Corona Virus December 2019 or COVID-19 for short, has taken over the planet earth, especially the highly urbanized parts of planet earth since December 2019. In India, the news got serious only after March 2020 though – I would say a tad bit delayed; but it is what it is. Soon after 24th March – which happens to be my mother’s birthday- the national government ordered everyone to be in ‘lock down’, inside their respective homes. Every single person in the country was expected to follow this order. Of course, it was not a martial law, but I have a feeling, that this time it was people themselves with their will and their choice, locked themselves inside their houses. Alas, of course, those who had a house. Within less than a week there were news from Delhi that lakhs and lakhs of migrant workers were fleeing the city to go back to their ‘home’ situated hundreds and thousands of kilometers far from Delhi. In the absence of transportation and the fear of life traveling by foot was the last resort. This event was termed as mass ‘exodus’ from the city.
What does it tell us about the state’s imagination or concept of ‘house’ in the city? One thing gets clear. That is, the house which the state imagined everyone to be locked within, isn’t really a house for the millions who chose exodus over the house. This event re-emphasizes two important learnings for architects and urban thinkers 1) there are ‘strong ties’ between economy of the city and the idea of housing – once the this strong tie melts or snaps then, housing is redundant after that point and 2) While housing may be in the city for the millions of migrants, home is still located in the settlement of one’s birth place.
I was once having tea and samosa at a small dairy at Pali Naka, evidently run by a man from Uttar Pradesh on the eve of Holi festival in 2011. I overheard his conversation with an auto-rickshaw driver, who was also having tea and samosa, and what seemed like he was waiting for his share of bhang which the apprentice of the dairy owner was grinding against a stone slab very religiously. In the conversation, the milkman was explaining the rickshaw driver that it was important that they paid respect to the city where they are fortunate to have an occupation. That Mumbai was his ‘karma bhoomi’ (land of work) and U.P. was his ‘janma bhoomi’ (land of birth). This was kind of surprising for me, because although I was working in Mumbai this difference between the land of work and land of birth never occurred to me, to note that Mumbai is my land of work and Belgaum is my place of Birth (technically, Kolhapur. But not important here). Which means without work, there cannot be a ‘land of work’, aka the city and by extension there can be no house.
The idea of house for someone like me in 2012 and many others who had made Mumbai their land of work was as varied as the varied forms of work that the people of the city have to offer. I was living in a P.G. with three men -all middle class and aged between 20s and early 30s. Within the span of a year almost every roommate had been replaced by a new one. By extension, one can only imagine the form of the house that milkman, his apprentice, or the rickshaw driver could be living in. Or, the form of the house of the thousands and thousands wage labors?
Like Shekhar Gupta mentioned, the state was speaking not to everyone when it asked everyone to be locked down ‘inside’ the house, but only to the middle class. The Delhi exodus only showed us that there is no ‘inside’ or no ‘house’ for the lakhs of people. The city was the inside. To push the point further, it only appears that there is no housing at all. The city was the home. In that sense, when the lockdown was imposed and people were expected to be ‘inside’ their homes, the state was not aware of the fact that it was taking away that ‘inside’/house/ city from the millions of urban in-habitants who had entered into a strong tie and made home with their work and life in the city. Nothing can emphasize enough or highlight, in bold, italics, underline and marker, the relationship between the urbanization of the city and the idea of housing than this shocking event of mass exodus of the migrant workers in Delhi. It is crucial that the state reassesses its concept of housing and hence its housing policies.
Learning from History:
About Hundred years ago, in 1898, Mumbai was devasted by a plague. The entry point for the pathogen carrying agent, which were rats in this case, originated from the maritime ports. They soon infected the native towns and especially the urban poor. The response of the city administration was to demolish several of the ‘insanitary’ settlements to cure the city from the plague and provide healthy housing for the displaced households.
Cut to today, COVID-19 by contrast is an airport pandemic and is spread from person to person and fortunately not through rodents -cannot imagine the devastating impacts of that scenario. Since it is an airport pandemic, it is safe to assume that is majorly airport cities, middle class and upper middle-class citizen pandemic which trickled down to the poorer urban population. Does this mean, the state will modify the upper-class housing? Is it possible? If history were to teach us anything about housing responses in such conditions, then it is this. The state will inevitably go ahead and exert its capacities on the settlements of the urban poor. It will cite lack of space, no scope for social distancing, unhygienic and unhealthy living conditions, overcrowding and so on in order to ‘re-design’, ‘rehabilitate’ and ‘resettle’.
With all its drawbacks and delays, it was not a great strategy 100 years ago and one that should not be easily opted for in this situation today. The location of the working out of the pandemic may be somewhere else. It never made sense to burn the city to find a rodent that no one ever saw.
Of course, the apartments exist, the chawls exist, the JJ colonies exist, the slums exist, the non-homes exist. However, life for those lakhs of people was lived between houses, inside the city.
What it shows is that the house and the migrant and in fact even the city and migrant share a ‘strong dependency’ where it is difficult for one to be the same without the other. In other words, as soon as the city was put under lock down this ‘strong dependency’ of the migrant on the cities economy was disrupted and in that moment several ties, tensions or bonds were released from the constellation of things -including the house/ home that the migrant had produced through his / her practice of settling. Delhi is Delhi without the migrants, but the migrants are no longer migrants, but they have become returning-refugees -suspended between the land of birth and the land of work.
Will the COVID-19 reinforce the distinction between city and the countryside?
A New Symbiosis for Architectural Academia
The internet had over the last 3 decades was emerging as the second school of those parts of the world where internet is a normal thing. Millions of people and thousands of organizations have produced internet contents for the world to engage with and learn from. The industrial organizations, geopolitical infrastructures, outer space infrastructures, data farms and clouds, machine learning and artificial intelligence beings and the millions of dazed and inspired internet content producers have really created a larger than world hyper-tool or machinery that is perhaps one of the most active machineries in the world today -perhaps even more infectious than the virus itself.
What then has the virus done to these second schools and more importantly to the physical schools is snapped the ties or at least bruised the everyday practices and routines of the physical institutional spaces. It has offered them an opportunity -an unwilling one and in the guise of constraints and lockdown– to evolve and to make the internet as the first school -at last. Almost all universities have started their courses and terms online. the institutional infrastructure has exploded and settled as star dusts in the form of the rooms and desks, floors and dining tables, laptops of the students and the faculties. The internet has become the hyper-institution.
This also has back aching implications on both the students, the administrators and the faculties – literally. Chairs at home may not be available, comfortable or meant for 8 hour work. The routines of home-keeping consume more time. The coffee breaks and lunch breaks and snack breaks also turn into house cleaning break and cooking break. Besides this, the faculties need to figure out modes of teaching and engaging with students, get used to new technologies and online platforms and so on -especially if you think about the situation the senior faculties who must be struggling to get used to this new form of teaching. The younger faculties – who are fairly acquainted with the geographies, networks, and techniques of working at home- will perhaps sail through this situation better.