Throughout the world, public health measures of maintaining proper hygiene, physical distancing and self-isolation have been implemented to contain the corona virus. While the virus may not discriminate, its health, social as well as economic effect is certainly not the same for everyone. For the billions of poor people living in dense urban settlements, following the guidelines in itself is a challenge. In this essay I discuss the inequalities experienced by the residents of informal settlements in the city of Mumbai, addressing issues related to urban water and sanitation infrastructures, and health problems. I discuss how discourses on health and sanitation are being used in political discourses in a city that is already unequal and fragmented.
Nearly six months after the COVID-19 pandemic started disrupting everyday life throughout the world, staying at home and physical distancing protocols are still the best-known preventive measures for stopping the virus. However, for billions of people living in poverty around the world following these ‘simple’ guidelines is rather a matter of privilege and mostly impossible to execute. Washing hands frequently with soap has been suggested as obligatory means of discontinuing the spread of the virus by the World Health Organization (WHO). However, for many people in India, handwashing is a luxury as the amount of water they have access to is barely enough for the basic requirements of cooking and drinking.
The Mumbai Mirror published an article on April 26th, 2020 entitled “How often would you wash your hands if your family got 60 liters of water per day?” with an image showing residents of Siddarth Nagar, Versova in Mumbai lining up rows of large plastic bottles and jerry cans to fill water from a tanker that visits the neighborhood every alternate day. Travelling to a shared tap or tanker and waiting in such long queues to collect drinking water is the everyday reality of many slum dwellers in Mumbai. The corona crisis has only made the necessity for access to enough clean water more acute.
With over 54% of Mumbai’s population concentrated into the city’s archipelago of dense informal settlements and forced to occupy just 5% of the city’s land, the city has a fragmented and polarized metropolitan landscape1. Many of the informal settlements have been denied legal access to formal water and sanitary systems. These settlements therefore rely on a complex informal system of water procurement, storage and distribution involving unmetered municipal stand posts, metered municipal group connections, illegally dug wells, boreholes, private tankers, improvised municipal pipes, etc. This informal water infrastructure is almost always controlled by water mafias, with the tolerance of corrupt municipal and police officials, private water tanker operators and some better-off members of the slum who act as middlemen2. While the formal settlements are well connected to the city’s water supply system, even these ‘elite neighborhoods’ are limited to few hours of water supply every day. The inequality in distribution of water infrastructure has been intensified by rapid urban growth, and the dominance of the welfare of the upper middle class.
However, the city’s dysfunctional water and sanitation infrastructure is not just an issue of the present. Having its base on the old, fragile and half built network rooted in the colonial era, the city’s municipal authority, Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), is unable to supply enough piped water to all despite huge monsoon rainfall. In the colonial times, due to the British government’s reluctance to invest in non-profitable internal improvements, urban water infrastructure in Mumbai was limited to serve the settlements of the wealthier class and the British citizens3. In the later periods, similar discrimination is seen in between the so called formal and informal settlements in Mumbai. As the BMC develops visions of a ‘world class city’, most of Mumbai’s population are still marginalized, just like the colonial rulers ignored the native population living beyond the British enclave.
It is important to note that while the residents in the ‘formal’ city receive an average of 135 liters of water per person per day, residents of notified slums4 are supposed to be provided with 45 liters of water per person per day through a metered municipal group connection catering for 5-15 households5. This facility for the slums is however often difficult to realize. Given the circumstances, the residents of informal settlements, especially from the non-notified slums, are forced to illegally tap into city water pipes out of desperation, which has, on several occasions, led to cross contamination of the water. This act of desperation is often used by the mainstream media and policy makers to blame and criminalize slum dwellers for municipal water shortages. Slum dwellers are often accused of ‘stealing the city’s water supply’. Moreover, due to the denial of clean water, slum residents are more vulnerable to environmental pollution and water-borne diseases. This quickly establishes the slum inhabitants as ‘outsiders’, ‘illegal’ and potential ‘health hazards’ to the city. Such discourses are then used to widen the call for ‘clearing’ the ‘hazard’ (i.e., slums) out of the city in order to make Mumbai a world class city.
The condition of sanitary infrastructures in the informal settlements is also no better. A survey in 2001, discovered that 63% of those living in informal settlements were dependent upon often defunct public toilet blocks. The ratio of people to toilet seats in Wards F/S and S was 273 to 1, and 56 to 1 in Ward A, which often resulted in toilet queues of two hours or more and an untold range of small and serious health complaints6,7. Sadly, the situation has not changed much over the years. According to Desai, most toilet blocks in Mumbai’s notified slums currently have toilet seats ratio of 1 toilet seat for every 190 inhabitants8. The ratio in non-notified slums can naturally be estimated to be much higher, if they are provided with the facility at all. In an article published by World Vision India, when talking about the difficulties during the lockdown, a resident of the Dharavi slum is cited as saying they are only allowed to access the public toilets once per day9. Acknowledging the lack of sanitation in the city’s slum as one of the risk factors for the spread of corona virus, the Joint Secretary in the Ministry of Home Affairs is cited as saying ‘The team found that the use of community toilets leaves residents to defy the lockdown and step out of their homes’ after the inspection of some of the slums during the lockdown period10. Interestingly, the problem identified by the joint secretary is people defying lockdowns to go the toilet rather than the poor sanitary facilities and water supply made available to them.
