Majority of corona cases are reported from cities. Mumbai has reported over 45,000 cases and almost 1500 deaths. The role of mayors in dealing with crises of such a devastating magnitude is crucial, they being the first representatives of their cities. Understanding the importance of giving mayors of various cities a platform to share their insights and difficulties in dealing with the crisis at hand, All India Institute of Local Self-Government (AIILSG), in association with National Institute of Urban Affair, organised the first instalment of “Mayors’ Dialogues”.
‘Making Cities Pandemic Resilient’ saw participation from Asok Bhattacharya, Mayor Silguri; Asha Sharma, Mayor, Ghaziabad; Chandra Mohan Gupta, Mayor, Jammu; Sanjeev Bittu, Mayor, Patiala; Junaid Mattu, Mayor, Srinagar; Sandeep Joshi, Mayor, Nagpur; Dilip Kumar Agasty, Mayor, Durgapur and a video message from Uday Madkaikar, Mayor, Panaji. Hitesh Vaidya, Director, NIUA and Abhishek Pandey, Editor, Urban Update, moderated the dialogue.
“No doubt cities have been the worst affected from the virus. This is why the role of mayors is very important in dealing with the crisis,” Abhishek Pandey said in his opening remarks. Talking about the role of elected representatives in making a city pandemic resilient, Pandey highlighted the importance of having a strong and decisive leadership which is necessary to mitigate the effects of the pandemic on a city. He further noted that there is a need to strengthen relationship between logistic administration and urban local bodies.
Given the sudden escalation of the situation, Vaidya noted that every city of the world was caught unprepared. However, there are lessons to be learnt from this. “City representative must be asked what challenges they faced and what could be learnt for better future governance and institutional structure,” Vaidya said. After the welcome remarks delivered by Pandey and Vaidya, the mayors individually presented their takeaways, grievances and operations during the pandemic, which could or has made their city more pandemic resilient for the future. Here are the major takeaways from their addresses:
Asha Sharma, Mayor, Ghaziabad
The news of the rapid spread of the COVID-19 alerted us beforehand and we prepared ourselves and developed an action plan for our city accordingly. Ghaziabad is a huge urban area. We fogged and sanitised the area thoroughly and regularly. The municipal sanitation officers were on call 24/7, for which I salute them. Another priority was to make sure that everyone was adequately fed. A total of 11 well-sanitised kitchens, 9 run by the government and 2 by the local body, have delivered over 1 crore food packages till date. We opened isolation wards in medical colleges of the city for quarantining corona positive individuals.
Chander Mohan Gupta, Mayor, Jammu
In terms of municipal governance, the situation in Jammu and Kashmir has been a little stagnant when compared to the rest of the country. Municipal elections in other cities have been held 14 times whereas for us it was only 4. Our municipal services have lagged behind due to this. As it became evident that we will be facing the pandemic, we pressured the higher ups to provide us with adequate sanitisation devices and machinery. We managed to arrange the required machinery, whether it be procuring pumps from the fire department or the horticulture department, in a matter of 15 days and thenceforth ensured appropriate sanitation throughout Jammu. The red zones were regularly sanitised and checked for adherence to the lockdown.
I would like to raise the point that the mayor’s office isn’t strengthened enough and this becomes more than apparent during such testing times.
Dilip Kumar Agasty, Mayor, Durgapur
The main thing that we dealt with is to arrange for the essential ration for the citizens of Durgapur while they observed appropriate social distancing. People were educated about the appropriate precautions that must be undertaken and we made sure that the word got out by ensuring communication between the city authorities and the citizens. Durgapur is a cluster of townships and not like other cities. People need access to day to day ration and with the help of community kitchens, which we installed with the help of NGOs, we supplied food to people living in each locality of the city on a daily basis. Sanitisation was ensured. Our city observed no deaths while only seven were infected with the virus.
Sanjeev Bittu, Mayor, Patiala
One of the biggest challenges was to deliver food and sanitise areas where infected were quarantined. We call the workers who maintained this sanitation as ‘Safai Sainiks’. It was difficult to arrange for adequate PPE kits initially and these sainiks braved the virus for the betterment of the city. Our councillors also directly engaged in sanitisation and on ground implementation of various other municipal roles during these testing times. Social workers and NGOs have really been helpful in assisting those who are less fortunate and hard hit by the lockdown. I would like to express my dissatisfaction on our city administration and we need change. The entire response in India was based on the Epidemic Act which was constituted in 1897 and is badly outdated as of now. It has been notified multiple times, I don’t understand why it can not be reformed completely. We don’t have an appropriate response system and have been caught off guard. We need change. The entire bureaucracy of the country needs a change. Local governments have no power while they are answerable for everything. This needs to be mitigated.
Asok Bhattacharya, Mayor, Siliguri
I believe that worst affected from the pandemic are the urban areas of the developed countries as majority of the cases have been encountered from these areas only. This, in my opinion, is the case because the continued expansion of the cities is being done in a haphazard fashion. I believe that COVID-19 is a logical outcome of the increasing damage dealt to the nature.
In my experience, the unprecedented escalation of the pandemic is related with the unplanned and unsustainable urbanisation. We cannot blame the process of urbanisation, but it must be balanced with nature and with the ecology itself. The harmony between man and nature is continuously deteriorating. We have to utilise urbanisation for the betterment of the society but as of now the process of urbanisation has become focused on capitalisation and optimisation of consumerism. This approach must change.
Sustainable development clearly needs to take the front seat now so that better pandemic resilient cities are developed in the future. It has to be a united fight. Urban local bodies are the grass root level of government but their operation can only be optimised with the participation of people. If we empower the local bodies, then only an appropriate response to such a crisis can be ensured in the future. State governments and the centre must encourage local governments to develop plans for their cities.
Junaid Mattu, Mayor, Srinagar
City councils and mayors are leading the fight against coronavirus. This is not the case for India. The local governments are disempowered so much that the question about their existence comes to mind. Is the institution of mayor just for cosmetic appeal? How much value is the local governance to the city? Our primary responsibility must be to formulate laws and make policies. Mayors are supposed to be leaders and the reality is that the institution of mayor has been disrespected in India to a great extent. It is a fact that the bureaucracy is far more empowered than the mayors, who have actually been elected by the people of the city and thus, directly answerable to them. There is no political will to make new laws in this country. Power must be decentralised in order to achieve better grass root level changes. We need structural reforms and debate on the implementation of 74th amendment to take place.
As of Srinagar’s response on the COVID-19 front, the city has been working for three months on this and it has been declared as one of the best performing cities of the country. Srinagar was the first country to lockdown and much of the success can be attributed to the corporation’s swift action.
Uday Madaikar, Mayor, Panaji
Our city was in green zone but that changed once inter state movement was permitted in India. We have installed systems to check for the virus at the railway stations check post itself. Once a person is detected positive, we transport them to quarantine facilities and hence, have prevented community spread till now. We have run awareness programs in the city to educate people ever since the city is under lockdown. We assisted the people of Panaji to get all the essential commodities. We have been working on the sanitisation of the city for a month. We are fogging the whole area to keep in check other diseases like Dengue and Malaria even as we fight the virus. Further, we have reopened markets in the city in a phased and controlled manner. Proper precautions have been made compulsory as the city reopens and we move back to normalcy.
Ravi Ranjan Guru, Deputy Director General, AIILSG concluded the session by lauding the efforts of the city officials and administration. “We have been supporting local bodies during this time,” he said, and further elaborated on the Institute’s efforts to assist local bodies in their operation.