Build back better together

Urban growth and the evolution of cities have been seen as a panacea to many social issues but the departing year has underlined that it could turn out to be a Pandora’s Box if the growth is not managed well. All the global agencies are calling out for sustained, concentrated efforts to fill the gaps and reversed developed gains this year and help cities emerge stronger, sustainable and equitable in the post-pandemic world. Indian municipalities and civil society need to pull up their socks for fast recovery and adopt responsible growth models

Within the fold of growth lies the devastation of environmental health; cities have been a witness to this in the last couple of decades. The departing year has underlined the significance of linking social, economic and environmental development with urbanisation for optimal utilising of the benefits of growth and improvements in urban infrastructure. There is also a need to mainstream sustainable practices in every urban domain.
Many cities became national epicentres of the pandemic. The number of cases reported from cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Pune and Ahmedabad highlights that cities, like elsewhere in the world, were the worst affected. The density of population and lack of equitable services amplified the spread and transmission of infection. In the last couple of decades, cities are competing with each other to become smart by adopting new technologies and innovation to address urban issues. The result of which is also reflecting in the way cities are managed in India. While there is no doubt that adoption of newer tools is essential to deal with evolving challenges, the cities and the city leaders must not forget the basics of inclusivity and cooperation which are embedded in our local democratic institutions. This demands greater participation of the people in all areas of emergency response management.
The disastrous year underlined the importance of putting health high on the political, bureaucratic and social agenda of cities. Municipal officials and leaders along with community need to build a strong movement for improving public health at the local level. This will require improvements in social infrastructure, service delivery mechanism, adoption of high-end technologies and renewed policy interventions. A significant budgetary allocation will also be required for continuing the momentum in the direction and give a sustainable model of development, which can cushion the negative impacts of the health emergencies on the social and economic front.

Globally, local authorities and community organisations proved to be effective players in curtailing the epidemic and providing relief to people in need. It is well-known that local authorities have easy access to their communities. They leveraged on their strengths and reached out to the last person. ULBs not just helped in providing immediate assistance required but also supported in mitigating long-term economic and social impacts of physical distancing measures which were put in place during the lockdown phase. The significance of local governments in reaching out to local communities became more apparent during the COVID era. The experiences of dealing with the pandemic may be used to roll out future projects and programs of the governments and the outcome of those could be enhanced using a similar approach of community engagement.

Municipal officials and leaders along with community need to build a strong movement for improving public health at the local level. This will require improvements in social infrastructure, service delivery mechanism, adoption of high-end technologies and renewed policy interventions

Community response

The pandemic has reiterated that disasters can happen at a moment’s notice. It calls for strengthening urban systems to deal with unforeseen challenges. The experiences of COVID-19 response also tell us that the role of urban communities and their coordination with local authorities, city leaders, and health professionals is crucial to address challenges at the local level at the time of a health emergency. Pandemics not just bring problems associated with health infrastructure and services, but also expose social inequalities among different groups, and their lack of access to essential services.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, an increasing number of migrants were stranded in cities. They lost their livelihood because of the lockdown measures announced to curb the spread of the virus. People in almost every big city in India like Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Chennai and many others swung into action in collaboration with civil society organisations and state governments to ensure the stranded population does not face difficulty in getting the supply of daily essentials.
The problem was particularly pressing for the poor, people with limited mobility and older people. Some cities had also organised camps for food distribution. Many online groups were created on social media in Indian cities to assist older people for getting their medicines, daily supply of fruits and vegetables, etc.
Such initiatives were not limited to India, but urban communities and local governments in many cities of the world extended their helping hands to the people in need. In response, the municipality of Milan collaborated with more than 30 non-profit organisations, and private food companies to create Dispositivo di AiutoAlimentare – The Food Aid System.
According to a report published by the World Bank, more than 180 employees and volunteers in Milan delivered secure food packages to 6,33,7 households – a total of 20,744 people identified as vulnerable.
Even the small towns took creative initiatives. Brest (France) addressed food insecurity during the pandemic using a novel approach integrated into social protection programmes and a digital platform. Brest expanded its emergency food provision, launching a referral system to identify those most vulnerable and distribute food vouchers to selected families for use in a majority of open grocery stores.
Urban local bodies in Delhi, Athens, Limerick and many cities created a group of response teams, which extended help to most vulnerable people during the lockdown. They remained in touch with the infected people, guided them to take measures during home isolation, and delivered essential medication at their doorsteps. They also reached out to people in need and provided them with the much needed support in difficult times.
It is difficult to locate any silver lining in the whole period of a pandemic, but the difficult times have brought communities and people together and showed that associations and collective efforts can help us come out from disaster of any kind. Let’s bid adieu this year with a positive takeaway that our communities remained stronger, acted emphatically, and responded well in time, like always.

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