oval maidan

The novel corona virus has infected more than 100,000 people in India. WHO has declared the virus to be pandemic. But pandemics have always been anti-urban. Coronavirus undermines the most basic notions of the urban life that is the idea of ‘public’. It undermines the idea of shared spaces- one shouldn’t be coming out in large numbers. One shouldn’t be accessing common spaces. There is a restriction on any form of social gathering.

Social distancing is definitely important and it will flatten the curve of coronavirus. But having said that we also need to discuss the social cost and pain of social distancing. National crisis often leads to depoliticization of politics and very few are willing to discuss the complexities of acts like social distancing.

The basic idea of social distancing is to avoid public spaces. But, one of the significant aspects of the urban life are its public spaces. Sociologists understand public spaces in the urban as a physical void that lets different histories and social processes unfold within their realms.  Public spaces are socially constructed. They aren’t passive or given, people actively create public spaces just as spaces create them. Different people consume these spaces differently based on the individual male, female, old, young, privileged, able-bodied etc. Thus, the idea of a public space in the urban has been rooted in our everyday experiences.

According to Sharon Zukin, New York based Urban Sociologist, public spaces are often carefully designed and constructed as it forms an important component of a city’s symbolic economy. Gardens, parks, maidans, public toilets, bus stands, railway platforms, malls, cafes, restaurants, cinema hall etc are the common public places in a city. Architect Michael Kimmelman in New York times says “social distancing, not only runs up against our fundamental desire to interact, but also against the way we have built our cities”. For instance-, you need to access the public transport to get to your work, you spend your leisurely time in parks and garden, you need to access the vegetable market to buy every day groceries. He further rightly asserts “for many urban systems to work properly, density is the goal, not the enemy”.

Many people assert that public spaces will be replaced by digitized spaces.  We have already started witnessing how technology and the digital interactions it provides are changing our basic notion of a space. According to Manuel Castells, Information technology has begun delinking the realm of human activity. Globally people seem on the verge of creating digitized public spaces. But If cities are built on the idea of shared spaces, which upholds the fundamental desire of community living, can then digitized public spaces be able to replace this? And if yes, to what extent? Similarly, spatial manifestations have taken place around certain cultural performances, experiences, histories etc, can digitized spaces capture these manifestations? Or will the digitized public spaces perpetuate a practice of ahistorical and acultural manifestation of spaces?

Informal settlements are very important aspect of the urban spaces. In the informal settlements a digitized public space remains a distant dream. Around 412 million people in India live in the slums in urban areas. The community outbreak of the coronavirus has begun in highly and densely populated cities in the country. With poor living conditions and a hand to mouth living, for a large section of the urban society social distancing and self-quarantine remains nothing but a myth.

Daily wage laborer, homeless people, and many such social groups can’t afford to lock down themselves. Also, where would they lock down themselves? on the streets? on the platforms? can they even claim a legit private space to lock down themselves? For millions in India the public spaces in cities have always been their homes.

In India the COVID-19 crisis may soon reach its maximum threshold. But the stark inequalities like the differential access to resources like healthcare have already started to become visible. The idea of social distancing seems to be working in the cities of countries like America and China but in the cities of countries like India it seems like a privilege, a luxury which only a few can afford.

 Madhura Sawant completed M.Phil from Tata Institute of Social Sciences and  currently working as an Assistant Professor at ILS Law College, Pune.



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