COVID-19: Why we must reorganise cities to deal with the third wave
By Bhargavi Rao
The Karnataka government finally realised that pandemics cannot be fought top down and has proposed a decentralised approach at the ward levels in Bengaluru.
As ambulances siren through streets and social media is filled with desperate pleas for beds, ICUs, oxygen and Remdesivir, phones keep ringing with news of relatives, friends and contacts falling sick and many losing their loved ones. A state of shock engulfs us while we are unable to process it all. The sheer scale of the calamity is difficult to fathom
Humanity has never been challenged like this in recent history, with such a complex concoction of problems, even though many pandemics have swept across the earth. A centralised decision-making system, failed local governance, lack of public health infrastructure, badly planned cities and towns, lack of awareness combined with lack of transparency and an arrogant administration have escalated the COVID-19 disaster.
There have been innumerable efforts in the past by civil society, trade unions, academia, public health experts and others who repeatedly stressed the crucial importance of strengthening local governance as key to mitigating and managing problems. These efforts have reached various High Courts and the Supreme Court too as Public Interest Litigations, trying to make local governance work. But the hubristic reliance and faith in centralised management has been such that even court orders directing public involvement in decision-making have all been disregarded. The whims and fancies of a few in power have prevailed with technology-based solutions for the pandemic.
Now a year since the virus knocked on our doors, while most apps and portals have proved to be of little use, the significance of local governance and the importance of caring for our immediate neighbourhoods has emerged as the solution to save us. The 1992 Constitutional 73rd and 74th Amendments ensured local governments as the third tier of governance. Thirty years later, after unprecedented loss of lives and livelihoods, the Government of Karnataka has finally realised that pandemics cannot be fought top down and a decentralised approach has now been proposed at the ward levels in Bengaluru: Decentralised Triage and Emergency Response (DETER) Committees for COVID-19 management have been initiated.
The order details the objectives, responsibilities, areas for resource mapping and training, and lays out an overall strategy to mitigate COVID-19 ground up. There has been little consultation on it and was surely passed in a hurry for it is far from being human-centric, with too much focus on infrastructure and power while it begs for revision and review.
But what is important is while our local governance institutions are dysfunctional now – Bengaluru does not have an elected council – the coming together as a community almost everywhere demonstrates people’s way of collectively asserting that they do know how to govern themselves. This when the state, which is meant to have worked for their welfare, has failed them miserably. This collective power is not looking for attention or votes; it works quietly, with humility and deeply humanistically. And round the clock.
This has shown how, as humans, cooperation is critical to survival. When there is a collective good that has been identified, we come together overlooking several structural differences. This is most evident in how people have come together to help each other in such dire times. Heart-wrenching stories of older people sacrificing beds for the young, or how strangers have come forward to perform the last rites of those not known to them fill one with hope for our humanism. Those recovering from COVID-19 are grateful to so many in their local areas who stepped out arranging transport, hunted for beds, ICUs, medicines and ensured food supplies as well as to the hospital staff who went beyond their call of duty to save lives. This despite all those horrific attempts to divide us by communal elements – especially certain bigoted elected representatives.
The ward committees that have now breathed some life into COVID-19 management must be completely utilised to identify the gaps in every ward, particularly in the context of the 12th schedule that has 18 crucial points such as: Regulation of land use and construction of land buildings, Urban planning including town planning, Public health sanitation, conservancy and solid waste management, Slum improvement and upgradation, Provision of urban amenities and facilities such as parks, gardens and playgrounds, Burials and burials grounds, cremation and cremation grounds and electric crematoriums, Vital statistics including registration of births and deaths, to name a few.
Access to information, local community participation from all sections of society, involvement of youth in identifying the gaps, and reorganising and redesigning parts of each ward in accordance with the town and country planning laws will go a long way in planning not just for the third wave but also towards the risks of climate change. It is now time for all those with the comfort of work from home to read, translate, disseminate and help everyone understand this order. There should be safe forums for every section of society (minorities, women, senior citizens, those with disability, and others) in every ward to participate in the reorganisation of each neighbourhood for COVID-19 appropriate housing, mobility, access to public health, markets, open spaces and more. Every ward needs to focus attention on evolving Ward Development Schemes that guarantee decent livelihoods, healthy lifestyles, green and safe open public spaces, isolation centres, and accessing health should not be a technology-based nightmare like it is now.
The pandemic has also highlighted decades of poor urban planning. We have not learnt from the plague of 1894 which pushed Bengaluru to redesign itself. Post-independence, the expansion of the city, horizontally and vertically, has ghettoised communities and made even high-end enclaves set up for disasters with enclosed spaces for the virus to prance and proliferate. We are at a turning point now to reorganise our cities, towns and villages. According to estimates, about 70% of the global population will be in cities by 2050 and this is certainly not the last pandemic. While we must urgently prepare for the third wave, climate change extreme weather situation is already here. All efforts must start with steps to first cater to the most vulnerable.
Bhargavi S Rao works at the intersections of community action with law, policy, planning and governance. She is Deputy Director, Centre for Financial Accountability, and Trustee of the Environment Support Group.