Lessons for urban governance futures from the pandemic

Published on Jul 27, 2021 01:25 PM IST

The study has been authored by S Dasgupta and others.

The pandemic has highlighted one of the most crucial vulnerabilities of the Indian economy; its large informal sector, the state of the labours engaged and their living conditions.(AP)
The pandemic has highlighted one of the most crucial vulnerabilities of the Indian economy; its large informal sector, the state of the labours engaged and their living conditions.(AP)
ByCentre for Policy Research

The outbreak of Covid-19 and the associated lockdowns have exacerbated pre-existing vulnerabilities of marginalised groups living in Indian cities/towns, including workers engaged in the informal sector as well urban poor living in congested and overcrowded informal settlements with inadequate housing and limited access to water, sanitation and health facilities – all of which are essential to reduce chances of getting infected with the virus.

This study aims to document specific vulnerabilities of the urban poor in the context of past pandemics, as well as during Covid-19, in order to craft specific urban planning recommendations to build greater resilience in cities in South Asia, in general and India, in particular.

The study envisaged assessing the intersection between urban policy, planning and pandemics adopting an inter-disciplinary conceptual framework and methodology. The intersection between urban planning and pandemics was researched under five main themes: Public Spaces; Housing and Slums; Water, Sanitation, and Hygiene; Public Health including clinical care; and Livelihoods and Social Protection. The impact of Covid-19 on these themes, in an urban context, was analysed at the global, South Asia, and specifically at India level.

Given that much of the focus of local governments has been on sectors such as housing and slums; water and sanitation, and maintaining public spaces, the subjects of urban planning, public health including clinical care, livelihoods and social protection of urban workers, remain largely neglected at the local level – these inadequacies in our planning and governance systems came to the fore during the Covid-19 pandemic. This study has attempted to link them to the conception of urban planning, which points to future directions by highlighting the limitations of the current institutional arrangements and capacities around urban planning in India.

The study followed a mixed-methods approach, including primary and secondary research methodologies. A detailed secondary literature review was undertaken to understand how earlier pandemics have shaped the form and processes across the themes mentioned above. A global timeline of public policy interventions in response to pandemics has been documented as part of this research. The literature review was undertaken at three levels – global, South Asian and four select countries of India, Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Nepal. For each of these, “Country Profiles” were prepared, enabling cross country comparisons on response to Covid-19.

Further, under the current study, an innovative tool – the Press Scan Analysis – was undertaken based on the press coverage from January to September 2020. The Press Scan entailed coverage of 387,484 and 7,003 sources at the global and India level respectively. It helped generate a total reach of 62 billion articles at the following levels – global, South Asia (including India, Myanmar, Bangladesh & Nepal), five Indian cities (Delhi, Pune, Bangalore, Bhubaneswar and Bhilai) and six towns (Malerkotla, Jhansi, Lingasugur, Ajmer, Dhenkanal and Muzzafarpur) along with Dhaka, Yangon and Kathmandu. The Press Scan Analysis helped garner information about perceptions and critical issues discussed in multiple geographies through media reporting on Covid-19.

The primary research covered 11 cities/towns selected to ensure representation of various geographical regions, different size classes of urban settlements (large, medium, small), varying densities and diverse nature of economic activities. The primary data collection was done using structured questionnaires administered to Key Informants, such as representatives from the government, Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), Community Based Organisations (CBOs) and communities. A total of 158 Key Informant Interviews (KIIs) were conducted across 11 cities. Additionally, four expert interviews were conducted in other cities to complement the KIIs.

On analysing the primary evidence from the KIIs alongside the findings of the press scan and secondary literature, three broad themes; a) building urban resilience through integrated planning b) attenuate formal/informal categories to universalise access and c) enable legal reforms and revisit governance responsibilities, scales and interfaces, were identified as basic principles for reforming urban governance in India. “Resilient” is defined as the capacity of an urban system to withstand shocks and to continue to function efficiently despite it. An integrated approach to the planning of urban centres is critical for building resilience. Such an approach must have spatial/physical, social and economic planning as its cornerstones. Cities and towns need to be encouraged and supported to adopt a dynamic, spatial planning perspective, a paradigm shift from the static land-use planning approach currently being practised in India, alongside taking into cognisance the social realities in cities and building resilient economies. The existing shreds of evidence from earlier epidemics/ pandemics with zoonotic diseases originating from wet markets, spatial plans must make provisions for the clear separation of wet markets in Indian cities as a strategy to combat zoonotic diseases at these 10 potential sites of origin and early spread. Besides, cities must also ensure adequate provision of safe transportation services and encourage shifts towards Non-Motorised Transport (NMT), which have been observed during the Covid-19 pandemic. There is a need to encourage such shifts by making adequate infrastructure provisions for walking and cycling, even if these trends remain common only among a particular section of society. Transport systems must also be resilient to future pandemics by putting in place safety and hygiene protocols and encouraging safe practices among users. Adequate provision of open and green spaces will enable citizens to have better mental health and experience well-being. The pandemic exposed the inadequacies of India’s public health systems which are underfunded, ill-equipped and understaffed. The Government of India (GoI), through the ministry of health and family welfare, must ensure that adequate investments are made to bolster the public health care system, including infrastructure, human resources along with capacities, to ensure continuity of services even during a public health emergency, with a particular focus on the vulnerable and marginalised communities. Urban health programmes such as National Urban Health Mission (NUHM) also need to be revisited to ensure that public health services are available to the vulnerable and marginalised communities, especially during emergencies such as Covid-19.

