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Making cities responsive and responsible

Nearly two years have passed during which majority of the people were confined to four walls for most of the time to avoid the spread of pandemic. They have been living in fear and hope that this will change and the situation will roll back to normalcy soon. Though fast paced vaccination may prove to be a decisive factor in our fight against the pandemic, now the biggest question doing rounds is whether the life will be back to normal once we are able to get rid of the pandemic?

If the answer for the above is in the affirmative it means that we haven’t learnt anything from our past mistakes and prolonged lockdowns failed to bring about any behavioural changes amongst us. Yes, life cannot be the same if we don’t want to see the 2020 scenario repeating once again. The breakout and the spread of the pandemic are the result of human mistakes and the lessons learnt in the aftermath need to be remembered and followed permanently henceforth for which we may need some policy changes too.

COVID-19 has exposed weaknesses in our governance systems – civil servants lacked capacity and experience to handle such situation while the institutional arrangements to contain the virus, mount a response and ensure recovery were lacking. Since it’s a ‘once-in-century’ kind of phenomenon most of these drawbacks are natural and expected. But many minor mistakes committed at various levels of the administration showed that there was not only lack of expertise and experience but also inability to gauge the severity of the problem. Central and state governments in many instances failed to offer consistent messages about the pandemic and to align efforts to deploy much needed social and economic resources.

To address these challenges, the governments, both at the Central local levels, will need to establish policy frameworks and legislation to upgrade public institutions, not only through professional training but also through the provision of modern technology and equipment, digital literacy and opportunities for education and career advancement.

Multi-layered administrations at central, state and local levels may work well during the normal course but not in an emergency like the one we have recently seen. Shared understanding about the division of labour among central, state and local governments significantly influences the ability of government to contain the pandemic. Coordination also strengthens the application of health directives and the introduction of appropriate social and economic responses with community and neighbourhood solutions. Lives and livelihoods rest on the success or failure of multi-level coordination which on various occasions appeared to be wanting on many fronts.

However, whatever we have learnt from the present crisis should be used to ensure that in future we don’t encounter such health shocks. Functioning of the government at various levels has also shown that if properly managed, the system can be used to ensure the sustainability of food systems, water resources, air quality, land use, forests and road-rail-air-shipping transport links. Also, the crisis has provided us with an opportunity to link health and climate to sustainable management of resources.

The pandemic has also exposed insufficiency of our investment on healthcare and therefore we need to overwhelmingly invest in infrastructure to improve living conditions and mitigate potential health risks. These also include isolation facilities and emergency shelters, as well as extended access to water and hygiene stations in informal settlements and slums. We also need to broaden our infrastructure investments to improve the safety of transportation and develop more inclusive systems of mobility. As the pandemic exposed gaps in access to and knowledge of information and communication technology, we may have to make digital inclusion a cornerstone of our stimulus packages.

We may have to revisit our climate strategy and may have to adopt more regional approach to our commitment to renewable energy, sustainable production and consumption patterns, managing natural resources, food systems and waste to make them more effective.

Further, policies to improve regional and urban planning are essential, especially the ones that make provisions for participatory planning and budgeting are particularly important. The way the pandemic has played out in many of our cities has a great deal to do with how urban local bodies (ULBs) work with communities, private industry and especially migrant and the working poor, who are so often left out of decision-making processes.

Our experience of past two years shows that urban design and corresponding regulatory frameworks play crucial role in building resilience and foster sustainable development. ULBs that anticipate disasters and plan for them are better placed to respond. So too are cities with integrated land use management that limited the need for motorized transport and other considerations to rethink proximity, accessibility and multi-use of large premises which in turn, directs focus towards 15-minute cities. Further, cities with adequate public space and affordable, well-serviced housing are resilient, as are the ULBs with well-designed neighborhood density that create efficient energy use, provide residents with better access to services and prevent overcrowding.

We can make most of the opportunity arising from the pandemic only when the overriding objective of government in the next five years would be to tap the political will, collective action and economic investments of our pandemic response to bring about the structural changes necessary to achieve sustainable development. Harnessing the transformative potential of the response to COVID-19 will require a robust policy agenda to maintain momentum and mobilize resources. These include city planning integrated with sustainable regional subnational development; social protection, equality and non-discrimination; investment in sustainable infrastructure, digital connectivity, basic services and viable urban economies; and public sector capacity, structures and vertical coordination.

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