Urban Practice in the post-COVID-19 Era: Towards Innovative Solutions and Participatory Governance

Soumyadip Chattopadhyay and Arjun Kumar

COVID-19 dawned upon us like a nightmare and caught us ill-prepared to face a pandemic of such a massive scale and magnitude. The entire system of governance was rocked to its core and probably the most glaring inadequacy that it exposed was the hollowness of the poorly build structures that run our cities.

Supply systems were chocked, basic necessities were running short and hospitals were working beyond their maximum capacity. The authorities running pillar to post, trying to contain the outbreak and requesting people to remain in their homes. This picture is juxtaposed by an inexplicably large number of migrant labourers took to the road, embarking on an arduous journey back to their hometowns.

These citymakers had no place in cities barely 24 hours after the lockdown was declared. The cities failed to shelter them in times of uncertainty as they were never designed to handle such an eventuality. Even the poor labourers owned no assets in the city to hold them back. The most viable option for them was to pack their bags and set afoot to their villages. This bears out a critical fact about our urban populace, that there exists a widening inequality in the society that has driven a deep wedge between the rich and the poor. The Oxfam report of 2019 on income inequality corroborates this fact and shows that India’s top 1% bag 73% of the country’s wealth!

Keeping these issues in hindsight, it is important to revisit the whole concept of city governance and planning and rectify the mistakes that have resulted in the current failures. On the very outset, it is important to understand that when it comes to a city, both sustainable development and inclusive development are very dialectically linked. Inclusive development is a sine qua non for building sustainable cities.

It is essential to study the inefficiencies in the current model of city building to have a clear picture of how inclusive development can be ushered in. Some of the key issues that deserve immediate attention are:

The Undesirable ‘City Entrepreneur’ Approach

In this context, one of the most notable concern is the change in the way cities are governed. It has evolved from a ‘city manager’ approach to a ‘city entrepreneur’ approach where each city is pitted against one other and every city is expected to be an investment attracting destination. This is highly undesirable considering that most city governments in India hardly have the revenue sources enough to meet their salary payment requisites.

The Inefficiency of the Economic Policy Paradigm

Another aspect is the rampant commercialization of certain elements/urban commons that are highly essential for society. These elements and public utilities which were earlier administered by the city governments or the parastatals is now in the hands of private players. This sort of privatization of the cities has caused the expropriation of a humongous amount of capital surplus from these cities to the private players. The people are robbed of their public assets leading to the creation of inequities. These factors suggest that the economic policy paradigm that is in place is not inclusive.

The Lack of Participatory Governance

An important question to be considered here is, ‘Who is building our cities?’

If you consider cities like Delhi and Mumbai, the developmental activities are carried out by the Delhi Development Authority and the Mumbai Development Authority respectively. These development agencies are often steered by transnational corporation consultants who decide the developmental path to be taken. These parastatal agencies are not elected by the people, are not answerable to the state or the municipalities and have no responsibility w.r.t. urban governance.

Now if you look beyond planning to the actual responsibility of running the cities, an interesting fact that surfaces is that the city governments lack teeth. Studies have shown that out of the 18 subjects under the 12th schedule of the Indian constitution which was created by the 74th CAA, hardly a few have been entrusted on the city governments. This has led to a scenario where the parastatals are running the city and the concept of a participatory form of city development is absent.

How to Make Cities Sustainable and Inclusive?

  • Planning: To build sustainable cities we have to revisit the basics of planning. The Laissez-faire approach needs to be eradicated and the bulwark of planning should be given back to the City governments. The ward sabhas must meet at regular intervals and they should be empowered to deliberate and make plans for city development. And if the urban local bodies lack capacity then essential measures have to be taken to build their capacity. This will ensure a bottom to top approach. 
  • Low-cost solutions: The large capital-intensive technology solutions which are put forth by the transnational corporation consultants must be analysed thoroughly based on their economic feasibility. Very often these solutions are unreasonably costly and would not be sustainable in the long run. Rather what we can go for are easy democratically decentralized solutions that are of an abysmally low cost. Building metro lines which cost 400 crores/km instead of fast bus lanes or widening roads which encourage more people to use cars instead of constructing more pedestrian and cycling paths are a case in point.
  • Increase role of city governments: The city government should have a larger role in the smart solutions of the smart city mission. The ULBs should not be reduced to mere gateways for money transfer from the user to the suppliers. Rather they should be part of the planning and implementation of these solutions. The success of the Greater Shimla Water Supply Circle is an apt example of how the city government can intervene and function towards the larger welfare of the people.
  • The undesirable SPV model: The Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) model of implementing various development projects should be phased out. The SPV model is against the ethos of the 74th amendment and participatory governance.
  • Facilities for migrant labourers: Although there has been a remarkable fall in the labour participation rate post the lockdown induced migrant exodus, the return of migrant labourers to the cities will slowly begin. To avoid any future repetition of such a migrant labourer crisis, cities must plan for adequate rental housing facilities, legalize the temporary settlements, adopt the Kerala model or for that matter the century-old Shimla system of labour hostels. This will ensure that the cities become more inclusive.
  • Permanent cadre for municipal services: The creation of a permanent cadre for municipal services should be deliberated as this will create a much-needed continuum. The scenario now is that we train a few officers for 4-5 years and then if there is a change in the provincial government, there could be a shuffle and the best officers from municipal administration could get transferred elsewhere. This disrupts the smooth functioning of the city governments which spend more time training and less in implementing.
  • Disaster management plan: The pandemic has emboldened the age old demand to revisit the disaster management plan. The current approach where the city Mayor has no significant role to play is not desirable.
  • Revenue augmentation: We have to diversify the revenue sources of the Cities. We need to at least start discussing how we can make them financial empowered. There should be efforts to increase the tax base, rationalize property tax, check pilferage and break the nexus’ that exit. A model where some fraction of the Income-tax generated by the city is returned to the city could be explored like its being done in the Scandinavian countries.
  • Improved accountability: Transparency and accountability are key elements for the inclusive development of any city. The tools like RTI and Citizens charters must be used to achieve these standards.
  • Tackle pollution: Increasing pollution load is a major challenge to the sustainability of cities. The solutions that are in place to tackle pollution are inefficient and ad-hoc. Our policy paradigm encourages people to purchase more cars at a time when automobile emissions are contributing significantly to the carbon footprint of the country. Cities must start asserting to be non-motorized and create wider pedestrian and cycling paths. It should consider subsiding public transport and tax the citizens who use still prefer to travel by cars. Also, the ability of the city governments to enforce the laws and to penalize for default must be augmented.

Cities should not be considered as entrepreneurs or engines of growth. They have to be considered as liveable cities and work cities. Shimla is a classic example of a reverse metamorphosis of urbanization and urban governance. There should be a concerted effort to adopt such a model around the country. Emphasis must be laid on creating participatory governance and the people should own the projects and plans that are conceived for their cities. This will help in building cities which are inclusive and inclusive development will in turn create sustainable cities. 

The above excerpts are from the webinar organized by Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies, Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi and Indrastra Global on Urban Practice in the post-COVID-19 Era: Towards Innovative Solutions and Participatory Governance.


Nikhil Jacob, based in Goa, is a research intern at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi and pursuing post graduate diploma in Environmental Law and Policy from the National Law University, Delhi.

Nafisa Khatoon is a graduate student of public policy and governance, Tata Institute of Social Science, Hyderabad. She is a research intern at IMPRI.

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Featured Image Courtesy: Anand Dhumal from Pixabay