The pandemic has highlighted one of the most crucial vulnerabilities of the Indian economy; its large informal sector, the state of the labours engaged and their living conditions. There is an urgent need to strengthen labour laws and do away with any scope for compromising labour rights even on the pretext of the economy's resurrection. Also, informal sector workers (including migrant workers) need to access the available social security schemes, and thus adequate awareness needs to be generated among potential beneficiaries. Street vendors emerged as a group that was severely affected by the lockdown. In order to ensure resilience, special provisions must be made for street vendors, including the provision of street vending zones and natural markets, integrating safety and hygiene practices in these markets and ensuring access to welfare and credit schemes. The biggest crisis in India's lockdown was the large exodus of migrant workers, who found themselves without a house and income, and thus had to walk or cycle back to their villages. The crisis brought to light the living conditions of the migrant workers and the need to augment rental housing for them in Indian cities. Rental housing is vital for migrants because it allows them mobility for better economic opportunities without significant costs. Further, universal access to adequate housing and water and sanitation services, a long-standing commitment of GoI under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, has gained greater importance in the current pandemic and must be prioritised.

Any attempts to make urban centres resilient in the face of public health emergencies such as Covid-19 would require reform of the existing legal framework about public health emergencies and disaster management. India’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic was backed by invoking the Epidemic Act, 1897 and the Disaster Management Act, 2005. The Epidemic Act, 1897 is pre-colonial legislation that has outdated its scope to deal with compelling situations like the ones being faced during the Covid-19 pandemic. There is, thus, an urgent need to promulgate legislation on Public Health for the prevention, control and management of epidemics. Further, while the Disaster Management Act, 2005 provides a framework for institutional response in case of disasters is, it defines the roles of different tiers of government quite clearly albeit at times very rigidly. However, this framework does not provide adequate authority to local governments for anchoring local level responses. The experience, during the current pandemic, has been that urban local governments have played a key role in leading the response, including the setting up of relief camps/shelters for migrants, establishing quarantine and treatment centres, implementing safety measures and ensuring uninterrupted delivery of essential services such as water, sanitation, solid and liquid waste management, among others. Being institutions of local governance, with an area of jurisdiction that is closest to the ground, the involvement of local governments in public health emergency response is critical and must be suitably incorporated in any public health emergency-related legislation. Besides, there is a need to strengthen the Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR) Framework to ensure better cognisance of the current social realities, including specific provisions for zoonotic diseases.

Given Smart Cities’ experience, which could leverage recently augmented mapping and spatial analytics capacities for disease surveillance and monitoring, the scope for using the available infrastructure, should be expanded to planning and welfare-oriented tasks. Such learnings may also be used to provide the required digital infrastructure in other cities and towns and build capacities for managing the same. Enhancing the use of such systems beyond disease surveillance to welfare-oriented tasks must also be ensured. There is a need to revisit the Data Protection Bill, 2019 to integrate adequate safeguards ensuring the right to privacy when data is collected during a public health emergency. There is a need to expand engagement with the fourth tier of government, i.e. CBOs (Self Help Groups and Slum Dwellers Associations), to ensure a truly relevant and timely response enabling opportunities for localised action and innovation. The Frontline Workers (FLWs) shouldered additional responsibilities as they were the first line of response from the government during Covid-19, especially for the vulnerable communities. This presented them with an extremely challenging situation that demanded additional working hours without supplementary remuneration and increased their risk of exposure to the disease itself only demanded additional working hours without supplementary remuneration but also increased their risk of exposure to the disease itself. There is a need to ensure that the potential risks facing FLWs are reduced, their skills and capacities strengthened (for conducting door-to-door surveys, reading data and maps, and using digital technologies) and making them more aware of the insurance and social security schemes available for them.

This research study has documented and analysed systemic challenges that urban governance in India will need to address in the future. The study will serve as an important resource not only for researchers, CSOs, Non-Governmental Organisations and donor partners working on similar issues but also for government agencies in India at various levels of national, state and local. The findings from this research has identified policy and programmatic agendas for government agencies that can guide carving out a national agenda focused on building resilient urban centres particularly keeping the vulnerable and marginalised communities at the centre.

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(The study has been authored by S Dasgupta and others)

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