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Re-Form: Lessons for Urban Governance Futures from the Pandemic

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Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Arjun Kumar

The COVID-19 pandemic has hit the countries of the world alike but within the countries, there has been a disproportionate impact on the basis of socio-economic inequalities, especially in the urban areas. Given this, the government intervenes to correct the disparities. The structure of the government and its response becomes a topic for debate. Keeping in line with this, the Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies, IMPRI organized a web policy talk on Re-Form: Lesson for Urban Governance Futures from the Pandemic under the State of Cities #CityConversations series.

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Infrastructure and Institutions

Dr. Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Associate Professor, Viswa-Bharati, Santiniketan; Senior Fellow, IMPRI began the policy talk with a brief background of the conversation series. He highlighted that the COVID-19 pandemic had exacerbated the already widening spatial, social, and economic inequalities in the urban areas. The pandemic made clear that its impact would depend on gender relations, health infrastructure, income levels, access to basic facilities such as transportation, clean water, sanitation, etc., and local government institutions.

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Urban-Rural Divide

Prof Santosh Mehrotra, Professor (Rtd) Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi; Former Director, Institute of Applied Manpower Research (IAMR), Niti Aayog (Formerly Planning Commission) began the lecture by pointing at the rising inequality in the country. Highlighting that the Gini coefficient of India was already comparable to other highly unequal countries such as South Africa, what made the entire situation worrisome was that India also housed the highest number of poor people in the world. The K-shaped recovery that the Indian economy was suffering from had two implications: first, the rural-urban divide was poised to increase now that reverse migration had set in motion the problem of rural joblessness and, second, the organized sector of the economy had shown considerable resilience leading to a sharp divide between the organized and unorganized sectors of the economy.

Apart from the economic divide driving the urban-rural dichotomy, Prof Mehrotra also brought to notice the educational performance of the two spatial areas.

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Recommendations for Public Health

Dr. Shubhagato Dasgupta, Senior Fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi began his talk by pointing those urban spaces that evolved in the backdrop of pandemics and other disasters that ravaged the world, especially the European countries in the 19th century. With the discovery of vaccines and antibiotics in the 20th to deal with infectious diseases and pandemics, urban planning became a secondary tool to tackle the pandemic disaster.

Dr. Dasgupta presented a global overview of the topics that dominated the global and local media outlets. He showed that in smaller cities public health was a big issue.

Building on the primary research conducted by Dr Dasgupta and his team at the Centre for Policy Research, several issues came up during discussions in key informant interviews (KII). Following a brief description of the issues, Dr Dasgupta also highlighted the recommendations to overcome them.

The issues and recommendations to overcome them were as follows:

Recommendation 1: BUILD URBAN RESILIENCE THROUGH INTEGRATED PLANNING to tackle issues of

  • regulation of wet markets
  • open and green space
  • intra and inter-city transport
  • build business continuity,
  • health infrastructure expansion and,
  • strategic planning with focus on smaller and secondary towns

Recommendation 2: ATTENUATE FORMAL VS INFORMAL CATEGORIES TO UNIVERSALIZE ACCESS for issues relating to

  • non-negotiable aspect in labour laws
  • social security (for the unorganized sector and street vendors)
  • augment rental housing
  • slum upgrading

Recommendation 3: ENABLE LEGAL AND GOVERNANCE RESPONSES to tackle issues pertaining to

  •  front-line workers: inclusion, insurance and social security
  • fourth tier of governance
  • open governance and data-driven decision making
  • legislative reforms on public health emergency strengthen the Disaster Risk Reduction framework
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Planning Framework

Prof Souvanic Roy, Professor, Department of Architecture, Town and Regional Planning; Founder-Director, School of Ecology, Infrastructure and Human Settlement Management, Indian Institute of Engineering Science and Technology (IIEST), Shibpur began his discussion by distinguishing between overcrowding and high-density localities.  Prof Roy cited the example of neighborhoods in New York City to explain the point that, Manhattan with a high density, had a low rate of infection compared to Brooklyn.

Second, he pointed towards the difference in building typologies and how their construction and ventilation systems play a crucial role in spreading the virus.  Third, when community networks and the physical structure such as anganwadis and schools work together, they provide the perfect weapon to combat spatial-based problems.

As a suggestion, Prof Roy stated that it is imperative for Indian planning to adopt a multi-dimensional overview of public assets. It would enable the conversion of single-use assets and put them into use during national disasters, thus helping governing bodies overcome resource constraints.

As an afterthought, Prof Roy pondered the need to change the globalization narrative of “cities as growth engines”.

Prof Roy instead suggested the need to make cities more socially cohesive and disaster resilient.

He shared that of all the statutory towns and cities in India, only 25% of them have developed any governance plans. Further, of these quarter of plans, only 40% of the recommendations were carried forward. Hence, he suggested the need to generate a framework of starting/beginner points for cities.

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Whole-of-Government Approach

Mr. Tikender Panwar, Former Deputy Mayor, Shimla highlighted the structural frameworks of laissez-faire and neo-liberalism, where city affairs have been relegated to the private sector. Such systemic adoption of policies led to a total collapse of the public health infrastructure and its inability to cope with a national disaster.

