Know Thy City

The recent Dharavi contagion of Covid-19 and how the city administration was effectively able to use its capacity within the given constraints to act.

| October 9, 2020

The recent Dharavi contagion of Covid-19 and how the city administration was effectively able to use its capacity within the given constraints to act.


The small successes of urban policy and governance action illuminate the foundations of many big and routine failures. The relative ‘success’ of the now famous ‘Dharavi model’ in containing COVID-19 in the very place where it could have exploded out of control is an example. Dharavi reported its first COVID-19 case on April 1 but the pandemic was ‘under control’ there by mid-July. It is very difficult and too early to conclude that this was because of the administration’s response alone. Yet, there is clearly much that the municipal corporation did right in its response. At its core was a commitment to realism: to acknowledging the opportunities, threats, resources and challenges at hand and devising a response based on this knowledge. This uncommon realism contrasts with the attitude that has engineered significant developmental and planning failures in Mumbai, whether market-led slum redevelopment, urban flooding or skywalks.

As is well known, Mumbai topped the COVID-19 toll across cities in India for long in the early months of 2020. Responses by various state bodies varied along a crucial aspect: how grounded their understanding of specific urban realities was. Dharavi, which is part of the Mumbai mythology as the once-largest slum in Asia, houses 8 to 10 lakh people in an area of a little over 2 square kilometers. A former dumping ground for the city, it is a mosaic of formal and informal uses including various kinds of crafts, small scale industry, as well as homes and communities. Given its density, it is not surprising that entire families live in small rooms and are forced to use community toilets accessed through narrow lanes. Recommendations of physical distancing to control transmission of the virus were always going to sound like a cruel joke in this situation. And there existed little capacity anywhere in the country for mass testing at a required scale. In that context, the approach that the municipal ward office reportedly adopted is of interest.

First, the local administration along with the police acknowledged the seriousness of the challenge given the conditions of living in the ward and responded very early. Second, it also clearly acknowledged the limitations of its internal capacity to respond where it mattered with the required speed and reach. Third, it recognised that valuable human resources that it lacked in the administration – medical professionals, especially, but also common spaces like schools and halls for setting up institutional quarantine facilities – existed in the private sector in the form of local doctors as well as private hospitals. Fourth, it engaged the community and its internal resources actively in setting up communication channels.

A sensible but uncommon public-private partnership was struck: in the midst of the national lockdown, private doctors were invited to open their clinics with municipal support in the form of PPEs, monitoring instruments and sanitisation services. The clinics became part of the municipal strategy of identifying and monitoring suspected cases of COVID-19. Private hospitals too were deployed for treatment and a 200-bed hospital set up in two weeks. Parallelly, institutional quarantine facilities were also set up since physical distancing was impossible in homes or neighbourhoods. By July, the pandemic had subsided in Dharavi.

The commitment to acknowledge ground realities, and actually engage local communities and empower private sector actors (doctors) in response, is unusual. This, even though Indian municipal authorities and state governments operate with a remarkable lack of information about their cities as well as their own assets and operations. For example, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai (MCGM) does not have a dependable map of the underground water supply network that it maintains.

Big and small developmental interventions are regularly conceived within the framework of this patchy understanding of what is, and extending to what might be. A small but important example in Mumbai is the more than thirty foot over bridges – called ‘skywalks’ possibly to justify the large expense – many of which have failed to attract pedestrians for entirely predictable reasons: the huge effort (and often absent physical capacity) required to climb up and down almost two storeys just to cross a city road. Bigger crises like severe flooding during monsoons can also be traced to failure to acknowledge basic realities: if you narrow water courses and rivers, and simultaneously pave over most of the city, you engineer floods. Though COVID-19 is a very different set of challenges, the municipal response in Dharavi reveals that grounded realism is not impossible in state action. The question then is, why do we not see it often enough in bigger and more aggressively ‘developmental’ initiatives?

Himanshu Burte, an architect and urbanist, teaches at Centre for Urban Science and Engineering, IIT Bombay.