Cities have borne the maximum brunt of the COVID-19 outbreak but they will also be key to India's post-pandemic growth as they account for nearly 70 per cent of the country's GDP and an average of 25-30 people migrate to cities from rural areas every single minute, a new study has shown. The study by the Geneva-based World Economic Forum (WEF) said the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic has been catastrophic for cities.
"According to estimates, about 70 per cent of India's GDP comes from its cities and around 25-30 people migrate to the cities from rural areas every minute. However, most big cities in India have a wide economic disparity, with expansive slums and a large urban poor population," the WEF said. The study further said that about 25 million households in India — 35 per cent of all urban households — cannot afford housing at market prices and it is time to create a new urban paradigm that enables cities to be healthier, more inclusive and more resilient.
The WEF report, titled Indian Cities in the Post-Pandemic World, highlights the country's most pressing urban challenges that were further exacerbated by the pandemic. The report also provides insights for translating the lessons learned from the pandemic into an urban reform agenda. The impact of the pandemic has been profoundly uneven on different population groups. Vulnerable populations, including low-income migrant workers, have suffered the dual blows of lost income and weak social-protection coverage, while the pandemic has also laid bare gender-based imbalances in public and private life in India's urban areas, the WEF said.
The report, produced in collaboration with Mumbai-based IDFC Institute, compiles insights from leading global and Indian urban experts across seven thematic pillars — planning, housing, transport, environment, public health, gender and vulnerable populations. Among other recommendations, the report underscores the critical role data can play in helping cities manage and direct emergency operations during a crisis.
"But data alone is not a panacea; realizing the potential of cities requires empowered and capable governance, investment in transport and infrastructure to fuel productive urban economies, and a rethink of outdated planning norms and regulations," the WEF said. The wide-ranging recommendations compiled in the report include a rethink of outdated urban planning regulations, which will make cities more compact, commuter-friendly and green.
It also recommends greater decentralisation and empowerment of local governments, which will allow for more proximate and responsive governance. Besides, it suggests addressing supply-side constraints to building houses at an affordable cost and encouraging a vibrant rental housing market that allows for labour mobility.
The study also calls for investing in transport solutions that recognise the need to integrate peri-urban areas with urban cores, and bolstering health capacity in cities by increasing the number of trained healthcare personnel. It also recommended ensuring that infrastructure has the adequate functional capacity, aligned with current and future demands, and prioritising inclusivity by addressing the biases and impediments faced by women and vulnerable populations in accessing urban opportunities.
Another suggestion calls for prioritising action on environmental sustainability, air pollution and disaster management in urban rebuilding efforts. "Well-designed and governed cities can be dynamic centres that spur innovation, drive economic productivity and provide citizens with a good quality of life. The pandemic is an opportunity to address historical urban challenges and bring about positive long-term change," said Viraj Mehta, Head of India and South Asia and Member of the Executive Committee, World Economic Forum.
"Amidst every pandemic, from the bubonic plague to the Spanish flu, pundits have foretold the death of cities. And yet they have emerged stronger every time. The pandemic can be a turning point in India's urban journey if we draw the right lessons and translate them into lasting change," said Reuben Abraham, CEO and Senior Fellow at IDFC Institute. The study is part of the WEF's broader collaboration with the IDFC Institute for a working group on 'Rebuilding Cities' which has emerged from the Regional Action Group for South Asia. This group brings together public and private sector leaders and prominent experts from the region to interact regularly in order to support an adequate public-private response to the COVID-19 pandemic and jointly chart recovery efforts.
The working group on Rebuilding Cities is partnering with multiple Indian state governments to constitute state-level working committees comprising local and municipal government representatives, urban experts, and other relevant stakeholders to devise implementable and context-specific urban reform recommendations.
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