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COVID-19 Crisis: An Opportunity for Urban & Rural Local Self-Governments

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The world is witnessing a huge economic downfall due to the COVID-19 pandemic which is further shaping into an endemic as per the World Health Organisation (WHO). Starting with China, many countries have a lockdown for all social, public-private, administration and other mass gathering activities, to flatten the curve. In India, the lockdown started across the country on March 24 ,2020, and is still in the continuum. The lockdown in India entered into its fourth phase on May 17, 2020. The sudden imposition of the lockdown without prior information to the citizens, has affected the migrated populations in tier 1 and tier 2 cities who lost their jobs, livelihood and got stranded without food and money. Due to the continuous extension of the lockdown and struggling starvation considering, “Jaan hai toh Jahaan hai” (Only if there is life there will be livelihood), all the poor workers started off to their native places on foot. The workers were seen walking along highways and railway tracks. This current vulnerable scenario has been exposed as an alarming situation to National as well as Local Self-Governments to take short as well as long term mitigation measures, while changing our socio-economic geography and focusing more on small towns & rural areas. COVID-19 provides an opportunity for urban & rural local bodies to review, revive, and reinvent their policies, plans & institutional mechanism, while considering the below core challenging areas, in terms of resolving the current situation as well.

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  1. URBAN & REGIONAL PLANNING 

India is experiencing large scale urbanization. This is primarily a result of migration from rural areas to urban areas as urban areas provide better job opportunities, education, lifestyle, infrastructure, in comparison to rural areas. Population, migration and urbanisation has led to various urban & regional issues such as shortage of housing, urban sprawl, loss of agricultural land, burden on infrastructure, increase in number of vehicles, poor water and sanitation facilities, environment degradation

Challenges 

  • The main challenges plaguing urban & regional planning in India is the long process stipulated by central/state planning organizations and boards.

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  • Limited revenue-generation powers and inappropriately targeted intergovernmental transfers resulting in inadequate local government financial resources.

  • Poor collaboration among planning and other administrative bodies at city and regional level.

  • Whilst infrastructural and other investment are still needed in the remoter, and rural areas of India.

  • Strengthening the framework that regulates urban and territorial development at grass root level.

Opportunity

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the role of Urban & Regional Planning to focus on regional development in making towns and rural areas self-resilient, bring policies & plans to upgrade rural areas, by providing adequate infrastructure (schools, dispensaries, vocational centres), incubation of SMEs/start-ups, agro based economy revival, creation of opportunities at grassroot levels.

Recommendations

  • Encourage integration of spatial planning at all hierarchical levels of planning regions such as national, state & regional and local level (housing, urban infrastructure including transport, water, sanitation, health facilities and other community services), disaster management etc.

  • Critical or territorial infrastructure development/retrofitting to encourage bicycle or walkways along pedestrians, social distancing norms based infra in public parks including street furniture, queue management, staggered seating arrangements in mass transportation buses, encouraging metrolite, and Command &  Control Centres for various urban & rural activities.

  • The Government shall initiate comprehensive work on developing a national spatial strategy and link it to the ongoing activities, such as the Smart Cities programme, AMRUT, HRIDAY, WASH, Swachh Bharat Mission, National Urban Livelihood Mission (NULM) and Housing for All other urban planning guidelines such as URDPFI, for the optimum utilisation of land and provide adequate infrastructure and health facilities (especially for urban poor).

  • Government needs to spend much more in rural areas (informal sector and agricultural) to balance consumption rate of resources, which in succession will boost the key to recovery and economy.

  • Enlisting returned workers in local Swarojgar list (MGNREGA) and provide other incentives under various schemes.

  • Uplift living labs in urban as well as rural areas, on a practice based innovation process to address urban problems of various complexity, promoting new platforms for experimentation, citizen participation and collaboration.

    2. CLIMATE CHANGE 

    Urbanization has deeply affected the environment and climate all over the world and caused adverse impacts such as poverty, pollution, urban sprawl, air pollution, contaminated water, agricultural sector and increase in greenhouse gases emissions from various sectors. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global temperatures have already risen by 1 degree Celsius compared to preindustrial levels. India is particularly vulnerable to the diverse effects of climate change because most of the people live in rural areas, and dependent mainly on natural resources such as local water supply, agricultural land and lack of inadequate infrastructure and government planning to deal with complex weather systems.

    Challenges

    • To address climate change, funding is a challenge for governments to design and implement adaptation and mitigation plans and projects. Lack of technology, R & D centres to mitigating and adapting to climate change and clean technologies.

    • Integrated climate change planning across urban & rural local bodies and other departments.

    • A number of international initiatives are underway to improve the condition of municipal finances.