Briefly mentioning issues on the need to strengthen public health infrastructure and promote the urban commons, Mr Panwar brought forth local area governance issues. He highlighted that while the centralized structure of the PM-CM-DM was adequately involved in disaster management, city-level councils and mayors were hardly part of these processes. The creation of City Disaster Management Action Plans and the involvement of ward-level councillors and citizens were inevitable to fight off a national level disaster.

As a concluding remark, Mr. Panwar suggested the need to create a National Urban Commission that would help incorporate paradigmatic changes that have taken place over the years. Second, he highlighted the need for a fourth list to help city-level local bodies act decisively and plan accordingly. This suggestion came in the backdrop of the inability of the state governments to devolve more than four subjects to local level bodies.

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Informal Settlements

Ms. Sayli Mankikar,  Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), Mumbai began her discussion by highlighting that issues that were considered peripheral in the pre-COVID period had finally occupied center-stage. Highlighting that slums were not homogenous settlements, she stated that the pandemic had allowed urban policy-makers to differentiate, define and re-define the requirements of people that inhabit informal settlements. These redefinitions would help provide a rationale for the varied types of social safety nets that shall cover an informal settlement.

Ms. Sayli alluded to the need to ramp up city finances considering that property taxes, the only stable source of local body finance, had dried up during the pandemic.

Parastatal institutions like Development Authorities have often overpowered local bodies and overtaken their responsibilities.

Sameer Unhale

The Bureaucratic Perspective

Mr. Sameer Unhale, Joint Commission, Department of Municipal Administration, Government of Maharashtra noted that legislative frameworks such as the Disaster Management Act 2005, Epidemic Diseases Act 1897, and other provisions in the Indian Penal Code and Criminal Procedural Code had provided the country with the necessary legislative framework to deal with disasters.

Second, he pointed that, within the executive, mid-level officers and functionaries played an essential role in overseeing preparations and policy implementation. Politically independent and well-trained bureaucracy can help in effectively managing disasters. Technology can help policy and decision-makers take timely decisions on a real-time basis.

Third, Mr. Unhale highlighted the irresponsibility of media coverage. Instances of mass hysteria created due to media reportage brought problems for the local administration in how to deal with them. Lastly, Mr. Unhale accepted that mass infrastructure such as bridges and highways overtook priorities of public health infrastructure such as primary health centers (PHCs). He also highlighted, that unfortunately, district administration continues to remain the “apple of the eye”. Even though municipal commissioners play a more significant role than district administration in city governance, they have remained alienated from the Disaster Management Act of 2005.

Concluding Remarks and Q & A:

In his concluding remarks, Prof. Mehrotra highlighted that Indian cities had developed horizontally, as urban sprawls rather than vertically. He was surprised at Prof Roy’s statistics that only a quarter of the city administrations had prepared any development plans.

His second point was about the fact that data on city-level governance parameters are very much in existence.

As part of his third point, he briefly remarked decentralization ought to be the mode of governance in India. In such a context of decentralization and lack of municipal finances, Prof Mehrotra raised the question: of why the fifteenth finance commission had not enabled the municipalities to raise the necessary resources to undertake the delivery of constitutionally decentralized subjects.

He remarked that unlike most understood interpretations of China, the country had a much-sophisticated decentralized system than India. Citing the example of health, Prof Mehrotra stated that of all the public health expenditure in China, town and county councils incurred more than 50% of the share. Comparatively, Indian local bodies’ expenditure as a percentage of total public health expenditure was 5% or less.

Dr. Dasgupta highlighted how the policy talk provided a platform to discuss a wide range of issues that plague city governance: from neo-liberalism to economy to the environment. Dr. Dasgupta stated that the present phase of urbanization in independent India could easily trace itself back to colonial times. That was when the colonial revenue officers extracted as much revenue with the single purpose of filling the coffers at the central offices located in Delhi. Given that the fifteenth finance commission had tied municipal finances in top-down criteria showcased that municipal bodies were increasingly subject to Union ministerial reviews.

In the design of city spheres, Dr. Dasgupta remarked that his study had not yet been able to link decentralized transport systems and housing design with the spread of the COVID 19 pandemic. Using data accurately and efficiently would be one of the positive outcomes that arise out of the pandemic.

In his concluding remarks, Prof. Souvanic Roy highlighted that every state was learning from the lessons of other neighboring states of the need to re-orient their governance and economic structures. Further, there is a need to disseminate these learnings and ensure that policies evolve to make cities more resilient and inclusive.

Mr. Unhale remarked that capacity-building in the arena of disaster management needs to be strengthened. Further, there is a need to make communities the central focus point in policy-making especially, those around disaster management.

Dr. Chattopadhyay concluded the session by stating three takeaways: the regional impact of COVID 19 called for differentiated response; provision of minimum services would remain the key to tackle current and future pandemics and; strengthening the capacity of local bodies and actors is crucial to ensure sustainability and resilience of cities.

Acknowledgement: Ria Mohal is a Research Intern at IMPRI

YouTube Video for Re-Form: Lessons for Urban Governance Futures from the Pandemic

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