Urbanization, Covid-19 and Collective Action Among the Urban Poor in India

Kala Seetharam Sridhar,

Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore, India

Covid-19 has put the spotlight on our cities which are characterized by high population density, and have become hotspots for this reason. In Indian states, there is a positive correlation of 0.43 between urbanization and Covid prevalence. Given the effects of density on spreading of the pandemic, unsurprisingly, there is a positive correlation of 0.48 between the percentage of slum households and Covid prevalence in Indian states, and a negative correlation of -0.21 between parks (open spaces) in cities and Covid per lakh population. There is also a positive correlation of 0.36 between urban primacy and Covid prevalence for Indian states.

With the pandemic, Resident Welfare Associations (RWAs) have become independent units of governance at the city level in India. Hence with respect to the urban poor, in an attempt to understand their collective action, we examine the determinants of membership in RWAs, their income and likelihood of voting in municipal elections, based on reported evidence from two south Indian cities—Bengaluru and Chennai.

Here are our research questions:

  1. What are the socio-economic determinants of Covid-19 at the all India level? We have strong reasons to suspect that urbanization rate, income, density, gender, workforce participation and literacy rate impact the incidence of Covid-19.

  2. What are the determinants of collective action by the urban poor, i.e., of membership in RWAs and neighbourhood associations, and likelihood of voting in municipal elections?

We find based on regressions at the district level, taking data from all Indian districts, that urbanization leads to increased Covid prevalence; higher population leads to higher prevalence of the virus. Higher workforce participation also is a cause of higher Covid prevalence, as this implies higher economic activity. We find richer districts are more likely to be aware of the debilitating effects of the virus, hence characterized by lower prevalence of the same, consistent with our expectations, although the magnitude of their effect is small.

With respect to collective action among the urban poor, based on evidence reported in Sridhar and Reddy (2014a) for Bengaluru and Sridhar and Reddy (2014b) for Chennai, demographic characteristics such as age and gender have ambiguous effects on the urban poor’s membership in associations, but salary status, higher income and migrant status lead to membership in neighborhood associations in both the cities. Further, the older, relatively higher income, poor women and members in neighborhood associations voted in municipal elections; migrants did not vote, as they are statutorily prohibited from voting currently. The most interesting finding is that beneficiaries of government programs did not vote in municipal elections, in both the cities.

Applying these results to the Covid-19 context, we conclude that the salaried and those with higher income among the urban poor are more amenable to collective action during the pandemic. On a somewhat different plane, migrants are not eligible to vote in local elections, but they may be prone to collective action. These results somewhat confirm the story from the observed collective action during the pandemic in Bengaluru.