Maharashtra: An unlock plan for Mumbai

Published : August 04, 2020 22:01 IST

People walk along the sea-facing promenade at Marine Drive in Mumbai in June. Photo: Mitesh Bhuvad/PTI

Officials chart out an ambitious plan to revive commercial activity in the city but put the onus on citizens to behave responsibly for a successful return to normalcy.

Mumbai is cautiously emerging from what everyone hopes is the worst of the COVID-19 days.

There is a sense of being in limbo right now. The usual indicators of normalcy in the city are its busy commercial activity, the overwhelming presence of public transport such as local trains, the BEST buses, the black-and-yellow taxis and autorickshaws, and people everywhere. While the city is more active now than it was in the last three months, the vibrancy of daily life is yet to return.

Shops and markets are open but poorly patronised. Offices are working with skeletal staff, so the morning and evening rush hours, another sign of normalcy, do not exist. Public transport runs virtually empty and only a few of Mumbai’s ubiquitous taxis are plying because most of the drivers, who hail from the northern States, have gone home.

On August 3, Municipal Commissioner I.S. Chahal, allowed all shops to be open every day. Restaurants are expected to be next on the list, but if the current trend is anything to go by, business will continue to be slow because eating out has been replaced by home deliveries of orders.

A survey carried out in April by the information technology company Capgemini said: "Over 46 per cent of Indian consumers will shop at physical retail stores compared to 59 per cent before the pandemic." The online experience was so good that 78 per cent of Indian consumers said in the survey that they would increase digital purchases even after the crisis was over.

Recreational shopping is now almost non-existent. Online ordering has possibly changed that forever, although the shopping experience that malls offer, with their restaurants and cinema halls, is expected to see a slow revival since a day at the mall is an outing for many families.

Even the traffic is an indicator of the dominance of the online world, with more than the usual number of delivery vehicles on the roads. Public transport is yet to open up completely. The BEST buses and local trains are running but only at a quarter of their total strength.

The government is now focussed on reviving commercial activity, but it will have to go beyond giving permission to reopen establishments.

This has forced the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC) to devise an ambitious revival plan that involves carrying out city-wide random testing for antibodies to check how many people have been exposed to the virus. The plan is still at the discussion stage. It is hoped that once it is implemented, the results will generate a COVID map of the city and help officials in planning a strategy for the final unlocking of the city.

Such a map will be crucial in deciding the routes of public transport, the opening of businesses such as malls and whether offices can operate with more staff.

A sero-survey in three wards showed that 57 per cent of the people living in slums had antibodies for the SARS-CoV-2 virus. A similar survey, if carried out city-wide, can help in planning a return to normalcy.

Officials told Frontline that the government can only provide a broad framework of guidelines; the onus is on the public. But how ready are the people for this? The general mood among people is a combination of lingering fear and rebellious frustration.

The frustration is being handled by people moving out of their homes more than necessary. For instance, Marine Drive in south Mumbai is a favourite location for residents. Every evening it is packed with walkers and joggers. Controlling the crowds is the job of the Marine Drive Police Station, whose policemen try and persuade the people, many of whom do not wear masks, that although restrictions have been eased, life is yet to return to normal.

Unsurprisingly, a large number of policemen in this station contracted the infection. In fact, this police station recorded the second highest number of cases, 43, and two deaths. The highest number of cases, 46, was in J.J. Police Station, also in an area with a high population density and where people regularly defied the lockdown.

The Aurangabad bench of the Bombay High Court commented on the duty of citizens on April 8. While disposing of a public interest litigation (PIL) petition on migrant workers and health workers Justice Prasanna B. Varale said: "In my opinion, this is the right time to remind ourselves of the fundamental duties of the citizen. Quite often, the citizens show serious concern about fundamental rights but then forget the fundamental duties."

He noted that while the government was issuing directives to prevent congregations and ordering people to wear masks and practise physical distancing, there were numerous instances when these rules were breached.

A BMC official whom Frontline spoke to said: "There is bound to be another wave of infections. We all expect it but there’s nothing that we can do about it."

He said that Mumbaikars had behaved with "exemplary patience" until now and that he understood the frustrations of "enforced home stay", but added that there was no option but for people to "evolve new lifestyles, at least for the near future".

He said: "This is a worldwide thing. All governments will have to open up but it’s on the understanding that citizens will take over and develop their own personal lockdowns." The onus of life returning to normal seems to be on the citizens.

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