What Happened To The ‘Superspreaders’ At Nizamuddin Basti?

by | Oct 19, 2020

An account based on observations and conversations from three days of walking around the Nizamuddin basti in Delhi

A popular Bollywood song ‘Kun Faya Kun’ introduced me to the Nizamuddin Dargah in Delhi a few years ago. It remained to be the ‘Kun Faya Kun place’ for me until the controversial Tablighi Jama’at which happened in March 2020. This controversy introduced me to the Nizamuddin Basti, as a concept, an unsettling one, given the kind of Whatsapp forwards I received. The field visit to the basti during the India Fellow induction training, made it a real space with real people for me. 

Tablighi Jama’at’, ‘Covid-19’, ‘Seal down’ and ‘Lockdown’ are all familiar words for every basti dweller today, and this familiarity has probably changed everything for them. While some changes are evident, like young children playing in the park on a weekday morning or the dargah being almost empty, there are many which are not so evident. Not being able to rejoin work during unlock-4 because the person lives in the Nizamuddin basti is an example of the less obvious change. 

Some of my observations and conversations, have allowed me to gain a sense of how things have changed for the community living here, post the seal down and the subsequent nationwide lockdown during the pandemic. These can be categorised into two parts – impact on working adults who probably could not work due to the lockdown, and on children who have not been attending schools due to the pandemic.

Impact on working adults

The presence of dargah has created an economy centred around it, where people sell a range of things – from food to offerings like flowers or incense and cloth. This economy of the basti has a significant share of the Muslim population residing there, who are largely engaged in self employment in some form or the other. This to me was a live example of the readings I had done in college which spoke about India’s minority enclaves in the Indian labour market. This paper by Maitreyi Bordia Das, points out the phenomena of minority communities like Muslims, being pushed away from the formal sector, leading to the formation of minority enclaves. 

Nizamuddin basti is an example of the manifestation of identity-based discrimination in the labour market. The place was shut for almost six months which has severely affected the livelihoods of each person. “I was sitting at home without any work for the last six months and had no money to even ensure two meals for my family during these times” said one of the shopkeepers.

The pandemic has also exposed the harsh reality of how vulnerable the lives of these informal workers are, with lakhs of migrant workers walking back to their villages during the lockdown. While many of the basti dwellers have gone back to their villages, many others who chose to stay back, have been struggling to pay rent, and meet basic needs. Nizamuddin is slowly opening up, but their vulnerability prevails. Auto rickshaw drivers and street vendors I spoke to, shared that their incomes now, are less than half or even one third of what they used to earn before March 2020. 

Vulnerability is rooted in several factors including the complexity of being a minority community. It bothers me. The Nizamuddin basti as a community emerged as India’s biggest covid hotspot a few months ago when the Tablighi Jama’at incident happened, but they soon managed to prevent the spread as official sources show that there have been only 14 positive cases including the four deaths since then. This flattened curve however has not made it to the headlines in mainstream media unlike the jama’at story.

It is this association with the basti being ‘superspreaders’ that has led to loss of jobs among the local dwellers. Does this mean that the impact on the labour market during the pandemic intersects with their identity of being basti dwellers who largely follow Islam? 

What was reassuring in some ways and disturbing also in other ways were the shopkeepers shouting as we entered the gallis, Madam, yahaan chappal rakh lo”, “Madam, gareebon ko khilao” “Madam, dargah khaali haath mat jao. It was reassuring because it symbolised the reopening business, and a restart to their livelihoods. Disturbing because it also echoed their difficult recent past, and reflected the lack of sales, of visitors, of money inflow. 

Nizamuddin, New Delhi - January 03 2020: Street food vendor selling roasted, grilled chicken recipes, chicken tandoori preparations
Picture for representational purpose only

While the noisy colourful lanes with vendors and shops represented the economy, the quieter narrow lanes with women washing utensils and clothes, with children sitting around, represented the families and homes. It is interesting to explore how the lockdown has affected the children as all schools have either shut or shifted to online education.  

Impact on kids

While there might have been kids who were begging or picking rags even before Covid-19, the number of children availing education must have been higher. Since smart phones and an uninterrupted and unlimited internet connection are not affordable options for all, and there are no community learning mechanisms in place, many children have not enrolled themselves anywhere this year. The larger worry is that they might not get enrolled ever again given the pressure to earn, difficulty with catching up and more. 

Based on my interactions with children or their parents, I found out that some of them have arranged for a private tutor or are attending some kind of classes, while another small percentage go to private schools and own a phone to follow online classes. Other children have completely stopped studying. Many of them could be seen either helping out their family with their shops or helping at home with domestic chores.

This is closely related to the discourse on the future of online education in a digitally divided India, and what I saw at the basti gave me a reality check. What the pandemic, lockdown or the Tablighi Jama’at has done to this place, made me question the distancing norms and the celebrated idea of ‘Digital India‘. It reminded me of all the stereotypes, power relationships and inequalities that I was aware of. On the other hand, despite the pandemic having turned the lives of basti dwellers upside down, the smiles on their faces, the warmth with which most of them received us, the hopefulness in their eyes and their faith in Allah remain unchanged.

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