As of the 31st of August 2020, the city of Mumbai, with over 130,000 corona cases in total, and over 7,000 deaths, is one of the worst affected cities by COVID-19 in India. As the first case was found in the largest slum Dharavi in Mumbai on the 1st of April, an aggressive testing, contact tracing and quarantining was started in the area. As Sontag states the poor are often associated with illness and disease11, the confirmation of a single case in the slum lead to the state government imposing drastic measures in the slum colony to contain the virus and stop its spreading. Under suspicion of being the carriers of the virus all the residents were placed under constant surveillance by the authorities and rigorous door to door medical checkups were started. The rigorous testing revealed a significant number of infections in the area over the next few weeks. While extensive testing has been lauded by all, residents fear that the large numbers of infections shown in their neighborhood in contrast to the other areas where less tests were conducted would make them victims of discrimination and make it easier to have their neighborhood labelled as ‘problematic’ and a ‘risk-area’. Several newspapers state the impact of the bad press the areas receive, and the fear of the residents that they will have to keep struggling against the stigma of living in a ‘hotspot’ for a long time to come12-14.
Confirming this fear, several policy makers have taken this opportunity to push the Mumbai as a world class city agenda by pointing out the informal settlements as the ‘problematic hotspots’ in the city. The informal communities have been labelled as the hindrances to becoming a world class city all the while. Moreover, the city development plan developed by the Mumbai municipal council helps turn a blind eye to the slums by marking the general area with slums in plain brown15. This sweeping allocation of brown ignores different clusters of settlements, hides their characteristics and deprives them of being properly considered in future development programs. While the city officials are keen on achieving the dream of being a world class city, the often-neglected residents lack proper housing, water, sanitation and other infrastructure making them the most vulnerable to this and other diseases and infections. This further reinforces the portrayal of the informal settlements as problematic spaces that needs to be cleaned up and re branded.
Supporting strategies like Vision Mumbai, planners and policy makers with a penchant for removal and eradication of slum settlement, pursue ‘cleaning up’ Mumbai, to improve the quality of life and services for the affluent rather than actually doing something for the disadvantaged communities in need of dire help. In the light of corona virus, the informal settlements in Mumbai have been labelled as ‘risk zones’, ‘disease breeding grounds’ and ‘hotspots’, all indicating that these areas might endanger the health and security of rest of the city. Under these circumstances, it is vital to reflect that several years of trying to clear or eradicate slums using such strategies have solely pushed the real issue aside temporarily, only to have it appear stronger and larger in the next crisis.
1. Graham, S. and McFarlane, C. (2015). Infrastructural Lives. Abingdon: Routledge, pp.61-82.
3. Gandy, M. (2008). Landscapes of Disaster: Water, Modernity, and Urban Fragmentation in Mumbai. Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space, 40(1), pp. 108–130. doi: 10.1068/a3994.
4. In India, slums are broadly classified into two categories. Notified and non-notified. Notified slums are recognized by the government and are often entitled to receive secure land tenure even if they do not own the land. This prevents them from being arbitrarily evicted. See Subbaraman, R., O’Brien, J., Shitole, T., Shitole, S., Sawant, K., Bloom, D. and Patil-Deshmukh, A. (2012). Off the map: The health and social implications of being a non-notified slum in India. Environment and Urbanization, 24(2), pp.643-663.
5. Graham, S. and McFarlane, C. (2015). Infrastructural Lives. pp.61-82.
7. Davis, M. (2006). Planet of Slums. New York: Verso.
8. Desai, D. (2020). Poor Sanitation in Mumbai’s Slums Is Compounding the COVID-19 Threat. ORF. [online]. Available at:
9. Rahbany, A. (2020). Left Out & Unaccounted For: How COVID-19 Is Exposing Inequalities in Cities. wvi.org [online]. Available at:
10. Desai, D. (2020). Poor Sanitation.
11. Sontag, S. (1992). AIDS And Its Metaphors. Tokyo: Eihōsha Ltd., p.pg 51.
12. Yadavar, S. and Agrawal, S. (2020). Dharavi is not just fighting Coronavirus, but also dirty toilets and battered image. The Print [online]. Available at:
13. Indorewala, H. and Wagh, S. (2020). How strong is the link between Mumbai’s slums and the spread of the Coronavirus? Scroll.in [online]. Available at:
14. Rahbany, A. (2020). Left Out & Unaccounted For.
15. Kamath, L., Krishnan, S., Dewoolkar, P., Kaur Bons, A. and Paralikar, A. (2020). What mapping Mumbai’s COVID-19 relief work reveals about inequality in services and ‘slow violence’. Scroll.in [online]. Available at:
Cover image: Unequal scenes, Mumbai. Source: Johnny Miller Photography [online]. Available at: https://unequalscenes.com/mumbai [Accessed 27 December 2020].