The pattern of spread of covid-19, showcases that cities worldwide have been kingpin in unfurling the virus and some of the most dense urban and semi-urban areas have suffered the worst hit. It would be interesting to note the amount of lessons that this pandemic would bring us in terms of our cities and their structure, public health care systems, decentralisation of powers and responsibilities etc.
Prominent global attestations hint towards the vulnerabilities of the urban areas around the world in context of the sweeping infection of covid-19. If one is to observe the pattern of spread of the coronavirus, it would be difficult to deny that cities across the globe have played a major role in its unfurling. Be it New York, Lombardy, Madrid, London, Berlin, or even Mumbai or New Delhi; some of the most dense urban and semi-urban areas have suffered the worst hit. Even though the Indian administration has been quite successful in containing the spread of the deadly virus, to a large extent, the challenges that lie before urban India vis-à-vis the rife of covid-19 are no less.
As per the reports and estimations made by urban mavens, more than half of the world population is living in urban areas and this ratio is only going to increase further. There is no doubt that ‘urban’ is stretching, all around. And hence, it becomes all the more important to understand the coping mechanism of contemporary urbanism which already has a lot of complicated characteristics and is marked by sharp inequalities- as has been horrifyingly brought out by the current crisis that we face. This is neither the first nor last crisis that the world is facing. There have been life wrecking spread of infections before which have brought about fundamental changes in the city structure- examples of the spread of plague in Bengaluru in 1898 or the Surat plague of 1994 – are all reminders of the excellent steps undertaken by the governments to transform their urban centres to be better equipped to deal with unforeseen circumstances. Similarly, the question arises if covid-19 is going to change the face of our cities fundamentally? Unique times call for unique measures but, are these measures going to benefit our urban centres in the longer run?
The idea behind urbanism is that, urban centres are the platform for opportunities, interactions, mobility- of humans and of goods and services, exchange of information, ideas etc. Nevertheless, the lockdowns are not proving to be of utmost help and has exposed some of the darkest aspect of urban India. Hundreds of thousands of migrant labourers who are a part of our cities were left stranded. With the relaxations brought about by the lockdown 4.0, number of infected cases are on a rapid rise. Also, the already dreadful condition of people living in urban slums with shanty housings and cheek-by-jowl spaces for living, along with limited access to water, low level sanitation and poverty - adds to the gruesome picture. In these circumstances, the concept of social distancing, self-isolation, frequent hand washing, and other quarantine protocols appears to be a mockery. Inequalities that permeate in Indian urban society have added a further layer of complexity in responding to the pandemic.
By far, the underlining problem that is being portrayed is- the density of Indian population. Albeit, as mentioned above, practicing the protocols of quarantine is almost impossible, especially in places such as Dharavi (Mumbai), with a population density of at least 200,000 people per square kilometre! But, it has a lot to do with infrastructural deficits in such neighbourhoods which are serving as a platform for the virus to spread further. Families living in slums, informal settlements and shanty towns of our cities, lack basic sanitation facilities to protect themselves and are dependent on poorly maintained community toilets and have limited access to water that too from shared community taps. Also, the government-built slum rehabilitation projects have poorly ventilated housing structure which might also promote the risk of spread of the virus. This has led to a palpable fear amongst the middle and upper class urban dwellers living in adjacent localities of slum settlements.
Urbanisation in the future shall not be judged solely on the basis of their infrastructure, economic advancements, magnificent architectural value, wholesome public spaces, their unique heritage or cultural legacies but, also on the grounds of their responsiveness towards citizens, especially in unprecedented times like these. So far, barring a few cases, city level responses in India have been largely invisible. This is so because of the dependency of the city administration on the State/ National directives. Local governments are the immediate interface between citizen and administration. This was the motive behind the enactment of 74th Constitutional Amendment Act (CAA) of 1992- which was meant for the empowerment of urban local bodies with decentralised decision making powers and it mandated citizen’s engagement in city administration. It been 28 years since the passing of the 74th CAA but, the urban local governments still have a long way to go. Both the state and the central governments have done little to devolve critical powers to the third tier and they still rely on the higher levels of government for funds and crucial decisions in connection to key issues of cities. While union finance commissions have, every now and then, increased budgetary allocations for urban local bodies and the centre initiated urban development programmes such as the JNNURM, Smart Cities Mission, AMRUT, PMAY, HRIDAY etc., such support without proper delegation of decision-making powers goes only halfway in advancement of our cities. Also, over the years, the continued failure of urban administration has led to a general lack of trust amongst urban dwellers. In these trying times, it becomes even more important that a paradigm of trust-based approach is introduced where citizens and local governments could collaborate and come up with citizen-centric solutions to problems rather than government-centric actions.
Views expressed are author's own who could be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org