3 pressing urban problems Indian cities must solve in the post-COVID recovery

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Suchi Kedia, Community Specialist, Regional Agenda – India and South Asia, World Economic Forum & Kadambari Shah, Senior Associate, IDFC Institute & Harshita Agrawal, Associate, IDFC Institute

• The pandemic revealed how Indian cities dependent on those working in the informal economy.

• There are three critical shortcomings in Indian city apparatus holding back improvements for such people.

• Women are one group particularly affected by lack of progress on urban inequity.

India’s vulnerable urban populations – including low-income migrants and slum dwellers, and women – face persistent challenges in everyday life. When the novel coronavirus struck cities, their plight became visible in a way it rarely had before. The pandemic also revealed the extent of Indian cities’ dependence on the informal economy, which is predominantly fuelled by their vulnerable populations.

The onset of COVID-19 exposed three critical gaps in India’s city apparatus: poor infrastructure/service delivery; lack of data for informed policy-making; and vulnerable groups’ lack of agency despite their role in economic growth. Existing inequities also worsened the economic, social and psychological hardships of women who suffered from the burden of increased unpaid domestic and care work, and grappled with gender-based violence. As we move into the post-pandemic world, it is critical for this crisis to be an impetus for city authorities to rectify these problems and foster a more inclusive society.

First, though cities are India’s economic powerhouses, by and large they perform unsatisfactorily on metrics of service delivery and infrastructure development. In the early days of the pandemic-induced lockdown, 10+ people often shared a single room in slums and did not have adequate access to water. Social distancing and frequent handwashing thus became difficult in these areas. Moreover, with greater numbers of people using the facilities, slum resources were stretched thin. It is no surprise that in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, a study by Patranabis et al (2020) showed that most infection hotspots were either in or situated near informal settlements. Due to abject living conditions, residents of these slums are also prey to additional health burdens, including respiratory and lung illnesses, which further magnified the damaging impact of the pandemic. This experience underlines the importance of revising archaic regulations and market-constraining policies, such as zoning and low caps on Floor Space Index (FSI), and provisioning affordable housing for all.

Second, lack of data meant that schemes to help vulnerable groups suffered from poor targeting. Apart from limited census numbers on low-income migrants, official information on this population segment is almost non-existent; in the past, researchers used proxies such as railway data to gauge the movement of people. Similarly, multiple studies confirm that the pandemic has led to a disproportionate fall in the labour participation rate (FLPR) of women in the country. In 2020, India’s FLPR plummeted to below 25%. Moreover, since most economically active women are employed informally in low-paid sectors, such as agriculture, they are not included in official labour statistics and the exact extent of the pandemic’s effect on them cannot be known. Inadequate data leads to misrepresentation of the public services required in cities, thereby reducing their accessibility. Since several migrants vote in their hometowns, they are classified as natives of those places, depriving them of the claims that city residents are entitled to, including food rations and other benefits. When urban spaces became the loci of COVID-19 contagion, arranging buses/trains to ferry migrants back to their hometowns proved to be problematic due to this insufficiency of data. Consequently, migrants walked hundreds of kilometres to their villages. Collecting and using data on migrants and slum-dwellers for better policy-making can go a long way in ensuring higher standards of living for them.

Third, though cities thrive because of low-income migrants, the fact that about 65% of them work in the informal sector means that they do not have much agency in matters that affect them. Pre-pandemic, these migrants served food in restaurants, drove cars for the wealthy, and performed menial tasks in office buildings. During the pandemic, they formed a bulk of “essential workers”, such as food delivery people and vegetable-sellers. These are vital functions. But schemes for them are designed solely from an elite perspective; as a result, the issues faced by marginalized sections of the population continue. Further, the urban poor are not really seen as “poor”, which traditionally holds rural connotations in India. Hence, they possess few social safety nets. It is only recently that the policy needle shifted towards conceptualizing an urban unemployment subsidy, akin to the rural Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, with slum-dwellers as key beneficiaries. Involving slum occupants in decision-making processes can boost economic growth and quality of life.

Women are another vulnerable section of cities’ populations lacking much agency. They also contribute to keeping urban spaces ticking, but are largely not involved in policy-making processes. Their challenges too were revealed by the pandemic. For instance, research confirms that Indian women/girls contribute 3.26 billion hours of unpaid labour daily, amounting to INR19 trillion of the economy per year; this rose during the pandemic. With several slum households having only one smartphone, thousands of girls had to temporarily or permanently drop out of school due to household responsibilities, or male preference for education. Similarly, rates of domestic violence spiked, and women were seen waiting for hours to fetch water. The impact of these ripple effects, stemming from women’s lack of agency, will likely be severe. Hence, along with vulnerable urban groups, improving conditions for city women demand urgent attention.

It is evident that the vulnerable face the brunt of crises. Policy-makers can adopt a number of measures to ramp up public service delivery and land reform, enhance data collection/use, and involve marginalized groups in decision-making.

One, governments should endeavour to enhance accessibility to public services, including running water and waste management/sanitation systems, in slums. Two, to build more affordable housing, instead of zoning (designating land for residential, commercial and industrial use), mixed land use must be allowed, and FSI (the amount of floor area permitted to be built on a given plot of land) needs to be increased, especially in city centres. Expanding cities vertically can help slum-dwellers move to formal housing. Three, to measure the extent of the problems faced by informal populations, data is imperative. The recent One Nation One Ration Card programme launched by the Indian government will be instrumental in creating a directory of not just migrant labour, but also the services they can avail in urban areas; moreover, it can be linked to other datasets of property registration, rental agreements and employment.

