The COVID-19 pandemic’s economic and public health shocks highlighted many long-running issues in India’s urban areas - from unmanaged population density and overcrowded public transportation systems to pollution and lack of sanitation. However, the many predictions during the pandemic about the decline of cities are premature; cities are resilient. They drive India’s growth and will lead its economic recovery. This unique conjuncture of events offers an opportunity to rethink structural inefficiencies in the governance and development of Indian urban areas.
IDFC Institute and the World Economic Forum interviewed Indian and international experts to discuss the future of urban India. They presented key learnings and short to long-term recommendations in seven areas of interventions: Planning, Housing, Transport, Public Health, Environment, Gender, and Vulnerable Populations. This article highlights the key challenges and recommendations that Indian policymakers must keep in mind when reforming urban policies post the pandemic.
Shlomo Angel and Bimal Patel argue that current urban planning policies and practice have led to suboptimal use of land in Indian cities. This has multiple consequences. There is not enough floor space for accommodating migrants in search of economic opportunities; they make space for themselves in informal settlements. There is also not enough land in the public domain for developing adequate open spaces or augmenting infrastructure capacities.
To tackle these existing challenges and make room for future development, both the experts recommended changes in the current planning paradigm:
Reform the planning profession to adopt the right mindset and a better understanding of cities,
Manage the spatial growth of cities and allow them to build more planned road networks for future horizontal expansion and revoke faulty policies that constrain the use of floor space to build vertically.
Richard Green and Sahil Gandhi reminded us that cities are labour markets. The pandemic revealed that the cities’ economies rely on migrant populations in the formal and informal sectors. Workers in both markets move from rural to urban and urban to urban areas as they find better opportunities; they are mobile and need adequate rental options. Today, in most Indian cities, this demand is not met and leads to unaffordable options, pushing the poorer sections out to slums and other informal settlements.
Both the experts agreed on a set of reforms that policymakers must undertake:
Focus on providing public housing for the poor; India can learn from successful models in Singapore or Hong Kong and understand the strategic challenges of other international examples such as Mexico
Enable efficient rental markets
Manage density better to prevent overcrowded and unsafe housing
Indian cities are infamous for their road congestion; three of them rank in the 10 most congested in the world according to the 2020 TomTom Travel Index with Mumbai ranking second. The existing public transportation systems are already overcrowded and of poor quality. Given the critical need for physical distancing post COVID-19, urban planners and scholars Alain Bertaud and Shivanand Swamy argue that both ownership and usage of modes of transport with small footprints , such as private vehicles and scooters, are likely to rise in Indian cities.
To better understand and manage the change in commuting preferences post the pandemic, the experts made separate recommendations:
Data will be key. Frequent data collection by officials on how travel choices of citizens are evolving will be critical to understanding trends, and in turn responding with policies favourable to these emerging commuting preferences.
Encourage innovation based on trends to develop private and shared small footprint vehicles that are fast enough, adapted to local climatic conditions and provide some amount of physical distancing such as minibuses, air‑conditioned electric scooters, etc.
Improve governance of the transportation sector to ensure smooth operations of all services providers, from private sector actors such as Uber or Ola to public agencies
Improve management of the right of ways and rationalise road networks
Integrate formal and informal modes of transportation into holistic transportation strategies to ensure seamless mobility, as well as first and last mile connectivity
4. Public Health
Like other health crises, the COVID-19 pandemic revealed the need to ensure adequate healthcare services and sanitation infrastructure for a healthy population in cities. In the initial months of the outbreak, the focus of health services shifted entirely towards addressing the novel coronavirus, leaving other health issues unaddressed and shutting down routine care services.
To improve public health in Indian cities, Shamika Ravi and Shruti Rajagopalan made complementary recommendations:
Decentralise fiscal powers to the local level and train city authorities so that they can make more strategic decisions in health expenditures or public health infrastructure, as well as gain the capacity to raise their own resources,
Collect real time and new data, such as performance of human resources or quality and availability of equipment, to monitor supply of public health services,
Reinforce primary healthcare services to ensure prevention of future diseases,
Strengthen governance and integrate vulnerable populations who are the most deprived of access to adequate healthcare
Blue skies during the lockdown reminded Indian urban dwellers and policymakers about the impact that air pollution has on their health and well-being. The causes for low air quality are multiple; vehicular movement and on-road congestion are major contributors. A safe and clean environment is key to good public health.
As economic activity has restarted and traffic on the road picks up, Jessica Seddon and Patrick Lamson-Hall suggest that the future strategies for urban development must account for environmental factors. The experts made complementary proposals:
Identify contributors to air pollution, and regulate vehicular movement on the roads to control emissions,
Increase the amount of open spaces in the public domain, maintain them and monitor their use,
Prepare for disasters with robust framework of physical infrastructures, road networks and large open spaces,
Build adequate infrastructure to support the sustainable development of emerging Tier-2 and Tier 3 towns.
Women’s participation in the workforce is crucial for the country’s economic growth, given India’s large population. They need to be safe when commuting to and from work, and access convenient public open spaces in their neighborhoods, protected from any discrimination or violence. Such challenges have increased since the start of the outbreak. Managing work in personal settings could be difficult for women undertaking more domestic responsibilities than men.
Shilpa Phadke, Sameera Khan, Shilpa Ranade and Lizzette Soria Sotelo mentioned principles which can help address gender-related concerns:
Bring in a gender focus in planning to address the central concerns of safety, access and ease of movement by increasing women’s participation in various decision-making groups,
Maintain clean, accessible, public spaces with good lighting where women feel safe,
Address gender equality as a social matter that can be tackled through better communication across spaces.
7. Vulnerable population
In the short term, the economic shock and work from home guidelines changed migration patterns; workers in cities returned to their home towns and villages. Slum dwellers, with limited access to adequate infrastructure, and migrant workers, disenfranchised from social protection systems or daily wagers, were more vulnerable to this shock. In the medium and long term, it is difficult to predict what the job market will be in cities.
As cities recover, Anup Malani and Chinmay Tumbe highlighted a couple of measures that can address the specific needs of the vulnerable:
Develop more systematic identification mechanisms of the urban poor to ameliorate the delivery of public services and social protection,
Collect accurate data on migrant population and capture their socio-economic diversity to better address their needs,
Monitor access to services, housing and jobs of the vulnerable communities in real time,
Secure land tenure to provide safe and affordable housing
Diseases spread in overcrowded spaces and unhygienic transport, streets and homes. Policymakers should aspire to improve the quality of India’s urban environments and not undermine the role that cities play in driving economic development. India is at a stage of development that is crucial; there is still time to take the right decisions and improve the current paradigms.
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