    Opportunity 

    The nationwide lockdown has enforced restrictions, which reduced emissions from transportation and industries, but such forceful steps of shutting down the economy to be the way to clean the air are not sustainable at all. To avoid pollution levels bouncing back as economic activities are expected to resume, albeit slowly, there are time tested methods to achieve better air quality and build a green future, without putting people into hardships.

    Recommendations 

    • The need of local government with regard to climate adaptation and mitigation should be given a priority and a percentage of budgetary allocation shall be marked as CLIMATE FINANCE BUDGET.

    • Resilient urban infrastructure, green building materials, more efficient means of transportation i.e. EVs, private vehicles, better choice of energy sources, climate adaptation strategy and interoperability post COVID-19 are all crucial to address climate change as part of urban planning.

    • Urban local bodies shall define its climate finance resources as crucial efforts to meet goals on climate change, to attract investment from private as well as bilateral donor agencies.

    • More numbers of climate change societies, and related institutions to raise awareness and give training to people in any calamity. This could help to enable socio-economic transformation in a positive manner.

    • Encouraging the transfer or adoption of locally important innovations (e.g. water harvesting systems). Also develop communication technologies in order to improve access to and handling of information in rural areas.

    • Set local emissions goals & incentivization policies to local governments for Carbon emission control.

    • Encouragement towards Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) initiatives, self-help groups (SHG), civic society, community institutions, to increase funds/grants for climate change to raise awareness, maintaining the norms and give training to people in any calamity, especially in rural areas.

    • A network of regional technology innovation centres’ should be set up to catalyse collaborative R&D, provide reliable information on available technologies, their costs and performance and enable capacity building on deployment of clean technologies and their further innovation.

    3. DATA DRIVEN FOR DECISION MAKING & TECHNOLOGY INNOVATION

    The relevance of data driven innovation plays a vital role to provide adequate infrastructure facilities and citizens’ services as well. Smart Cities Mission by GoI intends to implement Data Smart Cities Strategy for all 100 Smart Cities through their ULBs to leverage the potential of data for solving complex urban problems impacting their citizens. The COVID-19 pandemic has overturned our lives. We are facing a global crisis. To combat this pandemic and plan policies and decisions, will require availability of right data and smart technology tools. GIS platform can play a key role in end-to-end requirements of implementing smart solutions for different departments in an integrated way. The current pandemic has enlightened the importance of significant data. Even classifying the areas into red, orange and green is an example of how data is being used to deal with difficult situations. Moving forward, the data will play a very important role in social and economic recovery

     

    Challenges 

    • Availability of right data is the most common problem, and plays a crucial role in building the right decision or plan.

    • Data confidentiality and power structures pose significant challenges to use of administrative data in open government and program evaluation etc. and absence of incentives among agencies/institutions to generate and share reliable data.

    • Digital divide between rural and urban areas due to lack of knowledge of using digital technologies for online education and information for rural people.

    • Data generated or gathered, is not always used by other departments to drive decisions and innovation. This could be on account of barriers to the adoption of data-related technologies and bringing about the necessary changes in the organisation structure.

    Opportunity

    The COVID-19 global pandemic has highlighted the importance of data in dealing with health infrastructure, migration, loss of employment, homeless people etc. This is the right time to collectively look at all types of data , both for urban and rural areas i.e. migration, unemployment, education, housing, environment pollution, healthcare infrastructure, etc. in making better plans/policies and decisions for people, especially for vulnerable. For example, a better understanding of migration data would also help in the formulation of more realistic rural development strategies that recognise and support multi-locational livelihood strategies, and help people to make informed choices about where they want to work without forcing them to live off local agriculture alone.

    Recommendations

    • Create and implement information and data frameworks that build consistency in data capture and storage and enable data access, use and re-use by multiple stakeholder groups for regular development processes

    • To fully realize the power of technology & data to solve complex urban & rural issues, there is a need for integrated and collaborative GIS based Information and Communication Technology Platform and integrate GIS & MIS with Sensor Networks, IoT, Navigation Systems.

    • Facilitate a standard process to capture, store and share relevant data across institutions that help to overcome knowledge gaps and barriers to building resilience development.

    • Uplift technology advancement in rural areas to improve the economy, can help in increasing income, minimising unemployment rates and creating jobs. For example, In China, the National Rural Comprehensive Information Service Platform (NRCISP) delivers data to farmers about everything from weather to seed varieties and soil types.

    • Formulate data policies based smart interventions for leveraging data from the key functional areas i.e. migration data (skilled & unskilled), human health and allied infrastructure, sector wise employment data, to support decision-making, mobility data(mode wise), municipality data(organisational structure, user collection fee, property tax data, and other charges, being levied)

    • Maintain risk data separately especially for the vulnerable group, that is easily accessible and share it with other organizations and citizens.

    • Enhance data monetisation to uplift the economy. For example, being able to retrieve authentic data and documents instantly, governments can improve targeting in welfare schemes and subsidies by reducing both inclusion and exclusion errors.

