Creating robust urban ecosystems in post-COVID-19 India

Commentary, Online Exclusive Feature / 2020

Creating robust urban ecosystems in post-COVID-19 India

by Tarun Bhasin & Yug Aggarwal

While the Prime Minister’s Housing-For-All scheme successfully tilted the outlook of India’s private housing market towards affordable housing for the middle class, it did little to alleviate the deficiencies created by archaic governmental policies. It also failed to facilitate the economically and politically marginalised ‘rurban’ migrants—people who survive in cities on daily wages.

Photo by Tarun Bhasin

Crisis within a crisis 

India’s migrant worker population depends on temporary housing needs, since they migrate to cities seasonally to earn and repay the debts they have accrued in the process of building homes back in their villages. In the absence of permanent housing, right from the colonial era to modern times, citizen services have been categorically denied to migrant workers.

The denial of provisioning services such as water, sanitation, nutrition, access to education and healthcare furthers and sustains urban poverty. As a result, the urban poor are required to spend a huge portion of their income on fetching basic services from private sources. However, due to the lack of political and civil rights to legitimise the production and distribution of provisioning services in the free market economy, what the poor get are low quality services at high prices. Furthermore, the urban poor is often classified as illegal, which then excludes them from the larger social, economic and cultural processes of the city. This is exacerbated by normalising their situation as one caused by their own wrong-doing, and not as a result of unfair market policies.

Naturally, when the country went into absolute lockdown to prevent the onslaught of the pandemic, the move sparked an exodus of workers from small to medium manufacturing and service industries across India’s urban centres. In an attempt to mitigate the situation for the migrant population, the government issued orders seeking employers to pay full wages to their workers. But since the informal market servicing the population remained shut, in the absence of dwindling and unaffordable provisioning services, the meaning of ‘housing’ and ‘home’ was rendered moot. This triggered perhaps one of the biggest reverse migrations to ever occur in the Global South.

When the government did decide to provide for temporary shelters and provisioning services to the migrants stranded between their city of work and their village of residence, it realised the absence of any formal policy or administrative framework that could actualise such a move by inviting participation between the centre, state and civic organisations.

In a post-COVID landscape, if we are to create sustainable and spatially just cities that can accommodate the needs of all sections of society, and provide access and right to the city to all its citizens, we must start developing market templates for the valuation of land and housing beyond design processes, and ultimately to more perceptual notions of liveable environments. In order to do so, we need to understand that basic services such as water, energy, nutrition, etc., should not need the mandate or heavy hand of the government to be procured under the ambit of legality.

How to create just cities?

Co-production implies that the people who are being provided the services are given the power and legal means to create organisational structures from within themselves that will be responsible for handling and maintaining the provision of such services. Therefore, instead of one central municipal department financing, executing, operating, managing and refurbishing services infrastructure, small self-help groups under the guidance of the municipal department could carry out such activities on their own, to develop their area in a phased manner.

Not only does this create more economic opportunities by tapping into the existing social capital, it fundamentally empowers the local population by granting them autonomy and helping them understand the processes of urban development and renewal. This consequently develops the capacity of the communities involved to better understand the nuances of resource management.

Ecosystems thinking

From highlighting the need for installation of solar electricity under a public-private partnership model through micro-financing, to the efficient use of water and the recycling of waste water at a local level, improvement of drainage and reduction in water stagnation, to solid-waste segregation, treatment and safe disposal, to more collaborative services of education and healthcare—all these issues are indelibly linked to the health of urban ecosystems. Under the mode of co-production, these can be improved upon exponentially by acutely raising the collective awareness of communities by involving them in both the consumption and production processes.

This generates a form of ecosystems thinking that allows the communities to imagine their environment’s value in terms of the output and efficiency of its socio-economic systems’ responsiveness to said resources, and immediate ecological processes.

Co-production is not only favourable in the political outcome it generates for the poor, it also persuades the state to act more responsively and positively towards its citizens.

Over time, the dynamism of grassroots co-production movements tends to move beyond local issues to more substantive ones based on collective consumption, negotiating for locals, greater control over processes and resources, through a sustained, deliberate dialogue with the state. This would include provisioning of emergency community services in light of low probability-high risk situations. 

If co-production as a tool is implemented strategically at a policy and planning level, the response in future pandemic situations would certainly be different; instead of a narrative of disenfranchisement, it will be one of socio-political self-reliance and empowerment.

Before securing third place in the professional category of the FuturArc Prize 2019, Tarun and Yug had collectively won two consecutive World Architecture Festival student competitions, the Berkeley Essay Prize and Travel Fellowship and internationally published a few academic papers to their credit. As practitioners, they have worked not only with some of the leading design practices in India, but also in real estate research, project management, architectural journalism, public relations and marketing. Currently, Tarun is pursuing M.Sc. Building and Urban Design in Development at The Bartlett Development Planning Unit, UCL and is the country reporter for World Architecture Community. Based out of New Delhi, Yug presently works with a corporate interior design consultancy and likes to write fiction. Deeply invested in understanding the nuances of urban development in the context of the Global South, the duo are emerging thought leaders in their country. Click here to read the original story in full.

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