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THE SPECTRE OF CROWDS IN THE COVID CITY

Focus: GS-III Social Justice

Introduction

  • The pandemic has stigmatised social density, recalling Dickensian spectres of overcrowding, contagion and disorder.
  • Crowding in markets, mosques or transport hubs were repeatedly highlighted as irresponsible and threatening to the health of the national body.

Positives seen in the Urban setting

  • Distancing, isolation and the thinning out of public spaces in Indian cities have offered up new pastoral landscapes of delight for urban dwellers, with clean air, summer blooms, and assorted wildlife crossing streets.
  • Fuel-saving work-from-home arrangements, cost-saving virtual meetings, and spare social gatherings are seen as offering new, mellower possibilities of urban inhabitation that may help rejuvenate the environment.

Key Attributes

  • Agglomeration, density and crowds have long been definitional attributes of the urban.
  • Cities, as close-knit, dynamic constellations of human and non-human bodies, offer ideal grounds for the spread of a virus, but also facilitate other diffusions.
  • Urban mixings have helped dissolve or remake categories of caste and gender and have enabled socio-economic mobility, widened horizons of possibility, and allowed historically discriminated groups to forge new identities, claim public resources, take risks and assert rights.

Explaining crowding in India

Three conditions stand out as common catalysts of crowding in the Indian city.

I. Scarcity

Chronic scarcity, often induced by lopsided resource distributions, induces a repertoire of techniques such as the jostle, the push, the rush to reach the counter before rations or tickets run out.

II. Protest

The city is the staging ground for protesting crowds bringing diverse discontents from far afield.

III. Ritual or Celebratory Gatherings

Ritual or celebratory gatherings such as funerals and temple festivals regularly take over city streets, sidelining traffic for a public assertion of communal emotions.

Migrant distress

  • The most pronounced legacy of India’s lockdown is the explosion into public visibility of lakhs of inter-State migrant workers, hitherto hidden inside the urban machinery.
  • Within days of the unplanned lockdown which had entirely ignored their existence, these workers were spilling into the streets of every city — hungry, jobless, abandoned by employers and contractors, desperate to return to their families.

Conclusion

  • The pandemic has sharply exposed the faultlines of urban labour value chains, which valorise individualised work-from-home arrangements at the apex of the system, while treating the mass of physical labouring bodies as problems to be contained and controlled.
  • As cities slowly open up – private vehicles and taxis with limited occupancy are permitted, but safe mass transport arrangements, the economic and social lifeline of cities, are still a far cry.
  • Thus there is an urgent need for an imagination of post-pandemic cities that resists retiring into a closeted isolation that only the privileged can afford.

-Source: The Hindu

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October 2022
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