    • Datasets that utilise information across various datasets can also improve public service delivery. For example, cross-verification of the income tax return with the GST return can highlight possible tax evasion. Further, the government can earn benefit from the private sector by levying a fee for access to datasets.

    • Strong implementation and evolution of Smart cities initiatives across the cities. For example, the Government of Karnataka has used smart tools to assess the COVID – 19 situation by using Surveillance technologies, real-time tracking of ambulances and Disinfection services with GPS at command control centres.

    4. STRENGTHENING URBAN & RURAL GOVERNMENTS

    Urban and rural local bodies play a pivotal role in the planning and development of urban areas. The function involves such responsibilities as ensuring water, sewerage and solid waste management, providing healthcare and education, adequate infrastructure, preparing city development plans, and issuing permits, certificates and licences etc. The lack of effective devolution of power and knowledge to panchayats and municipalities in keeping with the constitutional obligations under the 73rd and 74th amendments is a major bottleneck in the essential transformation of urban & rural India. There is a strong felt need to activate and strengthen the local governance framework, civic bodies and other stakeholders to administrative, financial and technical processes and to implement various strategies.

     

    Challenges 

    • Urban & rural local bodies are lacking mobilization of resources and also financial autonomy.

    • Local bodies cannot address all matters and issues alone and require assistance in terms of funding, human resources, knowledge, data and information, professional services and other resources from the various stakeholders.

    • As long as paper-based communication and approval channels are not eliminated completely, the internal process will remain onerous.

    • Another point is inadequate exploitation of the tax and user fee resources that are existent, due to the inefficiency of municipal functionaries.

    Opportunity

    This current pandemic challenge provides an opportunity to government/ULBs/panchayats as well as individuals to develop and reshape our economy, make cities more resilient. There can be no better time to make our system of decentralised economic governance than the present approach, considering that in this unprecedented period of tackling the crisis by the COVID-19 pandemic, it is essentially the states which are at the frontline.

    Recommendations

    • The current hierarchical systems of centre – state must get redefined. All the 29 states of India to become federal in the true sense – as self-sustaining economic territories with infrastructure with a balanced economic geography rather than being focused towards the centre or focused points.

    • ULBs should serve as a single point of contact to get allowance for urban development projects. The infrastructure developers would approach just the ULB, which would interface with other government departments, such as environment, power, civil aviation, development authorities, etc., to seek permits.

    • Panchayats need to be brought into the three-tier devolution system envisaged in the Constitution; Centre-State-Panchayats (and municipalities).

    • The Centre needs to invest in the process of enabling decentralisation and raising standards of governance and fiscal process and preparing the necessary instruments.

    • Develop skills, including but not limited to: spatial and socioeconomic planning, integrating disaster and climate risk considerations in project evaluation/design, coordination, communication, data and technology management, and disaster management, response, recovery.

    • Regular, timely and standardized financial disclosures will help to create a municipal & panchayats information ecosystem for independent review and analysis by all stakeholders.

    • Need to establish a dedicated and a specialised trained cadre to serve and solve the complex needs of urban & rural local body governance.

    • Enhance the information & technology services in improving the efficiency in revenue collection and making the delivery process transparent. GIS has emerged as an important tool in improving operational efficiency and also planning and management of the infrastructure in such a manner that both urban and rural bodies can eventually gain financial & self-reliance.

    CONCLUSION

    The world is living in unprecedented time, experiencing a crisis at a scale never witnessed before. In the period of urbanisation and globalization, the disruptions due to COVID-19 have impacted all our lives and continues to push us towards a ‘NEW NORMAL’. Albeit, the current pandemic has helped in identifying the vulnerabilities and emerged as a platform where urban & rural governments, stakeholders, private sector as well as individuals, require to understand and perform carefully. There is a dire need to activate the concept of local self-government, which has been hollowed out from its place. With adequate fiscal support, resources, training & capacity building, local self-governments can play an important role in addressing the complex issues such as migration, unemployment, climate change, infrastructure by unifying the efforts through effective use of integrated spatial planning, investing more in rural agrarian economy, employment generation, rurban labs, improving environmental resilience, communication technologies, data driven decision-making for recovery as well as preparedness, developing skill sets, ICT & digital knowledge, mobilization of resources,  for strengthening local governments in all capacities. At last, we all can collectively overcome the impact of this global crisis and emerge stronger to build a resilient and self-reliant nation.

    Author – Amanpreet Kaur is an Uran Expert and holds a Master’s degree in Environment Planning from School of Planning and Architecture (SPA) Vijayawada. She has a rich working experience in Government and Infrastructure Advisory, Urban & Environment Planning, Transportation Planning, Public Sector Reforms, Institutional Strengthening, and Organizational Development & Capacity Building.

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