Covid-19 is a wake-up call for India’s cities, where radical improvements in sanitation and planning are needed

Municipal workers spray disinfectant on people lining up at a mobile testing station for the coronavirus in New Delhi. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)
Municipal workers spray disinfectant on people lining up at a mobile testing station for the coronavirus in New Delhi. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

The novel coronavirus is unveiling differences and structural fault lines in the cities it impacts. Urban centers in Italy and Spain have suffered high death tolls partly because of the rich public lives their elderly citizens enjoy, leaving them more exposed. The U.S. response reveals the pitfalls of its decentralized approach to governing, with cities forced into competing with one another for lifesaving equipment. In India, meanwhile, the spread of the virus is underscoring how unequal and unsustainable the country’s urbanization process has been for a long time.

With their especially precarious combination of density, poverty and poor sanitation, India’s urban areas have long been susceptible to disease. The world’s first cholera pandemic began in Kolkata in 1817. And India saw excess mortality of 4.5 percent during the 1918 flu pandemic — almost twice as high as any other developing country for which data is available.

India’s public health system has made tremendous progress since those pandemics. And the country’s response to covid-19 has arguably been swifter and more decisive than that of other developing countries. One of the world’s strictest “stay-at-home” orders has been in place since March 25. All domestic travel has been halted — including the country’s famous railway system, which carries 8.4 billion passengers annually.

And yet, India’s battle with the coronavirus is being undermined by long-running failures of urban governance.

Covid-19 is, first, highlighting the public health risks of a precarious urban economy powered by seasonal migrants. These “long-distance commuters” — numbering nearly 100 million, according to migration scholar Chinmay Tumbe — generally earn daily wages and work without contracts. Left without any income in the wake of India’s total lockdown, their only options were to undertake an arduous journey home on foot or crowd into inundated homeless shelters, both of which are likely speeding the spread of the virus. Most media coverage of internal migrants’ plight has failed to point out the structural reason these workers move seasonally, rather than permanently relocate to cities: The country’s social welfare programs are, in practice, tied to location. This locks poor people out of many government benefits when they move to cities.

The public health consequences of slums have also grown stark. But the problem is not simply density, as portrayed in much of the media.

While it is undeniable that social distancing is practically impossible in a Mumbai neighborhood such as Dharavi, with a population density of at least 200,000 people per square kilometer (Manhattan’s is about 27,000 people per square kilometer), infrastructure deficits in these neighborhoods are the virus’s biggest ally. Families in informal settlements lack the sanitation facilities to protect themselves, relying instead on poorly maintained community toilets and accessing water from shared taps. Severe water shortages pose a major obstacle to the regular hand-washing now encouraged by public health officials worldwide. Poor ventilation, most especially in government-built slum rehabilitation projects, may also promote the spread of the virus.

Finally, the coronavirus is an unwelcome reminder of how vulnerable urban Indians are to any respiratory ailment, given notoriously high levels of air pollution. With India hosting 21 of the world’s 30 most polluted cities, the long-run effects of poor air quality have left residents of cities such as New Delhi and Lucknow with deeply compromised immune, respiratory and cardiac systems, making them especially susceptible to the virus.

Having exposed the stark structural issues that confront Indian cities, the pandemic could be the wake-up call that Indian policymakers and citizens need to change their thinking around urbanization.

Signs of opportunity are emerging from state governments that have universalized the public system for subsidized food rations. In Delhi and Rajasthan, proving local residence is no longer a requirement for accessing these benefits. Even though this is a temporary measure under the lockdown, Mukta Naik from of the Center for Policy Research argues that it could represent an initial step toward something migration experts have long advocated: a truly portable social welfare system. Portable government benefits would make Indian cities far more inclusive for poor migrants.

Similar opportunities to shift the policy conversation must be leveraged around housing and infrastructure. With middle- and upper-class Indians now afraid of covid-19’s spread in adjacent slum settlements, housing rights advocates have new ammunition for the argument that upgrading infrastructure in informal settlements serves the collective good in Indian cities, helping everyone stay healthier, including but not only the poor.

And environmental activists in India now have unassailable evidence that curbing human activities, particularly private vehicle use, can give city dwellers breathable air. The skies over Indian cities are now clearer under lockdown. Of course, pollution will rise again when restrictions are lifted, but the politics of air pollution might shift now that urban Indians can imagine cleaner cities, as the author Raghu Karnad suggests.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned Indians when announcing the country’s 21-day lockdown that the coronavirus could set the country back 21 years. But perhaps the virus could also spur the reforms that would move India forward 21 years. This requires a radically new approach to governing its cities.

Gregory F. Randolph is a PhD candidate in urban planning at the University of Southern California and founding partner of the JustJobs Network. Sahil Gandhi is a postdoctoral scholar at the Lusk Center for Real Estate at the University of Southern California and a visiting scholar at Brookings India.

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