Usually, when Adeel Kureshi contacts government officials, it is to demand paved roads, sewers, and streetlights for Pahari Nagar, a sprawling slum settlement in eastern Jaipur. This past April, though, Kureshi was seeing to more pressing needs—making sure residents have enough food and fuel during the raging coronavirus pandemic and stringent lockdown. Kureshi, an informal leader and resident of Pahari Nagar, told us over the phone: "I have tried to make a list of households who are the rozkamane vale, roz khane vale. If they don't work for one day they will go hungry. So I made sure they got supplies…"
Six hundred kilometers away in Bhopal, Om Prasad, another slum leader, was scrambling to ensure residents were keeping the settlement clean and understood how easily the virus can jump from person to person. "The first thing I did [following the lockdown's announcement] is get the settlement cleaned. The second thing was to build awareness about how the disease can spread between neighbours."
India's slums received substantial media attention for being potential coronavirus hotspots. Journalists note that slum communities are especially vulnerable to the spread of the virus, and the economic consequences of restrictive mitigation strategies. Slum residents are susceptible given most work in the informal sector and live in crowded conditions, often with inadequate access to essential public services like water and sanitation.
Despite widespread concerns, we have little systematic information from slum residents about their pandemic-time experiences. Most reporting has focused on conversations with residents in 'famous' slums in megacities like Dharavi in Mumbai. These city-sized slums are unrepresentative of most settlements, which are smaller and in less metropolitan cities. Media accounts also tend to render settlements as uniformly vulnerable and helplessly passive in the face of the pandemic. These portrayals ignore significant variation across slums in their levels of infrastructural development, and neglect the internal structures of self-governance through which these communities solve problems during 'normal times'.
To better understand how slum residents were affected by the lockdown and pandemic, we conducted a phone survey with 321 slum leaders across 79 slums in Jaipur and Bhopal, at the height of the lockdown in April and May 2020. To our knowledge this is the first such effort to canvas these important leaders during the pandemic. What did we find?
First, our survey demonstrated that slum leaders are not idly watching the virus spread and economic distress deepen. Roughly six in ten leaders contacted a local politician during the lockdown to request assistance. However, the focus of their lobbying efforts shifted dramatically from 'normal' times. 91% of requests during the lockdown were for food rations, instead of more usual demands for public infrastructure. This reorientation makes sense given leaders estimated the average household in their settlement had only enough savings to survive for 24 days.This shift in focus highlights a hidden cost of the pandemic—a reduction in the time leaders have to address pre-existing deficiencies in basic public services.
Second, pre-pandemic disparities in infrastructural development also shape the extent to which residents can abide by public health guidelines. 39% of the 1594 households we surveyed across the same 79 settlements in 2015 lack domestic water taps. Accessing water requires them to congregate at communal sources like public taps and truck-fed tanks, where intermittency in water supply creates uncertainty that forces long waits. Slum leaders in settlements with sparser household connections are nearly twice as likely to report public water sources as a problem for social distancing than leaders in settlements with more widespread connectivity. As Vikram, a slum leader in Jaipur told us, "people understand it is dangerous to come to a crowded place for water, but they have to do it." Approaching'slums' as a homogenous category misses how disparities across settlements matter during the crisis.
Third, slum leaders are not uniform in their ability to help residents. We asked leaders to enumerate any relief schemes that had been initiated or expanded during the lockdown that slum residents might benefit from. 47% of leaders correctly identified zero or 1 scheme, while 25.5% of leaders correctly identified 3 or more schemes. Slum leaders also varied in their reported ability to get requested assistance from politicians. Two key factors underpinned their influence with city leaders: education and their embeddedness in political party networks. In prior, pre-pandemic research, we found these exact traits corresponded with effectiveness in everyday problem-solving. Leaders who were effective before the pandemic remained more effective during it.
Public health experts have called for community-driven solutions to slow transmission and soften the economic blow of containment measures. In India's slums, such participatory efforts will encounter informal leaders like Kureshi, Om Prasad, and Vikram. Our findings reveal active forms of leadership even in the most underserved areas of India's cities. However, we also document that slum leaders are deeply dependent on party networks, and that nine in ten are men. These traits inevitably bias the types of residents that leaders are most likely to hear and help. Rather than flatten and simplify slum communities, participatory efforts must recognize these complexities within them.
A small silver lining to the pandemic has been in rendering visible the Indian state's inadequate understanding of important urban communities, ranging from circular migrants to slum residents. Acting on this realization requires more than calls for making cities inclusive. It requires sustained engagement between crises, not a flurry of recognition during them.
Adam Auerbach is an assistant professor in the School of International Service, American University and author of Demanding Development: The Politics of Public Goods Provision in India's Urban Slums (Cambridge University Press, 2020).
Tariq Thachil is an associate professor of Political Science, and Madan Lal Sobti Chair of Contemporary India, and Director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared in Hindustan Times, and is published by special syndication arrangement.