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Covid opens up urban development challenge, how we respond to it, is up to us

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The Chinese Corona Virus has created havoc across the world, and there is hardly any country in the world which has remained unaffected by this crisis. India is no exception. With our population second only to China, we have now moved in the top four countries by the number of cases.

In India, most cases have been reported from Maharashtra and the financial capital of the country, Mumbai. Other cities like Delhi, Hyderabad, Ahmedabad, Chennai, Pune and Kolkata have also reported substantial numbers of cases. These cities are the center of economic activities in the country and have substantial share in the national GDP. Mumbai alone has a share of over 30% in national income tax (personal and corporate) collection. Even Dharavi, which is Asia’s biggest slum, and hotspot in Mumbai with most cases, exports many items. Economic activities have come to the standstill due to the national lockdown to contain the spread of the virus.

Many migrants have left for their native places from these big cities due to the fear of catching the infection, and therefore/restarting economic activities has become even more difficult. Shutting down major economic centers is going to have a devastating effect on India’s economy at least in the short term. If these centers were more spread out across the country, probably, economic consequences of this lockdown would have been much under control.

This has brought a unique challenge before us. Most of our developmental activities, and employment opportunities are concentrated in big cities, and the urban agglomerations around these cities. While our farming sector still employs excess people more than it can sustain, all the other jobs are concentrated in big cities. Take the example of the software industry. Most of the software jobs in the country are in Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Chennai and Gurgaon. Similarly, most manufacturing jobs are scattered across the country but only near big cities which are few and far between. Why can’t cities like Bhopal, Indore, Nagpur, Aurangabad, Lucknow have software parks? Now in the changed situations, many sectors can adapt with work from home, as the lockdown period has shown us. 

Why can’t an engineering graduate, say from a city like Rourkela, Patna, or Tirunelveli work from the comfort of his home for a software company? All you need is a laptop, and an internet connection. This will save him moving to another city, renting a house, purchase of a vehicle to commute, save his time and money and also contribute in decongestion of cities. It will also increase quality of life in these cities. Many people from the previous generation remember Bangalore and Pune as quiet towns in the 80s and early 90s. Software revolution of the late 90s started the growth of these cities, which was mostly unplanned and today they are bustling metros with traffic jams, polluted water bodies and air pollution.

Most Indian cities have grown beyond what we can effectively manage. Bigger the city, bigger the challenges of managing traffic, slums, ensuring sufficient water supply, and other public utilities like hospitals, schools and parks. Currently cities like Delhi and Mumbai are awfully short of hospital beds. While Mumbai has constructed at least five temporary hospitals, Delhi is yet to move in this direction.  Delhi has assimilated Noida, Gurgaon, Faridabad in itself while Mumbai has assimilated Thane, Navi Mumbai, Vasai, Kalyan etc. They are run by different civic bodies, further making coordination and planning among the authorities difficult.  

This is the time when we should start focusing on creating employment opportunities in tier 3 and tier 4 cities and even in rural areas, so people can find the employment near their homes and don’t need to migrate to metros in search of employment. This will bring much needed peace and tranquility in the people’s life increasing quality of life, also giving a chance of growth to tier 3 and tier 4 cities. Even union minister Nitin Gadkari, who perhaps urban development challenges much better than anyone else, due to his track record, has said in his recent interviews, it is time to decongest metros like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore. It’s time to develop new cities and urban centres. 

Just to give you an example, many employees from our software companies go to offsite locations in different European countries or even in the USA. While many among them have their work locations in the cities, a good number of them actually work in European and American villages, with a population of not more than 5,000 – 10,000. Of course, unlike Indian villages,  these villages have all the facilities for a comfortable lifestyle, and people don’t miss cities, however with the benefit of non-polluted air, walking down to office, or at the most on cycles. We can’t imagine walking to our workplaces in India. However, if suitable policy interventions are done now making use of Covid crisis, our next generations can enjoy this lifestyle in India.

(About the author: This article is written by Keshav, a media graduate, who left journalism for an alternative career. Traveler, Aviation Enthusiast. Indian, Marwari, Marathi in that order)

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