It is more vital today to talk about urban policy than ever before since the COVID-19 pandemic is most active in cities. The congestion that plagues large cities has turned out to be their worst enemy during this crisis.
This congestion is most evident in slums in large cities and poses a grave health and environmental challenge. The risk of contagious diseases is more potent in these areas as residents also suffer from a lack of basic services such as safe drinking water and sanitation. To ask them to navigate congestion and practise social distancing seems most ironic. It is no surprise then that many slums in Mumbai and Delhi have become COVID-19 containment zones. Unfortunately, the Swachh Bharat Mission has disregarded the gravity of the sanitation and hygiene crisis in cities — the Centre’s allocation for the rural component of the Mission is about seven times more than for urban areas.
The health systems in megacities like Delhi and Mumbai are also overburdened and face a shortage of hospital staff and beds. Class I cities (more than a lakh population) have 1.4 beds per 1,000 people. Delhi has 1.5 beds per 1,000 people whereas Mumbai has one bed per 1,000 people. However, the urban support under the National Health Mission is just three per cent of the total allocation, while 97 per cent of the funds are set aside for rural areas.
The growth of large cities can be attributed to their role as economic engines in a rapidly globalising world. Urban development programmes such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (2005-2014) allocated the bulk of funds to large cities (70 per cent to large cities and 30 per cent to smaller towns). Current infrastructure development schemes, including the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and the Smart Cities Mission, focus on Class I cities. Both these schemes focus on development projects and provide funds for the more developed cities that already have relatively better infrastructure and overlook the nearly seven crore people who live in smaller towns (population between 20,000 and one lakh). These are towns that lag behind in services and infrastructure as compared to the big cities.
The return of migrant workers from large cities to smaller towns has signalled the significance of the latter. These towns are now forced to provide not just healthcare but also some form of livelihood to those arriving from the big cities. This is bound to stretch their capacities. The low number of COVID-19 tests conducted in these towns reveals a lack of capacity, which, in turn, distorts the scale of the current crisis. While the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) provides employment opportunities to rural households, there is no equivalent scheme for the poor in urban areas.
The state of our cities has been a matter of concern for decades. Be it air quality and unsafe drinking water, or now, the virus, the precarious nature of urban living has never been more pronounced. In contrast to the imagination of the city as a hub of social and economic activity, it is now perceived as the centre of disease and distress. The pandemic has forced us to reflect on the unequal and unplanned development of urban settlements and the absence of infrastructure to provide for the teeming millions. Oversimplified notions of the rural-urban binary have influenced policy formulation and created huge disparities in the allocation of public resources. The challenges of urban poverty and congestion cry for more attention, more government support. Further neglect will lead to grave health and environmental challenges.
Opinion | My struggle with COVID-19
Small towns that are urban in nature but rural in character are the most neglected in the current policy environment. They are forced to exist with poorer services and policy neglect while having to meet the demands of a large population. They are most prone to plunge into distress, as the current crisis has revealed.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 24, 2020 under the title ‘Pandemic and the city’. The writer is a research associate at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.
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