The traffic barriers across Kolkata’s APC Road that straddles Rajabazar are a grim pointer to the co-relation between the slums and the coronavirus pandemic, at once an unavoidable way of life for many and a potentially mortal affliction. So critical is the situation that several slum areas have had to be barricaded, which rules out both ingress and egress without cogent reason.
Exactly a month after the first phase of the lockdown was declared by the Prime Minister, Kolkata now poses a forbidding challenge to the administration. Chief among the reasons is the congestion and its attendant problems ~ the city is dotted with suffocatingly overcrowded slums which showcase a life of squalor amidst the glitzy highrises.
As much was the distressing message from the state’s Chief Secretary on Thursday. The primary regret must be that since March, the city has somehow missed the degree of medical attention that it deserved. More basically, for all the real estate boom, slum development has come a cropper more than 45 years after the Calcutta Metropolitan Development Authority (CMDA) took up the project as a priority initiative.
Covid-19 has reaffirmed that the development of underdevelopment can acquire a dimension that is as disgraceful as it is tragic. Not the least the sprawling slum in Belgachia, that skirts the Metro station and the Central Milk Dairy, and is home to an estimated 30,000 inhabitants. There has been no calibration yet of the percentage of the slum-dwellers afflicted by the dreadful virus, but their number may be substantial, going by a roughand- ready estimate.
The Chief Secretary, Mr Rajiva Sinha, has been suitably forthright to admit that the city alone accounts for “not less than 80 per cent” of the 58 new cases reported over the past 24 hours. Approximately, therefore, 48 of the patients who were diagnosed on Wednesday-Thursday midnight belong to Kolkata, a grim statistic that certifies that the city, like other major metropolises, is almost hopelessly vulnerable.
To the frightful extent indeed that while Covid has to an extent been contained in Howrah and North 24-Parganas, Kolkata poses a major challenge to the government despite being home to the Infectious Diseases Hospital, the Covid-designated MR Bangur Hospital, and the Quarantine Centre further afield in Rajarhat.
At least 145 “containment zones” in the city have been reporting fresh cases over the past fortnight. And given the city’s population density, a larger number of people may be at risk. Indeed, the fairly large number of containment zones would suggest that coronavirus may have spread over a large area. The other factor is that the city has more slums than any other place in West Bengal.
Yet another must be the movement of people, despite the lockdown; it has been higher than in the rural areas. The administration has not been able to address the inbuilt contretemps ~ wilful defiance or indiscipline, if you will. Having said that, the slum-dwellers cannot be blamed entirely; given the squalid living conditions and the absence of work, they do need fresh air.