An Additional Anathema for Indian Cities

Soumyadip Chattopadhyay and Arjun Kumar

“Cities form a very essential part of the economic, social, and political life of any progressing country and can sometimes be seen as a proxy of the growth and development of a nation. There’s also no denying the fact that the establishment of cities and the process of urbanization provide a crucial thrust to the engine of growth of any economy, due to the vast network and density of economic activities that take place within them. Despite the marked necessity of cities, they’re frequently on the receiving end of accusations about destroying the environment, disrupting natural balance, and harming the cultural fabric of any society. These accusations then in some ways lead to a neglect of cities in policy formulations and discussions. It is not that these accusations don’t have any truth to them, but seeing cities only through these lenses will provide a myopic and reductive understanding of urban life and the potential it holds in addressing important economic problems.” said Prof Kala S Sreedhar in a webinar organized by Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS), Impact and Policy Research Institute and Indrastra Global on An Additional Anathema for Our Cities and Policy Directions.

Kala Sridhar #CityConversations with Dr Soumyadip Chattopadhyay

Cities are again brought back to the limelight, not only because of the wide prevalence of the COVID disease in them but also because of the role it can play in stabilizing a post pandemic life. Prof Sreedhar talked of the anathema that existed before the pandemic and the additional anathema of COVID that had plagued cities in particular and the lessons and policy directions moving forward.

Cities are a major contributor to the economic growth and development of a county, owing to their high contribution to GDP and a more productive labor force. From the census data, there is evidence to believe that a positive relationship exists between urbanization and GDP per capita. India has an urbanization rate of close to 31% and the rate of growth of urbanization has been very slow and gradual. Despite the low rate of urbanization, India has a per capita GDP much higher than its counterparts with similar rates of urbanization.

She highlighted the restrictive definition of ‘urban’ in the census dictionary of India. Three separate criterion about absolute population, population density, and labor force participation have to be satisfied simultaneously for a place to be called urban. Most countries around the world only use one of these criteria or a combination of two, and hence display higher rates of urbanization. Using state-level data, if we use only absolute population criterion then India would be close to 51% urban, and based only on population density criterion India would be closed to 69% urban.

She addressed, time to commute to work as one of the major pre COVID anathema for Indian cities. The reason why economists and urban planners need to be concerned about time to commute because it affects the city’s effective labor market. It refers to the number of jobs accessible within a certain commute. Whereas the nominal labor market refers to the total number of jobs in the city. In the interest of the economic efficiency of the city, the effective labor market teaches us that the shorter the distance to work, the more efficient a city will be. Any progressing city needs to minimize the distance to work and the cost of travel to maintain its efficiency.

According to data from multiple studies and household surveys, the commute time in Bangalore has increased over the years, hence leading to a reduction in the effective labor market for the city. Although there is a dearth of data on the commute times, Census publishes the transport data, which is indicative of the large usage of public transport as a mode of commute to work in all major cities. It is only natural to anticipate that the post covid scenario will be different from this due to the difficulty of maintaining social distancing in public transports and hence a rise in private modes of transportation can be observed. This presents a challenge as well as an opportunity for the urban policymakers and planners to try and reduce the effective commute time and hence attempt to increase the efficiency of the cities.

Another pre COVID anathema for cities was the costs incurred due to congestion. There are fuel costs as well as time costs that should concern the economists. In Kolkata, the value of time lost due to congestion on some major roads in the city go as high as 16000 rupees a day. Aggregating the annual costs for all roads in a city can prove to be a huge financial opportunity cost, and hence require the necessary attention and policy address. Another study done on city level data presents that there exists a negative correlation between the proportion of open spaces in a city and the percentage of carbon emissions.

The post COVID scenario in cities presents some interesting findings. Although no corner of the country has been unaffected by the pandemic directly or indirectly, there is substantive reasoning to argue that COVID is essentially an urban phenomenon and hence has affected the city life and economy severely. Firstly, the lockdowns and halting of economic activity were much more prevalent in the cities than in rural areas. Secondly, state-wise COVID data shows that there exists a positive significant relationship of 0.43 between urbanization and the prevalence of COVID. Urban primacy, is a phenomenon where a single city accounts for a disproportionate urban population of the state. A statistical study exhibits that a positive relationship of 0.36 exists between urban primacy and COVID prevalence. This happens because high urban primacy is associated with high congestion and hence high population density, which makes it easier for the virus to travel.

A regression analysis on district-level data on the determinants of COVID prevalence presents that per capita income has a positive significant relationship with high COVID prevalence, possibly because of the higher rates of sociability of higher-income people. Workforce participation, rate of urbanization, and population density, all three being high in cities, have a positive significant relationship with COVID prevalence, hence displaying the precarious state at which the cities are during a pandemic.  A positive relationship also exists between the percentage of slum households and COVID prevalence, which is another cause of concern in the post COVID scenario. A very interesting finding is that as the proportion of parks in a city increases, the prevalence of COVID decreases, which once again reiterates the importance of open spaces in densely populated cities.

Considering that the coronavirus originated from a vet market in Wuhan, there’s an urgent need to manage our domestic market spaces better. It’s shocking that despite the role cities play, there’s a lot of neglect in terms of collection and publication of data about multiple important aggregates of the cities. Hence, this gap needs to be restored going forward which will then prove significant for formulating more evidence-based policies. In the interest of efficiency, equity, and sustainability, employers should encourage work from home despite the organizational constraints. There is need to focus on creating smaller cities to relieve the pressure of urban primacy on larger cities. Open spaces and parks need to be increased. Regardless of the speculation of shrinking of cities in a post COVID world, they will continue to be a fundamental part of economic progress, owing to the large informal workforce who inhabit these spaces and migration being a long-run phenomenon, and hence will continue to exist.

Acknowledgements: Sarthak Singhal is a research intern at IMPRI.

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