Narendar Pani

Self-sufficient cities, the answer to spread of Covid

Narendar Pani | Updated on June 28, 2020

We are seeing a distributed Covid curve across cities. To deal with this, each city needs to go local in sourcing critical inputs

The preoccupation of our policymakers with building grand national strategies across a diverse country has repeatedly taken a toll on our cities. Urban policy has typically consisted of grand initiatives — ranging from the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission to the Smart Cities initiative. Even as these strategies demanded the making of local plans, the conditions laid out for the local plans to follow usually limited the extent to which the specificities of each city could be taken into account.

The dynamics of each urban centre can be very different, with some being led by infusion of capital, just as others continue to be effective transit points for labour. Even when the patterns across cities are similar, the fact that they can be at different stages of the same process at different times can substantially alter the national picture.

Nowhere is the impact of cities being at the same point in a curve at different times been more critical than during the current pandemic. Cities around the world are seeing coronavirus cases gaining momentum until they reach a peak and then start to diminish. Indian cities are no exception to this pattern. But at each point of time different cities are at varying stages of the curve.

Mumbai has dominated the early rise of the pandemic in India. After accounting for a substantial portion of the cases, and deaths, there are signs of the Covid growth slowing.

There are models of the curve in that metropolis peaking by the beginning of July. Even as there may be a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel for Mumbai, the growth of cases in Delhi has begun to spike. And, trends in Chennai suggest it is possibly further away from its peak.

The sequential occurrence of the curve in each city has led one of the doctors managing the crisis to point out that we have distributed the curve rather than flattened it. This distributed curve for cases in India as a whole can keep growing even as individual cities dominate it and then recede into the background. The growth in the overall number of cases can continue as long as there are other cities that remain vulnerable to the virus and cause the curve to move upwards at different points of time.

In dealing with such a distributed curve, grand national strategies are a liability. This became quite evident during the national lockdown. The most comprehensive lockdown in the world ensured that districts that had no cases were forced to shut down their economic operations. These shutdowns, when the virus was yet to make its presence felt, increased the overall economic cost of the pandemic. As these costs became unbearable, especially for the poor, there was intense pressure to open up the economy. This meant the lockdown was lifted in cities where the cases were just beginning to grow very rapidly. Indeed, for the country as a whole, the overall curve of cases was still rising when the lockdown was lifted.

Blunt approach

In practice, there has been some recognition of the consequences of using the lockdown as a blunt instrument rather than a surgical strike against the virus. States have been given greater freedom to work out the details of their lockdowns, and cities have been able to develop more focussed containment zones. But there are few signs of an effective strategy to deal with the consequences of the distributed curve on the economic recovery of cities.

The fact that cities are following the virus curve sequentially would mean the curve could keep growing for a longer period. This would delay a recovery and make assumptions of a V-shaped rebound less realistic. As individual States constrain activities as they may need to do locally, there would be less demand from that part of the country. Larger supply chains could also be disrupted if the manufacture of a particular component of a product is concentrated at a point where a local lockdown is in force. And the national news networks reminding us that cases are growing in the country as a whole acts as a dampener on the mood of individuals, and their desire to spend.

Cities will then need to manage the economic effects of the pandemic. Cities that are past the worst in their experience of the pandemic would need to evolve strategies for growth that reduce the impact of the effects of the virus on other parts of the country.

This would include encouraging firms to consider more local options, particularly for the supply of critical inputs in their products. As the economic effects of the distributed curve will last well after its medical aspects have become less relevant, cities will need to act local even as they continue to think global.

The writer is a professor at the School of Social Science, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

Published on June 29, 2020

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