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Urbanise with human face

Crisis is not a new thing for our cities – be it Mega city or tier 4 city – all have gone through various crisis  in the past. Every year floods come and go and people’s memory is also as short (or long) as the duration of the flood and are quick to get back to normalcy showing resilient qualities time and again.

But this time the pandemic has thrown a crisis of altogether different dimension and duration. It has changed the way we live (build and move) and perhaps that change will remain forever. Lockdown was imposed in March and in most parts of the country normalcy has not yet returned, especially in Metro cities.

The COVID-19 has also exposed  the inability of Indian cities with large and growing populations to protect their residents and keep their economic engines running. It is an indication of the flaws inherent in an economic model focused on rapid and widespread urbanization. These cities have thrived on cheap labour and often government policies (influenced by lobbyists of interested parties) fuel this abuse.

Only solace we can have is the fact that mega cities elsewhere in the world too are not better off during this hour of crisis and cities in USA, Europe and some Asian countries too have seen casualties of abnormal number. It also shows that having required resources is not in themselves a solution but there should be also political will to take the challenge head on.

Looking at the current crisis a doubt may arise – is it the time to say good bye to our mega, metro and large cities? As the pandemic makes population density look like a danger rather than an opportunity for productivity gains some urban experts are going vocal about the dangers of mega cities. The pandemic may finally lead to an exodus from cities, as young professionals, fed up with the high cost of living and nightmare commutes, and freed by the shift to remote work, leave for rural communities.

But urbanisation is the best growth engine especially in developing economies like ours. In India, nearly 2/3rd of the GDP comes from cities and towns while only 1/3rd of the population lives in them. It has been the case elsewhere in the world too. For example, London makes up 30% of the UK’s economy, has 13% of its population. World economic growth in recent history has been centered on a few big cities: New York, London, Tokyo, Hong Kong, Paris and more recently Shanghai. Therefore, mass urbanization will remain the focus, as it is still seen as the best, if not the only, vehicle for economic development, moving people from the “unproductive” countryside to the more productive cities. But prosperity cannot be achieved just by turning rural labour into urban labour unless there is some addition to their skillset and efficiency.

But cities make disparities in income glaring, and that has become more evident during pandemic though the problem persisted since ages.  The only positive about this pandemic is that it brought to the fore the issues being faced by our migrant workers. After all, migrant workers whose main job is to build homes for others cannot be expected to work from home.

Pandemic has highlighted the inequality of our cities which make the cities fundamentally weak and vulnerable to crisis. Today, in the cities if we are able to get necessary services of plumbing, painting, electric works, carpentry, repairs, etc at very economical rates mainly because those who provide such services live in inhuman conditions sacrificing some basic necessities. The high-cost of living in megacities forces many of them to live in slums or peripheral communities. The expansion of cities beyond the ability of infrastructure to cope means these communities have lower-quality housing, worse access to education, poor provision of electricity and clean water, bad sanitation, traffic congestion, dead spots for internet and mobile access, and so on.

It doesn’t mean that we need to de-urbanise nor stop urbanising but we should take cognizance of the shortcomings in our policies and in their implementation. Slogans of inclusive growth should be raised not only for securing votes but also for the betterment of the public at large.

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