• The pandemic revealed how Indian cities dependent on those working in the informal economy.

• There are three critical shortcomings in Indian city apparatus holding back improvements for such people.

• Women are one group particularly affected by lack of progress on urban inequity.

India’s vulnerable urban populations – including low-income migrants and slum dwellers, and women – face persistent challenges in everyday life. When the novel coronavirus struck cities, their plight became visible in a way it rarely had before. The pandemic also revealed the extent of Indian cities’ dependence on the informal economy, which is predominantly fuelled by their vulnerable populations.

The onset of COVID-19 exposed three critical gaps in India’s city apparatus: poor infrastructure/service delivery; lack of data for informed policy-making; and vulnerable groups’ lack of agency despite their role in economic growth. Existing inequities also worsened the economic, social and psychological hardships of women who suffered from the burden of increased unpaid domestic and care work, and grappled with gender-based violence. As we move into the post-pandemic world, it is critical for this crisis to be an impetus for city authorities to rectify these problems and foster a more inclusive society.

First, though cities are India’s economic powerhouses, by and large they perform unsatisfactorily on metrics of service delivery and infrastructure development. In the early days of the pandemic-induced lockdown, 10+ people often shared a single room in slums and did not have adequate access to water. Social distancing and frequent handwashing thus became difficult in these areas. Moreover, with greater numbers of people using the facilities, slum resources were stretched thin. It is no surprise that in Mumbai, India’s financial capital, a study by Patranabis et al (2020) showed that most infection hotspots were either in or situated near informal settlements. Due to abject living conditions, residents of these slums are also prey to additional health burdens, including respiratory and lung illnesses, which further magnified the damaging impact of the pandemic. This experience underlines the importance of revising archaic regulations and market-constraining policies, such as zoning and low caps on Floor Space Index (FSI), and provisioning affordable housing for all.

Second, lack of data meant that schemes to help vulnerable groups suffered from poor targeting. Apart from limited census numbers on low-income migrants, official information on this population segment is almost non-existent; in the past, researchers used proxies such as railway data to gauge the movement of people. Similarly, multiple studies confirm that the pandemic has led to a disproportionate fall in the labour participation rate (FLPR) of women in the country. In 2020, India’s FLPR plummeted to below 25%. Moreover, since most economically active women are employed informally in low-paid sectors, such as agriculture, they are not included in official labour statistics and the exact extent of the pandemic’s effect on them cannot be known. Inadequate data leads to misrepresentation of the public services required in cities, thereby reducing their accessibility. Since several migrants vote in their hometowns, they are classified as natives of those places, depriving them of the claims that city residents are entitled to, including food rations and other benefits. When urban spaces became the loci of COVID-19 contagion, arranging buses/trains to ferry migrants back to their hometowns proved to be problematic due to this insufficiency of data. Consequently, migrants walked hundreds of kilometres to their villages. Collecting and using data on migrants and slum-dwellers for better policy-making can go a long way in ensuring higher standards of living for them.

Third, though cities thrive because of low-income migrants, the fact that about 65% of them work in the informal sector means that they do not have much agency in matters that affect them. Pre-pandemic, these migrants served food in restaurants, drove cars for the wealthy, and performed menial tasks in office buildings. During the pandemic, they formed a bulk of “essential workers”, such as food delivery people and vegetable-sellers. These are vital functions. But schemes for them are designed solely from an elite perspective; as a result, the issues faced by marginalized sections of the population continue. Further, the urban poor are not really seen as “poor”, which traditionally holds rural connotations in India. Hence, they possess few social safety nets. It is only recently that the policy needle shifted towards conceptualizing an urban unemployment subsidy, akin to the rural Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, with slum-dwellers as key beneficiaries. Involving slum occupants in decision-making processes can boost economic growth and quality of life.

Women are another vulnerable section of cities’ populations lacking much agency. They also contribute to keeping urban spaces ticking, but are largely not involved in policy-making processes. Their challenges too were revealed by the pandemic. For instance, research confirms that Indian women/girls contribute 3.26 billion hours of unpaid labour daily, amounting to INR19 trillion of the economy per year; this rose during the pandemic. With several slum households having only one smartphone, thousands of girls had to temporarily or permanently drop out of school due to household responsibilities, or male preference for education. Similarly, rates of domestic violence spiked, and women were seen waiting for hours to fetch water. The impact of these ripple effects, stemming from women’s lack of agency, will likely be severe. Hence, along with vulnerable urban groups, improving conditions for city women demand urgent attention.

It is evident that the vulnerable face the brunt of crises. Policy-makers can adopt a number of measures to ramp up public service delivery and land reform, enhance data collection/use, and involve marginalized groups in decision-making.

One, governments should endeavour to enhance accessibility to public services, including running water and waste management/sanitation systems, in slums. Two, to build more affordable housing, instead of zoning (designating land for residential, commercial and industrial use), mixed land use must be allowed, and FSI (the amount of floor area permitted to be built on a given plot of land) needs to be increased, especially in city centres. Expanding cities vertically can help slum-dwellers move to formal housing. Three, to measure the extent of the problems faced by informal populations, data is imperative. The recent One Nation One Ration Card programme launched by the Indian government will be instrumental in creating a directory of not just migrant labour, but also the services they can avail in urban areas; moreover, it can be linked to other datasets of property registration, rental agreements and employment.

Similarly, to close the gender gap in the labour force and to counter the disproportionate long-term effect the pandemic is expected to have on women, authorities in India need to collect and use gender-specific labour data for policy-making. Finally, to plug the gaps faced by marginalized groups, they need to be part of the conversation and inform decisions that affect their lives. Further, with a gendered approach to policy-making, issues that women face can be incorporated into urban planning and governance. While these recommendations are known in principle, the reasons behind their lack of implementation need to be tackled.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about the future of cities?

Cities represent humanity's greatest achievements - and greatest challenges. From inequality to air pollution, poorly designed cities are feeling the strain as 68% of humanity is predicted to live in urban areas by 2050.

The World Economic Forum supports a number of projects designed to make cities cleaner, greener and more inclusive.

These include hosting the Global Future Council on Cities and Urbanization, which gathers bright ideas from around the world to inspire city leaders, and running the Future of Urban Development and Services initiative. The latter focuses on how themes such as the circular economy and the Fourth Industrial Revolution can be harnessed to create better cities. To shed light on the housing crisis, the Forum has produced the report Making Affordable Housing a Reality in Cities.

COVID-19 laid bare the long-standing predicament of vulnerable urban populations. As vaccines are rolled out and India inches back to normality, the repercussions of the pandemic must be addressed for safer and more welcoming cities.