Survival infrastructures under covid-19

By Ayona Datta, University College London, UK

I grew up hearing stories of Calcutta during the Bengal Famine of 1943 from my grandmother. The famine was an artificially created disaster under the watchful eyes of the British colonial government who denied Indian farmers access to food stocks, resulting in starvation and death – a genocide of about 3 million poor Indians. Colonial historians and scholars have noted that Winston Churchill, the ‘hero’ of the War famously stated that Indians ‘bred like rabbits’ and therefore deserved to die

My grandmother and her family lived in Calcutta at the time, and they witnessed an exodus of migrants from villages and surrounding towns swarming into the city, hoping desperately to survive. Through her life, my grandmother repeated stories of the cries of starvation in the streets outside their family home. An incident that particularly affected her as a young woman was when a starving man resting on their doorway through the night was found dead in the morning. Municipal lorries would come and carry off dead bodies regularly, but the bodies came faster and more frequently than the lorries.

A similar exodus out of cities is occurring in 21st century India under covid-19 which has seen heavy tolls on its poor migrant population. And this time it is not the colonial government but a democratically elected government that has executed policies resulting in starvation and death of migrants. On 24th March, the Indian state announced a lockdownwhich would come in place within 4 hours. Public places were sealed off, social distancing was enforced, public and private transport was suspended, cities began to use drones, CCTV, quarantine apps, hand stamping, neighbourhood disinfection drives and any strategy they could to contain the virus. The virus was invisible, but so had been the city’s migrants. Overnight the streets in Delhi, Mumbai and other metropolitan cities were filled with domestic helpers, cleaners, hawkers, food vendors, construction workers, drivers, security guards and a whole range of service workers who were stripped of their livelihoods and began walking back to their villages and small towns, undertaking journeys that would take up to 15 days without food or rest or money. The images of these migrants walking home were like scenes from the Bengal Famine evoking several traumas that Indians store in their collective and personal memories. Those who couldn’t walk, faced starvation. It was clear that the infrastructures that had so far supported and sustained migrants in the city had completely collapsed. I will refer to these as ‘Survival infrastructures’ since they hold existential relevance for migrants in the city.

Photo credit: Ayona Datta

Survival infrastructures

What are survival infrastructures, and whose survival should we be talking about if the virus does not distinguish between rich and poor?

Asha, a young woman living in a Delhi slum resettlement colony, called me on WhatsApp the other day. She was a participant in our ‘Gendering the Smart City’ project where we examined the gender dimensions of Delhi’s smart cities initiative and its role in creating safe cities. Asha had been working for 4 continuous days in a night shelter in South Delhi. She had not been paid her salary for 4 months and was told she could quit if she wanted, but she had no other source of income so she stayed. She was tired, frustrated and scared, but wanted to check that I was fine in these times. In the night shelter, she cooked and fed hundreds of migrant workers who had no income and were starving and locked out in the city. The night shelter was also running out of money to buy supplies. The Prime Minister claimed that food supplies are overflowing in India during the lockdown, but supply chains are broken and therefore food is not reaching the starving migrants coming to these shelters. As a single mother separated from her husband, Asha has not met her older child (who is living with her in-laws) since the lockdown. She was also worried about infecting her elderly mother and her younger child who is living with her. Her journey to work each day took up to three hours by foot since she was not allowed on a public bus without a lockdown pass. And she could not get one because she was not a government employee. Exhausted and facing frequent sexual harassment in the dark empty streets, she was worried she would not make it home that evening. And she realised she was still ‘luckier’ than the migrants who had no access to food or shelter.

When a city goes into lockdown, its survival infrastructures are crucial for the most vulnerable. Social distancing, quarantine and contact tracing may arguably the key survival infrastructures during the covid-19 outbreak, but food supply chains that feed migrants, social and economic networks that provide them access to livelihoods, affordable housing that give shelter are the survival infrastructures for migrants. For the migrant, survival infrastructures also include public transport, water, sanitation – the basic urban services which are often denied to them. For the elderly, access to health infrastructures as well as social support systems of care and companionship are critical. For working women, safe cities are the key survival infrastructures. Survival infrastructures are not the same for everyone – they are prioritised along lines of social difference – gender, class, caste, religion and age to name a few. And they are different between this crisis and ‘normal’ periods. They determine what Steve Graham and Colin MacFarlane note as ‘infrastructural lives’ in terms of how people relate to, experience and negotiate the city during moments of existential crises. The city failed to provide survival infrastructures to its most vulnerable migrant workers under lockdown.

The Financial Times reports that over 140 million migrant workers in India have lost jobs. To get by, they ‘have pared their diets, drawn down meagre savings, borrowed from money lenders and collected food handouts’. For migrants, social distancing is a privilege when survival depends on keeping hunger and destitution away. Yet life goes on in other parts of the city where families have quickly adjusted to working from home, private schools are holding online classes with their students, vendors still service middle-class colonies, ATMs still dispense cash, zoom parties are on the rise, food can be ordered online and even some critical health care can be tendered in the home. 

As we try to comprehend how this is possible when millions of migrants are starving in other parts of the city, we might begin to see something else that has been invisible so far. Even as the millions of migrants have returned to their villages, it is the thousands like Asha who remain in the city, continue to provide basic services to its citizens and keep it moving under lockdown. They may be ‘heroes’ who are regularly memorialised with performative rituals of clapping and utensil banging, but more importantly they are human victims who are caught in the crossfire between the virus and the dereliction of state duties towards its most vulnerable citizens. 

Covid-19 has taught us something even more profound than the survival infrastructure of migrants. Covid-19 has shown us that the migrant worker is the survival infrastructure of the city. 

If we accept this, we might reimagine the role of infrastructures differently in post-Covid cities. Because once the virus is eliminated and public places are reopened, once the crowds return to the streets and citizens step back into their ‘normal lives’ whatever that may be, the city as we know it, might still fail to survive if the migrants do not return to keep it all moving smoothly.

About the author: Ayona Datta is Professor of Human Geography at UCL. Her broad research interests are in postcolonial urbanism, smart cities, gender citizenship and urban futures. She is particularly interested in how cities seek to transform themselves through utopian urban visions of the future and their impacts on everyday social, material and gendered geographies. She blogs at City Inside Out

This blog post is an adapted transcript of a podcast for UCL’s Institute of Advanced Studies. You can listen to the podcast here.

Suggested Further readings:

Datta, A. (2020) COVID19 may be an urban crisis, but India’s small cities will be its ‘collateral damage’. Learning from Small Cities

Datta, A. (2018) The digital turn in postcolonial urbanism: Smart citizenship in the making of India’s 100 smart cities. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 43: 405– 419.

Lemanski, C. (2020) Infrastructural citizenship: The everyday citizenships of adapting and/or destroying public infrastructure in Cape Town, South Africa. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers

Donaldson, A, Brice, J, Midgley, J. (2019) Navigating futures: Anticipation and food supply chain mapping. Transactions of the Institution of British Geographers


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