COVID exposes underinvestment in cities. India must rethink its approach for an inclusive future

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COVID exposes underinvestment in cities. India must rethink its approach for an inclusive future

By Naina Lal Kidwai

This article was originally published in the Indian Express

Naina Lal Kidwai is a member of the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate and Chair, FICCI Water Mission

We don’t know how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last, but one thing is clear: This is our chance to reset, to create a fairer, stronger, safer and cleaner country. In doing so, we can build resilience to future pandemics and to other risks, like climate change, extreme flood events, and ecosystem destruction. This journey starts with taking an honest look at the stark reality of urban inequality.

Home to 461 million people, and generating 63 per cent of the country’s GDP, India’s cities are at the frontlines of the pandemic. The frightening images of makeshift hospitals in stadiums and clubs are stark reminders of the under-capacity of healthcare systems. About two-thirds of India’s cases are in Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai. Their population density makes the spread of the virus difficult to control. That’s why the COVID-19 crisis demands our thinking about Indian cities in particular.

It’s time to rethink water. India has 152-216 million people living in dense informal housing or slums where access to piped water is often restricted, time consuming and arduous. Coupled with dense living conditions, this makes self-isolation and hand-washing very difficult. In short, access to clean piped water will make or break the best laid plans for tackling COVID-19.That’s why the government must prioritise the basic needs of the most vulnerable, including improving drinking water and sanitation services. The FICCI Water Mission is focused on the reuse of waste water and grey water which deserves much attention as we look to conserve scarce resources.

It’s time to rethink food and nutrition. Food insecurity is rapidly intensifying. India is home to 15.1 per cent of the world’s undernourished population, causing informal workers to face impossible choices between risking contracting the virus or losing their income, housing and sustenance. That’s why the government must continue to provide legal entitlements for food and nutritional security and expand efforts to ensure food is available at affordable prices (or even free) for poorer families.

The pandemic has also highlighted the need to decongest slums to protect people’s health and wellbeing. The Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) has been one of our strongest tools to fight the coronavirus. The spread of COVID would have been much worse if we had faced it prior to 2014, when over 60 per cent of our population used to defecate in the open and when hand-washing was not pushed through active communication. The India Sanitation Coalition continues its work reinforcing Swachh behaviour like washing hands regularly, not spitting in public places, managing waste safely, and most of all, always using a toilet — these are critical for the hygiene and health of our citizens.

Ever since the first phase of “Unlock”, SBM and Jal Jeevan Mission construction work has begun in full swing and has generated employment under the Garib Kalyan Rozgar Yojana for many migrant workers who have gone back to their villages. We also need targeted investment in infrastructure to construct modern buildings and streets, sewage and water systems, and toilets. And since cement is already responsible for about 7 per cent of global carbon emissions, this also requires innovation to reduce the carbon content and enhance the use of green building materials. The way we design our buildings, rate them and regulate compliance to greener building codes makes economic and environmental sense. Building designs can reduce the air conditioning required — it is not just what materials we use but also the design that deserves attention.

Thankfully, Indian cement companies have emerged as sector leaders in the movement to reduce carbon emissions. As this momentum pervades through the industry, commitments should be secured by leading companies and innovation must be supported to ensure best practices.

Finally, it’s time to rethink how we power our lives. Two-thirds of global ambient air pollution deaths are caused by fossil fuels. And new research suggests that exposure to pollution increases the susceptibility and severity of COVID-19 infection — yet another reason to press for sustainable universal energy access. The good news is that India is already a leader in renewable energy. For three consecutive years, our investment in renewable energy has topped fossil fuel investments. This trend must be maintained, not in spite of, but in furtherance of the pandemic recovery efforts.

It’s time to rethink how we live and move. India accounts for about 2 per cent of motor vehicles globally, yet is responsible for more than 11 per cent of road traffic deaths. With public transport less busy than usual, this is a good time to invest in public and non-motorised (for example, bicycle) transportation. In the short term, it can create jobs. Evidence from other countries suggests that investment in public and non-motorised transport infrastructure creates significantly more jobs than the same level of investment in roads and motorways. And in the longer term, this will make roads safer and improve access to jobs. Stepping up digital infrastructure will help make the work-from-home trend permanent.

These aren’t just good ideas. They are popular good ideas. People are demanding improved working and living conditions. More than 90 per cent of individuals recently surveyed want improved air quality, with over two-thirds supporting stricter regulations to tackle air pollution. It is time for policies and finance to follow the people. And while we need targeted emergency assistance now, to help communities weather this storm finance must also be targeted to restoring and rethinking cities after the pandemic. To make it count, this funding must go hand-in-hand with combatting the climate crisis.

We know that thriving cities make prosperous countries: Investments in low-carbon measures in cities would be worth at least $23.9 trillion globally by 2050. We must find the courage and the vision to seize this moment for what it is — an opportunity to reset; to rethink our governance models for cities. It’s time to rectify what the COVID-19 crisis has exposed — a well-overdue need to invest in India’s cities.

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