Observations, visions, and considerations on the impact of the corona crisis in India

ARCH daily By Mahila Housing Trust (Mht), India 

ABOUT MHT

Founded in 1994, with the mission of promoting sound habitats and living environment of poor women in the informal sector, Mahila Housing Trust (MHT), believes, that if the capacities of the marginalised especially women, are enhanced to exercise their civic rights, poor women can become drivers of sustainable and inclusive urban development in their communities and cities. MHT has made a significant impact improving the lives of urban poor in 1034 informal settlements by reaching out around 1.8 million individuals across 34 cities in India.

The COVID 19 pandemic has put our cities in the front lines of its crisis. Cities being at forefront of response to the pandemic, are putting a large population of the informal sector at high risks. According to 2011 Census, in India, 22.5% (65.5 million) of the urban population lives in slums. The urban poor, homeless and their communities are most vulnerable and will be worst hit by the pandemic. As most of the informal sector survive on their daily wages, the present situation of no work impacts their earnings thus questioning their survival. 

The global impact of the pandemic is still being understood by the countries. However, it is evident that the crisis is impacting the urban poor with economical, physical and social uncertainty. The pressing climate-related risks such as heat stress will further increase their vulnerabilities. 

IMPACT OF THE PANDEMIC COVID-19 ON THE URBAN POOR

With our experience of the past month and as we are diving into the crisis deeper, women in the informal sector are the most vulnerable to this situation. The grassroots women state that the repercussions of the pandemic’s prevention strategies such as lockdowns and physical distancing are impacting the health, income of the poor and further are exacerbated by the issues of housing and basic services like water and sanitation. 

These sudden changes in the society have sure raised questions of how our cities and its most vulnerable, informal settlements, will respond to the current crisis situation and the challenges ahead. 

We have the following cases to illustrate the current situation of the marginalised communities and the potential respondent areas to address and contain the future crisis. 

  1. Housing as a Hurdle to quarantine

According to the 2011 Census, 45% of families resident in Indian slums live in single-room houses. For most of the women, home is also their workplace. The ground reality in these communities poses a major challenge in following social distancing which has been promoted by the government as a key step to contain the spread of the pandemic. 

Slum dwellings are often constructed with materials like cement sheets, plastic covers, & corrugated tin sheets that absorb heat, create hot living conditions, and also require more energy to cool down. Also, for most slum homes, the front door is the only major source of natural lighting and air ventilation. The health and well being is also affected by the heat wave during the harsh summers, one of the key challenges that needs to be addressed as several people in the low income settlements may remain susceptible to the risk of heat stress and its duality with the pandemic. 

These heat issues are further amplified by high energy usages in the day time resulting in burdened expenditure on electricity.

Mental and physical well being – Small interventions such as access to good ventilation and light through wall or roof openings, adaptation of cool-green roofs or alternative building material that are weather resistant will keep the homes cooler during summers. These households are also less burdened with electricity costs and they also positively impact on the women’s mental health. 

Through our past month’s experience in the grassroots in Ahmedabad and Delhi, women are facing difficulties in the households with lack of proper ventilation and lighting. Households are additionally burdened with high electricity bills. Paradoxically, households in Ranchi with green roofs where vegetation has been grown on the roof, and which are solar powered (allowing them with uninterrupted electricity) are performing better in the lockdown period.

Cool roof techniques (L to R), Solar reflective white paint, Roof airlite ventilation, Modular roof, which were adapted, piloted and promoted by MHT in the low income communities. Photo Courtesy: Mahila Housing Trust

Social distance enabled design – It is essential to develop evidence based report on challenges faced by women with respect to space constrains and restrictions during the crisis to understand the need for multi functional spaces especially in households where women are involved in home based livelihood. 

To address the similar challenges ahead, the housing design needs to be designed amalgamating spaces for living and livelihood activities. 

  1. Focus on Access to Core Services – Water and Sanitation

The most effective actions for COVID-19 prevention include social distancing and washing hands regularly. However, since a large proportion of the slums in Indian cities have common infrastructure for water and sanitation; social distancing becomes difficult in slums making them highly susceptible to the infection. Also, many slum households in the urban areas have  limited availability and access to water supply and washing hands is becoming difficult, an insurmountable challenge.

 

In such a situation, spreading awareness regarding personal and community hygiene becomes imperative. The immediate response in the city’s low income settlements needs to yield a special focus on extending the importance of hygiene and hand washing practices digital platforms and to promote individual-level water and sanitation facilities as it is the need of the hour for employing social distancing.

An early morning sight Sawda Ghevra JJ Colony, a low income community in delhi on 30 March 2020 where the women have gathered around the water supply tanker to collect drinking water. Photo Courtesy: Mahila Housing Trust
  1. Impact of economic loss on daily wagers and small businesses 

As the world plunges deeper and deeper into healthcare crisis wreaked by COVID-19, women in informal sector, find themselves especially vulnerable. With physical distancing measures in place, their usual channels of income lie broken, yet there are hungry mouths to feed at home. There are already reports from grassroots on the economic losses faced by workers engaging in certain occupations due to reduced demand, lack to access to swork markets. 

It is crucial for these women in the informal sector to survive and keep their families safe. There’s a need to find innovative ways and means of adapting to the changing contours of the crisis in order to ensure the continued means of income to the family. 

Amid the shortage of essential health care supplies such as masks, hospital gowns, soaps etc.; It is important to channel this demand to the women as home based workers or small businesses who can easily adapt to the need based livelihood with existing infrastructure and skill set. 

Ahmedabad’s Pushpaben, for example, stitchted and distributed 30 masks in her community of Dahl in Pol. It’s mportant to remember that for these community leaders, making masks and distributing them is a critical source of income in this time of financial uncertainty when most have lost their livelihood. Photo Courtesy: Mahila Housing Trust
  1. Migrants Temporary Shelters as an emerging housing typology 

Migrant workers and construction workers, who are now locked down, have no place to shelter. Night shelters provided by the government are crammed and are ineffective to maintain social distance. 

As a result of physical and economic lockdowns, one of the most struggling populations was of the migrant construction workers who are remained in the cities without any decent accommodation.  In order to provide shelter to the migrants, it is imperative to implement temporary shelters as relief camps as per the city’s demand which are also easy and quick to set up in the time of any crisis.

Ahmedabad’s migrant workers, for example, are living at risk on the streets amid the lockdown in India. It is crucial to understand that the daily wagers have no source of income and a shelter to live.
2. MHT’s field staff distributing food packets to the homeless. Photo Courtesy: Mahila Housing Trust

INCLUSIVE URBAN PLANNING IN THE LOW INCOME SETTLEMENTS 

The state of present crisis has let us recognise the need of green and open spaces in the low income settlements for the residents affected by harsh climatic conditions during the day by staying indoors. For them, the green areas act as potential spaces with less heat exposure whilst a possibility to maintain social distancing. These spaces can also be used as market areas or community activities.

The post pandemic challenge will be to address this need of open spaces in the most congested areas in the cities, specially the low income settlements by reviewing the urban planning guidelines. Additionally, a holistic approach has to be introduced to integrate urban planning in the low income settlements with respect to building their economies, alternative energy provisions, basic services and amenities so as to become standing examples of resilience and self sustaining than dark spots in the cities. 

Lastly, it is also necessary to conduct post pandemic research and identify evidence-based inferences from the grassroots to understand the experiences of women and their families during the lockdown period with respect to health, housing and economy. Also, to identify the challenges faced during the crisis would benefit in understanding and addressing the future in a better way.