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OPINION: What will our post-pandemic environment be like?

Tikender Singh Panwar, former Deputy Mayor of Shimla, in India’s Himachal Pradesh state, reflects on sobering lessons from the pandemic about the weaknesses of India’s cities, but also on how they can build back better and more sustainably from it.

‘What will our post-pandemic environment be like?’ This is a question that demands attention from planners, architects and governance bodies alike. The pandemic has exposed the hollowness of an already corroding system, and it merely became the proverbial “final nail in the coffin”. The disruption it has caused cannot be rectified by the usual lackadaisical approach, which cannot make our cities sustainable.

UN Habitat has pointed out that in the initial three months of the pandemic, 95 per cent of the cases were reported in cities and urban centres. These cities will now be compelled to build strong, environmentally sustainable neighbourhoods. A new term, known as “social contract” between the public, civil society and private sectors can ensure that the cities become resilient. This social contract must ensure that the health, housing and security of the vulnerable are prioritised. Importantly, communities’ land tenure rights  must be secured in cities.

This is a global principle that cities across the world must adhere to; if not constitutionally, at least the spirit must be ingrained. However, what we are witnessing is quite the opposite. There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), six of which directly relate to cities. But our current habitat or urban environment is not sustainable and will not fetch us the desired results. The foremost trend over the last few decades in India has been complete marginalisation of labour and increased corporatisation of urban affairs. This has led to a serious crisis in housing and social amenities, while the incomes of the people living in cities have been challenged. The pandemic has only deepened the problem and could push 200 million people, globally, into abject poverty.

Building plans, in order to attract investments, focused more on large capital-intensive technologies and did not pay heed to the requirements of the people. Instead of playgrounds, communities were given commercial stadiums. Similarly, instead of neighbourhood health centres, super speciality hospitals were opened up. Such amenities were made inaccessible to the common people, despite  their urban commons being usurped.

This model led to a complete failure in providing housing in  urban areas. Real estate development was pushed to attract private capital by doling out concessions to them; there was little  realisation that such models will not sustain. In India, nearly 40 per cent of  people live in single-room dwellings. In urban agglomerations, 40 per cent of the people live in slums where neither land tenure rights nor basic amenities exist. This model of habitat cannot sustain our cities. Following the outbreak of the pandemic, high-rise buildings and extensive use of glass accentuated the crisis, as poor ventilation is conducive to the spread of the virus.

The insurance-driven urban health system also crumbled. The states that performed better in terms of pandemic response, such as Kerala and Himachal Pradesh, relied on their strong public health care systems. Hence, the push for unregulated privatisation of health care systems in our cities needs to be reconsidered.

Revisit the governance model 

The current model of urban governance, which is a manifestation of the “ruler-subject” dictum, alienates the people from a participatory role in decision-making. The first urban commission in India was formed in 1985 under Charles Correa. This envisioned a plan for urbanisation in India, with manufacturing as a driving force. More than 35 years later,  urban dynamics have drastically changed, with rising capital accumulation and widening inequities. Nearly 85 per cent of the workforce do not have any written contract with their employers.

The governance model for a sustainable habitat has to be linked with people’s participation and their engagement. This must be decentralised and democratised. People must be given the opportunity to decide their urban futures.

New forms of typologies must be planned in design and handed over to the local bodies. A house to be constructed in a coastal zone cannot be replicated in a temperate zone like Ladakh and Kinnaur, where the temperatures fall to minus 20 degrees Celsius.

While exposing several policy and systemic faults, the pandemic  also encourages us to think out of the box. We must realise that cities do not merely exist for the formation of capital, but for their people to live in harmony with nature. These steps need urgent attention and quick implementation of solutions. Collectively, we must acknowledge that only if we secure a sustainable present will we have a sound future.

 

Image: Shimla in the Indian Himalaya, credit Ryan, flickr.com

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