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In covid-19, Indian cities finally have a chance to reform themselves

Work-from-home (WFH) or hybrid-work models cut commute to offices, and create the need for slightly bigger houses that are cheaper in city outskirts.Premium
Work-from-home (WFH) or hybrid-work models cut commute to offices, and create the need for slightly bigger houses that are cheaper in city outskirts.

  • Remote work is pushing city-dwellers towards the suburbs into more spacious houses, even as once-betrayed migrant workers return to seek integration again. By exposing the vulnerability and inequity of city life, the pandemic demands a rethink of urban spaces—with more inclusivity and resilience

For 18 months, India’s most promising urban centres have been hotbeds of the devastation caused by the covid-19 pandemic. City-dwellers were caught off-guard: dense infection-prone settlements and pitiful health facilities, migrant exoduses and fragile social security nets, all laid bare grim realities. Can Indian cities, as in past pandemics, take the lessons?

By 2030, four of every 10 Indians will be living in urban areas, the UN’s World Cities Report said last year. But India’s cities seem grossly underprepared. In the first pandemic year, they slid down a global Smart City Index of 109 cities prepared by the Institute for Management Development. All four contenders—Hyderabad, Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru—lagged across indicators such as sanitation, safety, public transport, green spaces, employment, and local governance.

Each of those indicators needs redressal—by chance or by design—to mitigate future crises and to prepare for a more urban India. The world has enough precedent: past pandemics famously reshaped cities, from a sewer redesign and the cleaning of the Thames after a cholera outbreak in the 1850s London, to an architectural redesign after tuberculosis battered New York City a few decades later. Bubonic plague in the late 1890s led to the beginning of planning in present-day Mumbai.

The latest crisis offers Indian policy-makers a chance to catapult cities to a new regime of planning and infrastructure that is inclusive as well as resilient to disasters. As the UN report noted, “sustainable urbanization" will be essential to the global effort to “build back better" from the pandemic’s setback.

WFH Revolution

One key element of planning a more urban India will be how people live, and some change is already under way on that front. Work-from-home (WFH) or hybrid-work models cut commute to offices, and create the need for slightly bigger houses that are cheaper in city outskirts.

Consequently, 60% of new house launches in Indian metros were in the peripheries, not the centre, compared to 51% before the pandemic, a June report from Anarock Property Consulting said. The report noted increased demand for 2.5-, 3.5- and 4.5-BHK (bedroom, hall, kitchen) flats.

Large US cities have also observed the “doughnut effect", or hollowing out of the centre after the pandemic. But in India, such impact may be limited: while it could result in “self-contained living within townships", a hollowing out is unlikely as Indian city centres comprise various kinds of economy, not just businesses, said Amita Bhide, a professor at Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

Source: ANAROCK Property Consulting
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Source: ANAROCK Property Consulting

Land vs People

More city-dwellers may now prefer the suburbs, but the spreading-out of Indian cities is not entirely new. In Mumbai, the core has lost population over the past decade, while the larger metropolitan region has gained, led by cities such as Thane, said Mumbai University economist Abhay Pethe.

But data suggests such growth has been suboptimal, with land consumption growing faster than the population. This reflects in a horizontal, instead of vertical, spreading. While this causes the growth of urban sprawl and harms the environment, it also leaves less per capita space, which can make fighting infectious diseases like covid-19 tougher.

Well-connected street networks facilitate rapid movement of people and goods during emergencies. Open spaces don’t just add to cities’ vibrancy in normal times but can also be useful for relief and shelter activities during crises. It makes it critical for the expansion in high-demand peripheries to be planned better.

Improving Amenities

One of the pandemic’s damning consequences was the uneven impact on the poor, who faced the double whammy of joblessness and poor social security. Domestic help and construction labourers, largely living in unauthorized settlements without basic amenities, need attention if cities have to be more inclusive and sensitive.

All migrants who had left will eventually return as cities offer more money, and when they do, cities need to find ways to retain them to avert future labour shortages in times of crisis, said Anant Maringanti, director at Hyderabad Urban Labs.

This will need better policies, such as Telangana’s draft rules mandating employers to submit details of migrant workers, which could at least ensure they are counted. The Centre, too, after a rap from the judiciary, has started a database for unorganized-sector workers.

But beyond just counting the poor, we must also ensure improved social infrastructure— housing, hygiene, and electricity—for them. Greater integration, not just our labour needs, must be the aim.

Tauseef Shahidi
Tauseef Shahidi has been with Mint since September 2020. He writes both data-based stories and longform features across beats. As he could not make up his mind to pursue one discipline, he became a journalist to dabble in everything.
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