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What will our post-pandemic habitat be? - Tikender Singh panwar

June 29, 2021 09:48 PM

What will our post-pandemic habitat be?

This is a question that demands attention from planners, architects, and governance structures alike. The pandemic has exposed the hollowness of an already corroding system, and it merely became the proverbial “final nail in the coffin”. The disruption it has caused cannot be rectified by the usual lackadaisical approach, which cannot make our cities sustainable.

The UN-Habitat has pointed out that, in the initial three months of the pandemic 95 per cent of the cases were reported in cities and urban centres. The pandemic has pushed 200 million people to abject poverty.

It has compelled cities to build strong, environmentally sustainable neighbourhoods. A new term, known as “social contract” between the public, civil society and private can ensure the cities become resilient. This social contract must ensure that health, housing and security of the vulnerable are prioritised. Importantly land tenure rights of the communities and different sections of the people must be secured in cities.

This is the global cauldron which cities across the world must adhere to, if not constitutionally, at least the spirit must be ingrained. However, we are witnessing the inverse. Our current habitat is not sustainable. There are 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) six of which directly relate to cities.

Our current habitat will not fetch us desired results. The foremost trend over the last few decades in India is a complete marginalisation of labour and increased corporatisation of the city affairs. This has led to a serious crisis with housing, and social amenities, while the incomes of people living in the cities has been challenged. The pandemic deepened the problem.

Building plans, in order to attract investments focussed more on large capital-intensive technologies and did not pay heed to the requirements of people.  People demanded playgrounds, instead, commercial stadiums were provided; similarly, instead of neighbourhood health centres, super speciality hospitals were opened up. Such amenities were made inaccessible to the common people, despite usurping their urban commons.

This model led to a complete failure to provide houses in the urban areas. Firstly, real estate development was pushed to attract private capital doling them concessions, without realising that such models will not sustain. In India, nearly 40 per cent live in a single room house. In the urban agglomerates, 40 per cent of the people live in slums where neither land tenure rights nor basic amenities exist. This model of habitat cannot sustain our cities.

Highrise buildings and extensive use of glass in the ventilation systems accentuated the crisis as poor ventilation is conducive to the spread of the virus.

The insurance-driven urban health system also crumbled. The states which performed better like Kerala and Himachal Pradesh relied on their strong public health systems. Hence, the push for unregulated privatisation of health systems in our cities needs to be thought over.

 

REVISIT THE GOVERNANCE MODEL

The current model of urban governance which is a manifestation of “ruler-subject” dictum alienates the people from a participatory role. The first urban commission in India was formed in 1985 under Charles Correa. This envisioned a plan for urbanisation in India with manufacturing as a driving force. After 3.5 decades hence, the urban dynamics have drastically changed. The trend in the cities favours capital accumulation while widening inequities. Nearly 85 per cent of the workforces have no written contracts with their employers.

The role of the local bodies and institutions has been further marginalised with the onset of the smart city missions (SCM). The city councils now stand negated and it is the SPVs (Special Purpose Vehicles) that make decisions on the public works funded under the SCMs. Against people's desires, the SCM has failed. The mission is nearing its end and not even 50 per cent of the projects have been completed.

The governance model for a sustainable habitat has to be linked with people's participation and their engagement. This must be decentralised and democratised. People must be given the opportunity to decide their urban futures.

New forms of typologies must be planned in design and handed over to the local bodies. A house to be constructed in a coastal zone cannot be replicated in a temperature zone like Ladakh and Kinnaur where the temperatures fall to minus 20 degrees Celsius.

The pandemic has not only exposed the present discourse but also encouraged us to think out of the box. We must realise that cities do not merely exist for the formation of capital but for their people to live in harmony with nature. These steps need urgent attention and quick implementation of solutions. Collectively, we must acknowledge that only if we secure a sustainable present will we have a sound future. 

 

 

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