Why is social distancing an elite idea for India?

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News regarding the spread of coronavirus has stormed through the internet, newspapers and news channels for the past few days. The proliferation of the virus, which initiated from China, took just a few days to spread across the entire world, including India. Several precautionary measures are have been taken to prevent the spread, social distancing being the most prominent and effective one. 

Post the lockdown imposed in India; there have been several reporting of instances where people have been crowding the market, roads localities, and religious spots. The news channels and social media is full of photos, videos and news reporting of Anand Vihar where thousands of people had gathered together to go back home.  

The government and media are playing its role in spreading awareness regarding the importance of social isolation. The police are also playing their part in enforcing such segregation. Despite these concerted attempts to discipline the crowd and make them follow social isolation, it is essential to comprehend that why are people still there coming out on the streets? Are they not aware enough? Do they not fear being infected by the virus? Do they not fear the spread of the virus to the entire community? If they are informed about the characteristics and implication of COVID-19, how is it that they are still on the road?

To understand this scenario of non-conformity, we need to understand the population and the socialization of such community. India is a country with 1.35 billion people and a density of 455 people per square km. A look at Census 2011 data, the population density of some of the major states in India stands as high as 11,320 for Delhi, 9258 for Chandigarh, 2547 for Puducherry, 1106 for Bihar, 1028 for West Bengal etc. The figures for density is only an average representation, and there is enormous interstate variation within clusters. 

Similarly, if we look at the data on slums, urban slums form an essential part of the urban settlement and is housed by a large number of people, most of them being the migrant workers. These are the people who live away from home, and any situation of precarity or insecurity automatically drives them towards home. That’s the underlying human tendency. 

To understand the reluctance of Indians in following social distancing, the socialization pattern of majority of Indians needs to be understood. Indian population, as we know, is embedded in the idea of society. The norm of a society dictates over the law, in most of the cases. Societal standards of interaction and behavioural pattern very often overshadows laws enacted to guide the behaviour of an individual. 

Society in itself acts as a regulatory mechanism. If a community considers law to be of utmost importance, linking directly to their visible benefit, it will direct the individual to react positively and abide by the law. 

In the case of Corona pandemic, it is difficult for people to form a consensus regarding the sensitivity of the issue where the virus is not visible, or the direct implication is yet to be visible for masses at large. 

And hence the abstract nature of the issue guides the societal consensus towards non-conformity.

Adding to this, Indians also habituated of being comfortable with massive crowds around them. Indian laws, in general, seem to be quite lax in terms of capping the maximum limit for crowding a place; be it overloading in public buses, overloading in Indian railways, overcrowded markets. 

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The normalcy around the idea of ‘overpopulated spaces’, has been passed on from one generation to others. The term ‘social isolation’ or ‘social distancing’ is both alien as well as non-functional. Many daily wage labourers are sharing a single room, families with several members living together, several students sharing a separate room apartment, dismantle and re-create the ideas surrounding ‘overcrowding’, where isolation is not feasible. 

Lack of or absence of public services is a breeding ground for accumulating a large group of the population at one place. With the uneven distribution of point of access to essentials or inadequate sanitation and drinking water facilities, forces people to be a part of the crowd to gain access to certain goods or services. The pattern somehow legitimizes the action of being engulfed within a group of people and hence, non-conformity of social isolation follows. 

Another thing to ponder upon is the architecture of the jhuggis or bedas. With non-confirming boundaries providing a clear demarcation of home and public space, the entire lane is assumed to be home with people swamped across different parts of the road which looks as comfortable as a person sitting in different rooms in a duplex. 

All these provide an alternate reality of ‘not-so-posh’ armpit colonies of metro cities and many other towns and villages at large. Amidst this idea of socialization and acculturation, the idea of ‘social distancing’ is too elite to be effectively followed by a multitude of population. 

A government has a lot to invest, in terms of time and resources to frame the idea of ‘decent’ space. However, the current situation demands a quick solution which can probably be brought out by mapping the overcrowded pockets in different localities and initiate frequent patrolling in such areas. In the long-run government has to play more significant roles. 

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