Similarly, to close the gender gap in the labour force and to counter the disproportionate long-term effect the pandemic is expected to have on women, authorities in India need to collect and use gender-specific labour data for policy-making. Finally, to plug the gaps faced by marginalized groups, they need to be part of the conversation and inform decisions that affect their lives. Further, with a gendered approach to policy-making, issues that women face can be incorporated into urban planning and governance. While these recommendations are known in principle, the reasons behind their lack of implementation need to be tackled.

What’s the World Economic Forum doing about the future of cities?

Cities represent humanity’s greatest achievements – and greatest challenges. From inequality to air pollution, poorly designed cities are feeling the strain as 68% of humanity is predicted to live in urban areas by 2050.

The World Economic Forum supports a number of projects designed to make cities cleaner, greener and more inclusive.

These include hosting the Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization, which gathers bright ideas from around the world to inspire city leaders, and running the Future of Urban Development and Services initiative. The latter focuses on how themes such as the circular economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be harnessed to create better cities. To shed light on the housing crisis, the Forum has produced the report Making Affordable Housing a Reality in Cities.

COVID-19 laid bare the long-standing predicament of vulnerable urban populations. As vaccines are rolled out and India inches back to normality, the repercussions of the pandemic must be addressed for safer and more welcoming cities.

the sting Milestones

Featured Stings

Can we feed everyone without unleashing disaster? Read on

These campaigners want to give a quarter of the UK back to nature

How to build a more resilient and inclusive global system

Stopping antimicrobial resistance would cost just USD 2 per person a year

UN chief welcomes South Sudan’s Unity government, lauds parties for ‘significant achievement’

With lifelong learning, you too can join the digital workplace

Legendary Harlem Globetrotters slam-dunk at the UN, with message that brings families, nations together

German stock market is not affected by the Greek debt revolution while Athens is running out of time

A Europe that delivers: EU citizens expect more EU level action in future

Ukraine: Temperatures plunge amid rising humanitarian needs

How to talk about climate change: 5 tips from the front lines

This Canadian start-up turns millions of chopsticks into sustainable furniture

OECD Secretary-General Gurría welcomes announcement of new trade agreement between the US, Mexico and Canada

How tech is helping the agriculture sector curb carbon emissions

2019 data on official development aid & online discussion of ODA’s role in the Covid-19 crisis

Spanish vote – bad luck for Greece: Does Iphigenia need to be sacrificed for favourable winds to blow in Eurozone?

How three US cities are using data to end homelessness

MEPs want to ensure sufficient funding for Connecting Europe’s future

Post-Brexit muddled times: the resignation of UK’s top ambassador and Theresa May’s vague plans

Re-open EU: Commission launches a website to safely resume travelling and tourism in the EU

How to make primary healthcare a favourable career choice for medical students: strategies and reflections

Eastern Partnership: Commission proposes new policy objectives for beyond 2020

What if big-tech companies became non-profits?

South Sudan: UN rights experts see little headway on peace deal amid spike in local-level violence

UN official sees ‘unprecedented opportunities’ to make progress on peace in Afghanistan

Commission supports reform projects in Member States for more jobs and sustainable growth

Polish de facto ban on abortion puts women’s lives at risk, says Parliament

Mobile health technology: Advances, Facilitations and Promotion of Autonomy

Road injuries leading cause of death for the young, despite safety gains: UN report

State aid: Commission approves up to €4 billion French measure to recapitalise Air France

Iran: UN rights chief ‘deeply disturbed’ by continuing executions of juvenile offenders

This afternoon Britain will be once more isolated from mainland Europe

MEPs want ambitious funding for cross-border projects to connect people

EU’s guidelines on net neutrality see the light although grey areas do remain

Why South Africa is on a path of economic renewal

Built by a woman: supporting the dreams of mum entrepreneurs

Texting is a daily source of stress for 1/3 of people – are you one of them?

Pandemic versus fear

A breath of fresh air: How three disused industrial areas became beautiful parks

Will the French let Macron destroy their party political system?

Pro-EU forces won a 70% triumph in the European elections

Norway has successfully enforced its foreign bribery laws but faces potential obstacles

EU is not only obsessed with Facebook but also blaims now innocent websites using social plugins to serve democratic dialogues?

Right-wing “sovranism” harm national identity

EU revengefully shows no mercy to Cameron by demanding a fast and sloppy Brexit now

What wealth managers can learn from family dynamics

How global food safety protects the planet and begins on the farm

OECD: Mind the financial gap that lies ahead

Why collaboration will be key to creating the workforce of the future

Green Deal: How MEPs wish to channel EU investment to sustainable activities

VW emissions scandal: While U.S. car owners are vindicated, Europe still unable to change its laws and protect its consumers

If on a summer’s night: is UK businesses’ “new deal” the only key to the “best of all worlds”?

The needs, challenges and power dynamics of refugee resettlement

A jingoistic Spanish ‘war’ from the past

Euro celebrates its 20th birthday

Students & Allies Unite Globally To Launch #Students_Against_COVID

This team of Saudi women designed an award-winning app to make the Hajj safer

Here’s how we get businesses to harmonize on climate change

Forty-two countries adopt new OECD Principles on Artificial Intelligence

No more lead in PVC to protect public health, say MEPs

‘Multiplicity’ of rights violations in Ukraine as fifth winter of conflict bites

5G: How a ‘legion of robots’ could help save the rhino

It’s Trump’s anti-globalization and inward-looking rhetoric that perturbs GOP and US

‘No shortcuts to a healthier world’: WHO chief sets out health priorities for the decade

More Stings?

Speak your Mind Here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s