During the past 8 months, the indispensable role played by communities has shown that they are the lifeblood of cities and essential building blocks of society.

Social volunteers distribute free-food to homeless and the poor during the lockdown to contain the spread of Covid-19 in Hyderabad Monday March 30 2020PTI file image
news Human Interest Saturday, October 31, 2020 - 10:58

Cities are home to 55% of the world’s population and generate 80% of the world’s economic output. Cities have the potential to create sustained economic prosperity and improve the quality of life for all. They provide pathways out of poverty and act as engines of economic growth. Today we celebrate ‘World Cities Day’ in the backdrop of an unpreceded pandemic that our generation is not likely to forget for a long time to come.

Around the world, cities and densely populated urban areas have had to bear maximum losses from COVID-19 in terms of both economic loss and loss of life. The cities of New YorkMilan and Mumbai alone have seen over 1.2 million cases and nearly 75,000 deaths. In India, the bulk of COVID-19 cases and deaths is concentrated in 10 major cities.

Healthcare professionals, police and other frontline workers are doing their best each day to alleviate the effect of the pandemic and it is extremely important to appreciate and acknowledge their contributions. At the same time, it is also important to recognise the role of communities and community-based organisations in dealing with the pandemic. In the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the contribution of communities within cities has been immense.

During the past 8 months, the indispensable role played by communities has shown that they are the lifeblood of cities and the most essential building blocks providing the economic, environmental and social value to urban life. Communities are innovative, creative, resilient and proactive in terms of finding solutions, particularly during crises. Communities and community-based organisations have been able to organise themselves in a very short span of time to respond to the disruption of food and economic supply chains and support many vital city functions.

In a bid to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus when governments across the world declared lockdowns at mere hours’ notice, as in the case of India, the vulnerable migrant communities in cities were the worst affected. It is at that time that local communities and citizen groups sprang into action to fill in the gaps of communication and delivery of essential items to the vulnerable migrants.

In the cities of Mumbai, Delhi and Bengaluru, community volunteers worked with NGOs to package and distribute food ration kits across slums taking the help of community leaders. Community-based organisations worked with slum communities in Mumbai to identify patients with chronic and acute health conditions. In fact, it is believed that involving social workers was key to building on early gains in combating the pandemic in Mumbai’s Dharavi. In Surat and Pune, local communities, civil society and corporates came forward to partner with the government in rendering public services. Some of these initiatives have the potential for wider deployment even after the pandemic is over.

In cities across the country, community kitchens were set up that supply cooked and uncooked food to the needy with the help of local non-profit organisations, self-help groups and volunteers. The role played by resident welfare associations in monitoring and evaluating the spread of the virus in their residential communities and following quarantine norms as per guidelines also needs to be appreciated. In Chennai, community groups came together to provide free counselling for victims and their families and also for frontline workers such as doctors, nurses, paramedics and policemen.

Community-based organisations also came up with initiatives to distribute PPE kits, hygiene kits and basic medicines among the vulnerable communities. Awareness campaigns were developed and delivered in local languages to ensure the message of physical distancing and handwashing is passed on within the communities that reside in densely populated urban areas.

Thus, communities help fill in the gaps that governments often neglect, by providing the last mile support and creating local networks and resources, often drawing from the very same pool of people they help. All this can be extremely crucial and lifesaving in times of crisis like the one we are facing today. Post-COVID, cities will require even stronger integration of communities, their needs, aspirations, ideas and capacities. Local level action and diverse groups will be fundamental in delivering sustainable urbanisation and the recovery from COVID-19, but must be enabled and empowered through policy change, financial resources and political will.

The role of communities and community-based organisations in India’s urban governance paradigm prior to COVID-19 had been ad-hoc and limited. The community has risen to the challenge of the pandemic in every sense. In fact, post the pandemic the government needs to systematically engage communities when deploying new technology or forms of response to ensure maximum benefit and participation, and the sustainability of initiatives.

This pandemic has brought a costly but timely lesson on valuing communities in a more systematic manner and including them in urban planning, implementation and monitoring. Communities cannot continue to be an afterthought and bypassed in the decision-making process.

Sukanya Bhaumik is an urban planner and a Ph D Scholar at the Institute for Social and Economic Change. Views expressed are the author’s own.

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