Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Simi Mehta and Arjun Kumar

The Perspective

Symmetric to the global trends, urbanization in India has spread rapidly. This has led to the reordering of urban periphery through complex processes of displacement of central population to the margins and the creation of new functional nodes away from the traditional core. Adaptation to such realities came to a grinding halt when the lethal pandemic coronavirus disease (COVID-19) hit the country. 

As has been evident, people of urban India – especially those living in slums and peri-urban areas are more vulnerable to the rapid spread of COVID-19. This has brought to the fore the importance of the ways in which the city governments are working to combat the spread of the pandemic. There is no denying that the interrelated dimensions of mobility and demographic change, infrastructure and governance influence the preparedness of urban India in the pandemic outbreak management, from disease prevention to mitigation and possible responses. 

Dynamics of Demography in Cities and COVID-19

High population densities in cities are major factors influencing the spread of disease. According to the Census 2011, India experienced a 37.14% decadal growth in the number of slum households with 104 million people living in slums in 2013 (as per the data of Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA)).

Almost 2/3 of statutory towns in India have slums. An overwhelming majority of the families living in the densely populated areas of slums and peri-urban areas are migrant workers who are engaged in urban informal activities characterized by low wages, severe competition, tenuous job security with the need to travel daily to the city core to earn their livelihoods.

Lack of work opportunities during the lockdown period has already forced many of them to return back to their villages. Such a mobility pattern, owing to myriad social and political economic factors, bears the risk of spread of contagious disease to the peripheries. 

This points to the fact that infrastructure development for the benefit of this section of the urban population has not been adequate. A vast majority of the urban population living in slums and peri-urban areas lack access to basic urban services including water, electricity, sanitation and solid waste management and housing facilities.

As per the estimates of the Technical Group on Urban Housing Shortages (2012-17) housing shortages are projected to increase to 34 million by 2022.  According to the National Sample Survey (NSS) (2012), slums are incredibly packed spaces where 3/4 of India’s slum tenements are cramped within 2 hectares (or 0.02 sq. km.).

In such a situation, an outbreak of coronavirus in places with unsafe and precarious living conditions where even the basic preventive measures like social distancing and frequent hand washing are an oxymoron could easily turn into a grave public health emergency. Indeed, an outbreak of contagious diseases is less of a ‘natural’ disaster, but emerges alongside social and spatial inequalities in housing and access to basic services.

Governance Deficits

The deplorable state of urban services is typically attributed to poor financial health and lack of planning, which in turn are linked to weak institutional capacities and the absence of effective governance structures of the Indian cities. The 74th Constitutional Amendment Act (1993) promised to improve the delivery of basic services by devolving resources and decision making powers to local governments.

Political empowerment is weakened by infrequent elections of ULB and most states in India rest the executive authority of the city governments on the state appointed commissioner with the mayor and city councillors having very little authority over the city management, let alone on emergencies like COVID at the city level.

Although, city governments in India are expected to have complete authority to carry out functions including water supply, sanitation, solid waste management, public health and slum improvement, yet the actual devolution of responsibility to the municipalities, even after 25 years of decentralisation, can at best be described as partial. 

State governments control key healthcare infrastructure such as hospitals, clinics, and primary healthcare centres and even these institutions lack human resources, including medical officers and skilled staff. Overlapping institutional roles and responsibilities raises questions as to who should deliver urban basic services and the problems becomes far severe in case of managing and preventing potential outbreaks.

This is very evident in the recent war of words between the Kejriwal government in Delhi and the municipal governments over the inadequate beds in hospitals for the treatment of COVID-19 patients.

Capacity Constraints

Infirm financial health of the ULBs has regressive impact on their capacity to provide basic services. Assignment of finances is completely left to the discretion of the state governments and ULBs can levy and collect only those taxes that are specified by the state governments.

Municipal finances are in a grossly unsatisfactory state as they collect far less revenue than what is necessary to cover even the cost of providing urban basic services, let alone tackling any health emergencies.

Lack of enough number of skilled staff at the ULB level is another major drawback as there is far less emphasis on the institutional capacity of local government. Appropriate institutional capacity enables ULBs to make policy decisions and implement them, in the manner they want, to produce the outcomes they desire.

Building municipal capacity to prepare action plans in advance for better preparedness on the ground, providing emergency response training and improving coordination with other key departments (e.g., National Disaster Response Force) should feature in any urban national policy framework.

The Way Forward

In essence, spatial and structural characteristics of urban India indicates cities, especially slum and the suburbs are likely to remain hotspots for diseases like COVID-19 in the coming months. An ability to monitor rural urban and inter-urban migration will be crucial to mitigate the spread of this disease.

Therefore, it would be useful to plan and implement a slew of short term measures including aggressive and affordable testing, tracing and quarantine infected persons and provision of door-to-door drinking water and mobile toilet facilities to densely populated slum and peri-urban areas. This pandemic also provides an opportunity for genuinely empowering ULBs that should not go waste. 

Cities with well-functioning governance and health infrastructure are better placed to manage pandemics and excess mortality than those that do not. In other words, governance conundrum along with, poor planning and weak health care systems can undermine the efforts to combat the pandemic, and build upon the confusion, fear and panic.

Interestingly, in November 2019, the Global Parliament of Mayors met in Durban and the members committed to develop regional and local networks to advance the dissemination of trusted public health information. They also pledged to promote information sharing and communication measures in and between cities to prevent and reduce the international spread of infectious diseases.

In the medium- and long-term, it is pertinent to identify the lacunae in city planning and the underlying socio-economic determinants of public health and resilient cities. This would help to streamline resource flows to vulnerable areas more effectively.

It is equally important to create a city- level pandemic preparedness index, using details of wards/locality/neighbourhood’s wise vulnerable population and hospital wise beds and ICU capacities. It will serve as an evaluation tool (similar to the Rapid Urban Health Security Assessment (RUHSA) Tool developed by Georgetown University) to assess city-level public health preparedness and response capacities.

It is important to support the city governments to prioritize, strengthen and deploy strategies that promote urban well-being and health security. This pandemic provides a rare opportunity to work in tandem with the ULBs and genuinely empower them to discharge their functions.

Building municipal capacity to prepare action plans in advance for better preparedness on the ground, providing emergency response training and improving coordination with other key departments (e.g., National Disaster Response Force) should feature in any national urban policy framework and has to be necessarily embedded in the Cities of the New India.

About the authors:

Soumyadip IMPRI

Soumyadip Chattopadhyay

Soumyadip Chattopadhyay is an Associate Professor (Economics), Visva Bharati University, Shanti Niketan and a Visiting Senior Fellow at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi.

Simi IMPRI

Simi Mehta

Simi Mehta is CEO & Editorial Director, IMPRI.

This article first appeared in IndraStra Global: Challenges to the Preparedness of India’s Cities to Battle Coronavirus Disease on June 26, 2020 | The Pioneer: Urban India’s Achilles heel on June 26, 2020 | Urbanet: COVID-19: How Prepared is Urban India? on June 24, 2020