Life in a Metro: How Do You Practice Social Distancing in a Mumbai Local?


Life in a Metro: How Do You Practice Social Distancing in a Mumbai Local?

If you’ve followed panic-stricken TV channels and online editorials at the cost of your sleep cycle, you have learned one thing – life after Covid-19 is going to be vastly different. Everyone from a Twitter troll to a news anchor to a politician to Yuval Noah Harari has said it. We are told people will be roaming around in masks, public places will be full of hand sanitisers, and social distancing will be the new normal for a while even after the lockdown is lifted.

I hate to be a spoilsport, but I live in Mumbai, and I have only one polite question to ask: How?

About 7.5 million people take the local train daily to commute in Mumbai, and an additional 2 million take the bus. A majority of the working population takes public transport – heck, even rich folks who know it’ll take two hours by car to get anywhere. I don’t want to brag, but foreign tourists come to Dadar railway station to just take pictures of the crowds that are trying to board a Churchgate local during peak hours. If you’re finding it difficult to visualise, it looks something like this:

Forget a six-feet distance, people are literally standing on top of each other and are so close that they can guess someone’s lunch from their breath. In the local train we’ve introduced a concept called the “fourth seat” even though that bench is only meant for three people to sit. We have unsaid rules around how many people can stand at the door, how many people stand in between two seats, and even how many bags fit in the overhead space. It is acceptable behaviour to board a moving train, beat people on the backs to get the line moving or saying things like “dhakka maro varna jaane nahi milega aage”.

How will we ensure social distancing in a place that doesn’t adhere to the concept of space itself?

There are slum areas in parts of Mumbai, where five or six people stay in a single room, where everyone has to queue up in the morning to visit the public toilet or collect water, which are bare essentials for life. Social distancing is not a need to stay alive, it is a luxury for those people because they’ve not had that opportunity even during routine times. Mumbai is so constrained for space that every inch and millimeter of space is costly: Which is why most houses don’t have any concept of a balcony or a shop will rent out a part of its outside space to another person, like a paanwala or a juicewala.

If you take a drone shot, it is like watching a colony of ants in motion.

How will we stay away from each other when we are, by design, linked so physically close to each other? As Biswapati Sarkar pointed out in a tweet, “Mumbai mein agar har koi 6 ft. social distance maintain karta, toh aadhe log Pune pahunch jate.”

Even our behaviour has been moulded according to this reality. Mumbaikars have tuned their brains in how to walk among crowded places, adjusting pace and distance as hundreds flock out of Kurla station at once. If you take a drone shot, it is like watching a colony of ants in motion. Vegetable vendors on the road are all squeezed together in length and there’s more bonding between two vehicles parked next to each other than among couples in relationships.

What will social distancing look like in Mumbai?

Will office people wear hazmat suits in local trains in the scorching heat of June? Will we stand at a one-hand-distance from each other on the railway station before boarding a train? How will we then casually whisper to someone, “Ye train Vile Parle rukegi kya?” If we maintain distance, civility and follow rules, how will we catch the window seat? Will only one person be seated on each seat in a train or bus? Will we have police officers patrolling how many people enter each coach, like bouncers outside a nightclub?

How will we ensure social distancing in a place that doesn’t adhere to the concept of space itself?

If people are asked to maintain distance in queues to collect water or visit public toilets, will the line be longer than the one at Kedarnath when the darshan opens? Will we get Donald Trump to build a wall between people when eight of them live in a single room? What happens when hundreds of people walk on SV Road in the evening? Will we make use of traffic signals to now control how many people walk in one lane at one time?

Will Ola Share take only one passenger in every car now, which is basically just Ola Micro? Instead of four people on a scooty and six passengers in a rickshaw breaking the law, will we now have to be law-abiding citizens to merely stay alive? How will bikers go to sleep at night, knowing they didn’t park their bike in an area so tiny, one would have to be a yoga expert to get out of it. Will we have to do a Mexican standoff formation in the lift to keep adequate distance from each other?

Mumbai is not ready for social distancing, neither were many countries when the pandemic hit them. But the thing about outbreaks is, it doesn’t leave us with much choice. As a city, we are soon going to understand how difficult those four words are, that teenagers from South Bombay send to their crushes on WhatsApp: “I need some space.”