ULBs efficiently monitored health services, provided relief and response, and maintained essential services. The “new normal” in the post-COVID world will most visibly manifest in our cities as we wonder how the pandemic will reshape how we live, work and play. Writes O P Agarwal, CEO, WRI India, and Hitesh Vaidya, Director, National Institute of Urban Affairs
The advent of vaccines has given India hope of turning the corner on COVID-19. Even as we move on, it is essential to recognize the role our cities and city governments played in responding to the crisis. The suddenness of the crisis compelled our cities to be at the frontlines of the response. ULBs efficiently monitored health services, provided relief and response, and maintained essential services. The “new normal” in the post-COVID world will most visibly manifest in our cities as we wonder how the pandemic will reshape how we live, work and play.
Surely, it behooves us to look at our cities in the same way we have considered our immunization. As resilient as our cities were during the crisis, they still ail from decades-long malaises; the pandemic only brought them to the forefront. It is not enough to think about resuming operations. A lesson learned from the pandemic was that the cost of inaction in finding urban solutions will be high. It is time to discuss the “vaccines” our cities require; to initiate dialogue, and enable our cities to become “fit for the future” in leading the push towards a $10 trillion economy as well as atmanirbharta.
We saw that during the pandemic, initiatives were planned and implemented by local governments. Convergence with local health departments, among other examples of administrative collaboration and financial straddling, was key to containing casualties. Secondly, data and technology through spatial mapping emerged as key tools in executing effective response. Thirdly, core features of our urban areas provided much-needed relief to citizens: stringent sanitization efforts ensured neighborhoods remained accessible while street spaces helped in implementing social distancing. Citizens were also more proactive, becoming the eyes and ears for local governments.
If our cities can perform admirably under duress, then can they not imbibe these ‘war-time’ lessons into their daily operations? Can they not be made to realize the qualities of heuristic solutioning? To create productive urban spaces that propel India’s economic aspirations, it is necessary that our cities continue to act and find locally relevant solutions for themselves.
Participatory planning must set the agenda for developing robust and resilient infrastructure and service delivery.
In this endeavor, a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. Each city is different and unique in its spatial pattern, economic activity, culture, and ethos. This is the greatness of India’s diversity and must be preserved. Therefore, each city must plan its growth given its uniqueness. This is not to say that our cities do not need intervention across federal levels. Central and State Governments have critical roles to play as facilitators and enablers in the journey of self-discovery of our cities. However, there must be space to accommodate the unique character of each city and allow it to flourish. Often templated solutions can constrain that.
A common thread across these frameworks and our own lessons is the need to premise urban policy for people. We need to plan and manage our cities by considering citizen’s aspirations. Three key policy instruments can be key in operationalizing this people-centric approach: Economic Survey 2020-21; National Infrastructure Pipeline (NIP) 2019-2025; Budget 2021 and Fifteenth Finance Commission Report. If enforced faithfully, these three instruments will not only revitalize our cities but also set us on our way to becoming atmanirbhar.
The four instruments showcase a coherent vision for urban development. While the Economic Survey emphasizes the need to provide access to necessities such as water, sanitation, and clean cooking, the National Infrastructure Pipeline calls for plugging infrastructure gaps and smoothening urbanization by facilitating ease of living. The pipeline considers the need to converge development for the changing demographics, even as it advocates for resilient infrastructure. Within their remit, the Budget pushes for a sharper focus on universal access to water supply, strengthening investment in affordable housing, tackling air pollution and emergent problems in sanitation such as fecal sludge management, wastewater treatment, reduction in single-use plastic, and bio-remediation of legacy dump sites. The 15th Finance Commission also champions creditworthy and sustainable urban local bodies.
While these policy instruments provide a broad framework, it is crucial that they are locally implemented. Without that contextualization, these national mandates may not succeed. Most crucial in this paradigm is the need to strengthen Local Economic Development, i.e. building up economic capacity by delivering basic socio-economic needs. In this, it is essential that freedom is given to ULBs to identify their unique approaches, but towards a common goal. The mixed success of the 74th Amendment is well-documented, and attempts to strengthen this is ongoing. However, it may be practical to direct our energies in building a framework for unified governance that compels stakeholders to ‘co-decide’ on intelligence generated by data-backed evidence. ULBs are well-positioned in building credible urban databases that collect, integrate and govern all services data harmoniously.
We must also shift from normative planning to outcome-oriented planning. Such strategic planning will allow for stronger regional networks that enhance investments and develop spatial strategies that incentivize growth, and design enabling policies for people, production and productivity. We must especially prioritize training the informal sector, and skilling the marginalized sections of urban society.
As we do this, we must leverage the power of innovation in fostering entrepreneurship. This will be the ‘Decade of Action’ for urban reform, and it is imperative to take a creative leapfrog to meet the goals of economy and sustainability. ‘Vocal for local’ highlights precisely this need. Lastly, these localization strategies must be underpinned by an emphasis on sustainability. We must strengthen institutional capacities, promote indigenous technologies, and harmonize the policy environment for action at the city level (e.g. ClimateSmart Cities Assessment Framework).
The first step is to not only build capabilities for new approaches but also to learn new responsibilities and attitudes for urban management. Building local capacity through long-term support, formal training, technical assistance, and employing skilled professionals is essential to institutionalizing change. We need to reclaim the term ‘capacity building by identifying the needs of our ULBs better and bridging the gap between policy and practice. The need of the hour is to strengthen urban project preparation and procurement; enable the raising of financing through markets, and monitor performance better.
For all this to be actioned, professionals need to see careers in local government as attractive propositions. City management needs resources with strong fundamentals and a willingness to learn. We need to revisit the curriculum of our schools and professional institutions in order to equip a future cadre with the domain knowledge needed to build and manage, cities for the new normal.
COVID-19 has permanently altered the landscape of our cities. At the same time as we reflect on its aftermath and uncertainty, India is undergoing a massive urban transformation. Building development models around self-reliance may be the way to go in this new normal. An atmanirbhar India¾buttressed by the five pillars of the economy, infrastructure, system, demography, and demand¾will only be realized if Indian cities are productive. There can be no doubt that a self-reliant India will emerge from self-reliant cities. Recognizing the potential of our cities is not just an economic necessity; our cities are indispensable nodes in an increasingly interconnected social order. They are the battlegrounds for the fight against climate change. Clearly, the way forward lies in reimagining the ability of our cities to alchemize growth.