Inclusive Urbanization amid the COVID-19 Pandemic: Participatory Research Methodology Makes a Difference

Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Arjun Kumar and Nishi Verma

Indian cities with continued colonial and elitist practices of planning and governance have excluded a large population section while accessing services and infrastructure for a decent life. COVID-19 induced lockdown has exposed the vulnerability and distress of migrant labor.

Inclusive growth is necessary for sustainable development and equitable distribution of wealth and prosperity, which is to be complemented with participatory research methodology to make a difference. This was highlighted by Dr Rajesh Tandon, Founder President, Participatory Research in Asia (PRIA), New Delhi, in a talk jointly organized by the Centre for habitat Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS), IMPRI Impact Policy and Research Institute, and Indrastra Global, New York.

Chair, Dr Ramachandran, Former Secretary, Ministry of Urban Affairs, highlighted the major following issues of Indian urbanization:

  • Lack of voice of migrants in the city government schemes where their requirements are not been taken in to consideration.
  • Issue related to slum dwellers which was apparent during handling of the pandemic crisis in the city of Mumbai.
  • Accessibility to healthcare services
  • Issue of a database system to be linked with Municipal Corporations to resolve development related and service delivery issues in situations
  • Issue of total preparedness for such unforeseen outbreaks
_Panelists-Inclusive Urbanization amid the COVID-19 Pandemic: Participatory Research Methodology Makes a Difference

While highlighting illegal colonies in Delhi, Dr Ramachandran noted that only 40 percent of authorized construction and the remaining 60 percent are unauthorized. He raised the need to gather data at local levels to identify poor’ problems and requirements in times of emergencies. The other challenge for the urban governance is to determine if there is a need to convert villages to urban areas for more taxes and increase the struggle for service deliveries. It is a substantial failure of governance to unable to account for informal settlement’s contribution to GDP.

Dr Tandon questioned the understanding of urban habitation. He highlighted the conundrum of whether habitation is city, town or suburban and who are the governing authorities- corporations, municipalities or nagarpanchayats? He opined that gram panchayats are much larger than nagar panchayats but they are excluded from “urban”. A large number of villages are surrounding major cities and provide services to them but are not counted as part of it. They are being called a rural-urban corridor. Thus, this exclusivity is deterring inclusive urbanization.

Further, Dr Tandon noted informal settlements like notified slums, unnotified slums, residing on private, public, defense, and railway lands, along with kacchi and malin bastis. He underlines that inclusive urbanization is restricted to only notified slums irrespective of the existence of other forms of informal settlements.

Though, people living in these unaccounted informal settlements also make economic contributions to the cities. Data suggests 7-15 percent of the country’s GDP is being contributed by people living in informal settlements. He highlighted that people without identity cards were most apprehensive and uncertain during the pandemic induced lockdown.

“We have legal colonies but large portion in our country lives in so called illegal settlements” – Dr Tandon

Thus, inclusivity requires mapping habitations, wards, facilities, and services through the community’s participation. This will serve the purpose of underlining the accessibility to basic services. He further suggests participatory settlement enumerations, household enumerations, sub-group conversations, transact movement tracing. He highlighted that such participatory settlement improvement committees played a vital role in providing necessities to people living in informal settlements.

Identifying the problem of data, he opined that the census is outdated and a third part of the population had been ostracized. Thus, there is a need for capturing the dynamics of urbanization with granular data involving intensive micro-local engagement and fulfill the aim of effective participation.

Prof Chetan Vaidya, Senior Advisor, Kochi Smart City project, emphasized on having a stronger local government. Elucidating his point, he cites an example of Kerala, which has a powerful local government. Schools and health centers are managed by local bodies and 30 percent of the state’s budget is spent on the peoples’ program. There is a parallel existence of women self-help groups called Kudumshri playing an important role in empowering women, skill development, construction, managing shops with effective service deliveries.

The setup of ward-level vigilant committees for the COVID-19 pandemic in Kerala has ensured participation from local members, people, and NGOs. These committees effectively delivered food packets and medicines and traced potential patients. The migrants in Kerala are called ‘guest’ workers and are provided with wheat, recharged sim cards, etc. He exemplified Kalyan Dombivali city having a decentralized ward-level vigilance committee that conducts a 24 hours social web program for people’s micro engagement.

Mr Sameer Unhale, Joint Commissioner, Department of Municipal Administration, Government of Maharashtra, talks about underreporting developments in small cities. He stated that technology is not limited only to smart cities, but efforts are being made in small cities. He exemplified ‘Digi Thane App’ for the city of thane, which played an important role during the pandemic situations with almost 4 crore registered users. Thus it is important to acknowledge the ease with which people are using technology.

He believes in political leadership and its ability to connect with people. Thus, such leadership is required to be harnessed for any disaster management practices and to be strengthened.

Prof Jyoti Chandramani, Director, Symbiosis School of Economics, Pune, recalls the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and Millennium Development goals (MDGs), which talks of inclusive urbanization. The ignorance of census towns and large villages leads to the emergence of unregulated planning, which is an issue. She remarked that data ignores the ground reality. Therefore, planning requires foot soldiers to analyze the researches at the ground level.

Dr Tandon says, “Without effective decentralized government, we cannot talk about citizen participation, but the corollary is also true that citizen participation needs local governance.” He further says that when people are connected through their own agencies in these settlements, they become actors in producing new knowledge and key players in making and claiming rights in the service provided.

While underlining differences in rural and urban components and participation process, he says that participation started from community development days in a rural context. In contrast, in an urban context, participation started recently, followed by the smart cities mission. He says urban development is driven by consultants and suggests that the money should be allocated to urban governments, municipalities to build their own capacities to become sustainable instead of consultants. Thus, making a well-built administrative sector is a way forward to make inclusive urbanization.

“Every block headquarter and every large village should be actually urban node, but the tragedy of urbanization in India is that top 20 cities have 60 percent of the urban population, which is highly decentralized,” says Dr Rajesh Tandon. Dr Ramachandran suggests non-political representation at local levels for inclusive urbanization.

If we have to ensure inclusive and equitable growth, we need to knit and integrate our rural areas into the modern economic processes that are rapidly transforming our country. India cannot be divided into two distinct zones: a modern, competitive, prosperous one and the other a stagnant and backward one. Efforts to achieve inclusive growth should involve combining mutually reinforcing measures, including the promotion of efficient and sustainable economic growth, strengthening capacities, and providing for social safety nets.

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Picture Courtesy: Kutch Mahila Vikas Sanghathan


  • Ritika Gupta

    Ritika Gupta is a senior research assistant at Impact and Policy Research Institute. Her research Interests include Gender Studies, Public Policy and Development, Climate Change and Sustainable Development.

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