The COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating impact on the world, with urban habitats being the source of an exponentially increasing number of positive cases. To understand the correlation between the two, the Centre for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies, IMPRI, New Delhi organized a special talk under the series #LocalGovernance on the topic Post Pandemic Habitat and Sustainable Built Environment with Shri Tikender Singh Panwar, Deputy Mayor, Shimla; Visiting Fellow, IMPRI as our moderator on 17th June 2021.
The speaker for the session was Mr. K T Ravindran, Urban Designer, Former Chairman Delhi Urban Art Commission. Currently, he is Chairman of the Architectural Heritage Advisory Committee of INTACH, Trustee of the Indian Heritage Cities Network Foundation, and was Member of the Advisory Board for the United Nations Capital Master Plan, New York. He was a Member of the expert committee under the Government of India for the new capital of Andhra Pradesh and subsequently a Member of the International Jury for the A.P. Capital Complex.
He was formerly Vice Chairman of the Central Environmental Impact Assessment Committee. He taught urban design for three decades in the SPA Delhi and is Founder President of the Institute of Urban Designers India, Member Governing Council of NID, Vijayawada, Member National Advisory Committee on HRIDAY cities. He was former Chairman Delhi Urban Art Commission. His practice includes designing green-field cities, cultural buildings, memorials, adaptive reuse, and urban conservation. His works and research are published in journals and books internationally.
He began the webinar by elucidating how the COVID-19 has exposed the hollowness of ways in which we are building cities, with statistics like 95% cases from urban habitats, how living standards have gone down by 25%, and that urban planners must rethink the local level of planning while bearing in mind how people move. The holy trinity of “health-housing-security” has to be prioritized for those who are vulnerable, and legal aspects of land rights have to be explored.
Recently, the Supreme Court ordered the demolition of the residential properties in Khori Gaon, as it is referred to by the Court as an encroachment. The settlement contains over 10,000 homes, with over 1 lakh residents. The UN has tried intervening but to no avail, with SC terming their concern as “abuse of power”. The question then arises, what do we need to anticipate? What, in actuality, is it that ensues for cities from the pandemic?
The catastrophic onslaught of the virus is, without doubt, a disruption in the development model, one which throws a plethora of new and upcoming issues into the focal distance, like the contrasting public-private spaces, good-bad buildings, et cetera. Since cities are complex networks of habitat and nature, pandemic plays itself out differently in different ones. For example, Delhi can not be seen as an autonomous, independent metropolis but a city with the juxtaposition of networks in the National Capital Region.
A study was done to identify the spatial determinants of urban growth in Kolkata. It was because, ever since the 19th century, the city of joy, Kolkata’s development status has been picking pace in recent decades, owing to huge strides in infrastructural development. It was found that peripheral habitats are more unplanned than the city core areas, which are the main obstacles to transform them into a smart city.
An Urban Growth Deterministic Model was deployed for analysis, with both satellite images and statistical analysis. Findings reveal that among the factors population density, male workforce, female workforce, secondary workers, wasteland, built-up area, availability of bus service and railway service are the major determinants of urban growth in Kolkata habitat.
The cities have become islands of wealth, resulting in rampant migration to urban centers, accumulators of resources. The socio-economic gap between the rich and the poor has expanded over time in an unprecedented manner, given how the poor have limited to zero access to public and private goods and services.
It produces an extremely unequal and segregated distribution of opportunities. There is a direct correlation between the concentration of urbanization and the pandemic, with evidence of higher viral load being found in areas with more population density than the others.
There is a cross-national-regional imbalance, not just on land but the shores, with artisan fishers fighting for their livelihoods. They are disrupted, culturally, financially, and because they can not anchor their families to a place, they are also unable to enjoy their citizenship. The government has weakened environmental standards such as Coastal Regulation Zone Norms, and the Environmental Impact Assessment rule has also gained the ire of academicians and activists.
Our National Urbanization Policy is non-existent. With rising regional imbalances, ever-growing corporatization, the marginality of the underprivileged has become visible through their living conditions in habitats, characterized by a dismal sense of inequity.
Inaccessible housing, no tenure security, and lack of social amenities leave the destitute at the mercy of markets, which themselves are regulated by capitalists with money. These reasons combined together force people to migrate, as it is seemingly the only recourse to poverty-stricken lives.
According to official estimates, over 11.4 million migrant workers returned to their home states, a figure that underrepresents the true scale of the exodus since it only accounts for workers who returned via public transport. The Ministry of Labour and Employment revealed that “No (migrant worker) register (is) maintained” before the lockdown.
Old cities are the lesser developed portions of urban spaces, ones which are made to act as storage systems, absorbing all the components the new corporate city doesn’t want to accommodate but wants to benefit from.
There is a host-parasite dynamic that is observed, which shows that the historical context in which planning in India adopted the approach of “providing what the city needs” and why that doesn’t work. The overcrowded areas with ventilation situation or lack thereof are not liveable.
The complex structure of mobility on Indian streets favors personal vehicles over public transport, and this is exacerbated by the pandemic when social distancing is the need of the hour. The Delhi Metro Rail Corporation (DMRC) has been facing financial stress with losses to the tune of Rs 1,500 crore during the heydays of the pandemic-induced lockdown.
Mohalla Clinics are one of the foremost healthcare initiatives of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) that assumed office in February 2015. From then until February 6, 2019, it has set up 450 such neighborhood clinics to provide free health check-ups and medicines, thereby making public healthcare more affordable and accessible.
This has been proven to work efficiently, but in its place, super-specialty hospitals are being constructed. It is how free-market flows of capital works, it moves where there is an investment. The capital-intensive system builds cricket stadiums where people seek lawns and playgrounds for children’s recreation, at the cost of depriving the poorest of the poor.
The immense growth of digital dependence has redefined the idea of the public in virtual spaces. The urban open areas planned for the pre-pandemic world don’t pan out well now. We do not need pigeonholed settlements but spacious and well-architectured places. Tall skyscrapers, serving aesthetic to the cityscape, coveted symbols of progress are captive to the spread of viruses. The skylines are a naked reflection of the kind of capital investments that take place on the ground.
The Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) is an initiative of the Government of India which aims at providing affordable housing to the urban poor by the year 2022. Replicating the same idea of urban housing, the guidelines for Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana (Gramin) were launched to provide an environmentally safe and secure pucca house to every rural household by 2022. For that, the government has a target of construing 30 million housing units in seven years.
Even if the policy implementations were effective up until now, we need to ask ourselves why the people were and are running away? All the aforementioned goals are far off target. What is needed now is a re-thinking about the texture of money, the function of development bodies, and the stakeholders.
After a question from the audience on Central Vista, the speaker explained how it’s more a political issue than planning one, with the need to reform ideological frameworks and symbology. There was a discussion over Lakshadweep Development Authority Regulation, 2021 (LDAR), which would impact people’s rights, livelihoods, and fragile ecosystems, and the island’s ecology is insular and archaic. KT Ravindran sir concluded by his statement that he stands with high-density, low-rise ecosystems for a country like India, and called for radical reforms on totally controlled environments.