Pests, Politics and the City

November 21, 2009

Cities and diseases have an old relationship. The plague did more to improve basic sanitation in European and Asian cities than any other factor. We saw that after the Surat plague. Overnight, one of the most badly managed cities in garbage disposal transformed into a responsible urban settlement, thanks to some right-thinking bureaucrats and political responsibility.

For several million residents of Mumbai, living with dengue, malaria, tuberculosis, typhoid, cholera, jaundice and other illnesses has been part of everyday life. So far, there were invisible firewalls, that managed to keep some guard between areas with none or little civic infrastructure and those with some basic civic infrastructure, however badly managed.
Diseases could be selfishly contained to a small extent.

However, even if Mumbai’s gap between the poorest and the richest neighbourhoods gets wider, there is no guarantee that money could shield anyone from that cunning, tiny, vampire-like beast – the mosquito. A beast that has been mythologised in the literary imagination (The Calcutta Chromosome) as well as by Bollywood (Nana Patekar’s strange song).

The mosquito can enter through the smallest crevices in posh homes, glide into the most expensive, airconditioned cars, to transform perfectly healthy humans into physical wrecks. It does not distinguish its victims on the basis of ethnicity, language or class. Earlier, it used to be only the malarial, evening fear that made us alert. Now, it’s the 24/7 danger caused by the sun-loving, dengue – chikungunya carrying mosquitoes that keep us on our toes all the time. The recent bout of these relatively new entrants into Mumbai’s disease-scape has gotten everyone in a tizzy.

However, like much else in the city, these diseases have already been politicised. Politicians blame it on the overpopulation of the city thanks to ‘migrants’, while administration blames carelessness of housing societies. The BMC complains bitterly against those leaving stagnant water in tanks as open invitations to mosquitoes breeding, while residents blame BMC for not monitoring construction activities.

If anything, the recent spurt of disease can clearly be seen as a collateral damage, thanks to the several construction projects going on – new skyscrapers, roads, flyovers and stadiums. These are large-scale, in-your-face factors that somehow escape the attention of all those still looking for scapegoats in poor migrants and slums.

The fact is that the garbage disposal practices even in the most privileged neighbourhoods, despite being the most efficient in India, comes nowhere close to the needs of a tropical, humid and wet city. We need a combination of basic commonsense and simple science. Understand the way in which mosquitoes breed, deal with garbage disposal sensibly, ensures that large amounts of water do not stagnate or lie uncovered. Do all this with the basic understanding that our climate and dense context need special interventions.

Most importantly, we simply cannot afford to get into a blame game – whether the residents themselves or the easiest scapegoat ‘overpopulation’ or ‘migrants’. Even if Mumbai had one-third of the present population, with our politicians too busy with issues such as vulgarity, no one would be bothered anyway. Never mind that some of the same ones add to the construction blitzkrieg and the pestilence that follows. The blame game would have continued, and we would be still falling prey to the blood-sucking little beasts.

If only all of us were sensible enough to use scientific reason to think issues through, we would be free of dengue, malaria. Of course, also of the biggest disease that afflicts our city the most – mindless, dangerous, divisive politics.