BlogUrbanisation & COVID19

    Survival infrastructures under COVID-19

    Prof. Ayona Datta

    Geographer, University College London (UCL)

    03. Jun.



    Key Words:

    urban lives
    survival in the city

    Echoes of the past

    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. Winston Churchill, the ‘hero’ of the War noted famously 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 COVID19 which has seen heavy tolls on its poor migrant population. On 24th March, the Indian state announced a lockdown which 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 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 upto 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 survival infrastructures that had supported and sustained migrants in the city so far had completely collapsed.

    © Rohit Madan

    Survival infrastructures

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

    Asha, one of my participants living in a slum resettlement colony in Delhi, called me the other day. She had been working for 4 continuous days in a night shelter in South Delhi. Asha 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. 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. There are reports that supplies of food are overflowing in India during the lockdown, yet they are not reaching the starving migrants coming for food in these shelters. As a single mother separated from her husband, Asha has not met her older child who is living with her in-laws. She was also worried about infecting her elderly mother and her small child. Journey to work each day took upto 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.

    When a city goes into lockdown, its survival infrastructures are crucial for the most vulnerable. Hospitals are arguably the key survival infrastructures of these COVID times, but the food supply chains that feed migrants, the social and economic networks that provide them access to livelihoods, affordable housing that give shelter to migrants are also critical during lockdown. For the migrant, survival infrastructures also include 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. They determine what Steve Graham and Colin MacFarlane (2015) 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 the most basic 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’. Yet life goes on in other parts of the city where families have quickly adjusted to working from home, private schools have begun online classes with young children, vendors service middle-class colonies, ATMs dispense cash, zoom parties can be enjoyed, food can be ordered online and even 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 my participant Asha who remain in the city who are providing basic services and keeping it moving under lockdown. They may be ‘heroes’ who are regularly memorialised with performative rituals of clapping and utensil banging, but crucially they are also human victims who are caught in the crossfire between the virus and the dereliction of state duties towards its most vulnerable citizens.  COVID has taught us something even more profound than the exodus of migrants from the city. COVID has shown us that the migrant worker is the survival infrastructure of the city: Click To Tweet

    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 might still fail to survive if the migrants do not return to keep it all moving smoothly.


    This Blog is published under a CC BY 4.0 license. You are allowed to share and adapt this content under these conditions.

    Ayona is a Professor in Urban Geography in University College London. She has cross cutting expertise in postcolonial urbanism, smart cities, urban futures, and gender citizenship. Ayona was awarded the Busk Medal from the Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) in 2019 for her contributions to the understanding of smart cities through fieldwork.

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    Prof. Dr. Ayona Datta

    Geographer, University College London (UCL)

    Audio Version of this Blog

    This blog post was initially published with the IAS podcast from UCL. You can listen to the podcast here:

    This blog post has also been published by the RGS Blog Geography Directions.

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