hygienic conditions in the city and other municipalities. Rightly so, their efforts have been lauded by the state government, leaders and members of the civic society.

Maintaining social distance by dwellers packed like sardines in single room tenements-10×10 or 10×15 size is a difficult proposition. For instance, way side shacks are inhabited by refugees -close to 5000 that includes 4000 Rohingyas and 700-800 from other countries. It is near to impossible says Mazher Hussain of Confederaion of Voluntary agencies.  Amar, a plumber from Orissa, lives with his brother and two of his assistants pay Rs. 4500 for a single room near Nacharam. We cannot afford bigger houses.   We share a  common toilet and wash room facilities.  Frequent washing of hands becomes difficult due to limited storage facilities in the house and it is mostly plastic drums, he says.

In these environments, staying at home and staying safe can prove to be a risk.  Such households witness more contact with others than those who live in formal settlements according to a research study in Delhi which  also found 50 per cent greater contact duration per day than non-slum residents.

Slums run the risk not only of the coronavirus ravaging communities that contain large numbers of individuals who are vulnerable to its most serious effects, but also of exacerbating malnutrition, increasing the risk of other diseases and plunging several others people into – or further into – long-term poverty, if such settlements are locked down and their inhabitants lose access to work, food, and other essentials.

Prof. Ravinder Kaur, Director, Regional Centre for Urban and Environmental studies, points out that public education on corona virus holds the key. There is no dearth of information. People are well informed and are taking precautions- buying sanitisers, masks within the limited resources they possess. But they are forced to remain in the confines of their small houses.

The current Government plans to make Hyderabad a slum free city but it may be recalled that the Nizam’s City Improvement Board, after its formation in 1912 immediately embarked upon decongesting the city. What we need  today in the context of Corona is to adopt the best practices which have yielded results in the country- mass screening, testing, isolation, quarantine, follow up and a vigil on people’s movements, a relentless battle. At a different level from a long term perspective, there should be a  redistribution of social policies to address pressing issues plaguing the slums, points out a social scientist.

Policies that aim to eliminate COVID-19 transmission will have to be drastic for households that only bring in enough income each day to buy a day’s supply of food, the risks of such confinement will be impossible to bear for long.

Isolation strategies for pregnant women, the elderly (in slums, those aged over 60), and those with known or suspected chronic underlying conditions should be prioritized.  Families with more than one room or house, too, could be encouraged to allocate a living area to high-risk household members before the virus hits, and taught to use infection control methods to prevent the entry into that area of the virus.

So far the story of disinfection as reflected in photos and television news from the areas hardest hit by the novel coronavirus Covid19  is as follows: Trucks spraying streets and a phalanx of sanitation workers wearing backpack tanks fogging sidewalks, public places, by lanes, surroundings of hospitals and elsewhere.

Newspaper reports indicate that an army of 675 personnel part of the 19 disaster response teams is working round the clock to sanitize the entire city by April 15. While manual teams are spraying colonies and slums, jetting teams are covering public places spraying sodium hypochlorite. There are eight light motor vehicles retrofitted with power spraying machines; 18 manual spraying machines, three specialised tankers, are in operation in high risk zones. The entomology wing has 2375 workers and 125 units are working across the city- quarantine centres, UPHC, community centers almost thrice a day. 1600 knapsac sprayers, 63 VMF sprayers are ready for operation.  Each day, around 15 kilometer radius is covered with VMF sprayer covering 500- 600 areas in coordination with the Health department and GHMC officials.  The GHMC’s overseeing mechanism is monitoring these activities.

In dynamic, volatile and complex circumstances, the resolve of the slum dwellers coupled with the untiring efforts of the Civic administration would help keep the corona virus at bay.

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