Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR) in association with Chinmaya Vishwavidyapeeth (CVV) hosted a live webinar on “COVID-19 & Urbanisation: Reimagining Our Urban Development Goals” on June 9, 2020. Mr Raj Cherubal, CEO-Chennai Smart City Limited, was the guest speaker and Ms Praseeda Mukundan, Senior Research Associate, CPPR-Centre for Urban Studies, was the moderator.

The webinar began with a welcome address by Ms Mukundan and introducing the topic for discussion by stating the complex situation the world is facing now and how the urban areas are worst hit. The world being urban-centric, the flattening or rising of the COVID-19 curve would ultimately pave the way to a new way of life. A lot of challenges have been put forward by the pandemic on many urban aspects that were not previously seen as a serious issue.

Mr Cherubal began his talk by telling that a lot of problems like water shortage, crowded transport, urban poor and slums existed even before COVID-19 surfaced and that need to be resolved. He mentioned that a lot of work in Chennai Smart City was done as a response to the previous disasters like floods. There is also the climate change issue and COVID-19 might help us think more about it.

He pointed out that cities of the world had a lot of time to make mistakes and learn from it, but cities like Mumbai, Chennai and Kochi can skip many of these steps and leap forward without going through the same process or repeating faults made by other old cities.

He discussed equivalence in urban governance by stating that we need to move fast and talk about a multidisciplinary approach, circular economy, resilience and carbon emission and it will get more complicated with all these aspects. He also stated that the current pandemic would also be a positive opportunity to learn from and move forward.

Ms Mukundan took the discussion forward by asking whether the smart cities are taking any measures to interconnect the many verticals that need to be connected.

To this, Mr Cherubal said that integrated planning has to be done by a government body like Transport for London (TfL), in London. Every advanced city has a layer on top leading integrated planning, coordinating with all the other departments and working as one plan. But at present, Indian cities do not have this layer. With the implementation of the Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMTA) in Indian cities, the transport sector in our cities could experience this positive change. The pedestrian plaza in Chennai is a culmination of works done by various departments. Some projects in Chennai Smart City are standalone, but larger ones are integrated which are scaled up and multiplied in various other parts of the city.

To Ms Mukundan’s question on how crucial is the integration of the public transport during the COVID times as people have a tendency to go back to using more private vehicles, Mr Cherubal said that before COVID-19 many people were not planning to buy cars, but now their mentality might have changed. Our cities are already congested and polluted and COVID19 should not accelerate the trend of travelling in private vehicles. He stated that systems like MRT, BRTS, more number of buses with improved user experience and better parking management will surely help in reducing pollution, congestion and generating employment. If the cities are willing to buy more buses and not cars, then we can imagine the boost it will give to job creation.

Ms Mukundan then took up the issue of COVID-19 situation helping us acknowledge the migrant labourers. Considering the plight of these city dwellers, she asked how we should respond to such a situation.

Mr Cherubal replied that the time has come for us to be aware of the fact that the GDP contribution by the informal sector can be a lot more than some of the IT firms. He said that when we talk about footpaths and cycle tracks, we speak against street hawkers as they occupy the footpath. He stressed on the need to recognise street vendors and treat them as small businessmen and not beggars or criminals. He also emphasised the need to give less space for cars and more space for walking and vending. He also suggested developing alternate construction solutions (different from brick and cement structures) in providing housing and shelter to migrant workers.

Ms Mukundan put across the question regarding how smart cities are using the penetration of digital infrastructure and whether there are any challenges.

Mr Cherubal said thatdigital technology is like the icing on the cake. But it is the improved quality of life which is to be achieved through this important tool. He gave examples of smart cities around the world and in what aspects are they facilitating improved service delivery and infrastructure using technological solutions. The example of Integrated Command and Control Centre (ICCC) in Smart Cities Mission was used to explain its application; it is not a data collection centre but it analyses the data collected and acts accordingly to ensure a better life for the citizens. Through various examples, he reiterated the point that data can be an important tool in efficient decision making and nudging citizens for positive attitudes towards sustainable development.

When asked about the dependence of Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) on private players for the technological aspects and if our ULBs lack the required skill sets, Mr Cherubal explained that ULBs require better knowledge regarding each project so as to draft better RFPs (request for proposals) to ensure effective projects. Technical skills beyond this level would be in the scope of the private players commissioned to implement the project. He gave various examples to explain this concept and emphasised that effective institutional coordination and data-driven approach could contribute to the level of success of such projects.

Speaking in the context of COVID19 emphasising the need for decentralisation, Ms Mukundan raised the question on the governance challenges faced by a local government, especially when SPVs (Special Purpose Vehicles), like in the case of Smart Cities Limited, are functioning parallel in achieving development goals. Mr Cherubal answered that SPVs can never be parallel bodies, instead they are functioning like agencies within ULBs which can fill the gaps in the ULBs, especially in areas of technical expertise, institutional coordination, project management and implementation. He also pointed out that many officials within the SPVs are ULBs officials and this results in a conflict of interest. He also stressed that no city can transform considerably without decentralisation.

Mr Cherubal highlighted the point that bureaucracy, technocracy and technically sound staff headed by political leadership should be the way forward for developing TfL like government agencies in India, spearheading urban development.

Speaking on the slowdown of urbanisation, Mr Cherubal was of the opinion that urbanisation is here to stay. He pointed out that migration shall be there, but reminded that the difference between distress migration and voluntary migration should be considered for further research on it.

Talking about the inclusivity of smart cities, he explained with examples that smart cities are inclusive of all their residents and do not entail increased living costs. He concluded the discussion by stating that smartness in governance is crucial.

The webinar ended with concluding remarks by Dr Vanisree Ramanathan, faculty of CVV. She also summarised the key takeaways from the session.

The report is prepared by Kahini Ojha and Meghna Anilkumar, Research Interns with CPPR-Centre for Urban Studies.

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