What COVID-19 can mean for SDG-11, sustainable cities and communities in India

As urban vulnerabilities are amplified by the COVID-19 pandemic, the idea of sustainable cities in Sustainable Development Goals needs to be revisited and put in action


The United Nations General Assembly, in September 2015, set a collection of 17 global goals as a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all by 2030. These sustainable development goals (SDG) evolved in the past few years as think-tanks and working groups realised millennium development goals focused only on the measurement of numbers, for eg, the measurement of infant mortality rate.

A focus on processes that evolved over time, however, can be more helpful to aim for more inclusive and sustainable development of member-nations and the world as a whole.

As we move beyond the first five years of the inception of SDGs, we are confronted with the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic that has taken an unprecedented toll on health, economic and the social systems of the world.

COVID-19 has been particularly responsible for exacerbating existing inequalities, with the vulnerable in advanced economies being the most affected as well. The World Urbanisation Prospects report by the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs estimated 55 per cent of the world’s population to be living in urban areas, expected to increase to 68 per cent by 2050.

India — according to a recent report by the National Commission on Population — will be home to 40 per cent urban dwellers by 2036, with a 57 per cent increment in the size of urban population. This was estimated based on data from the 2011 census.

India’s urban growth trajectory was characterised by sub-optimal public infrastructure and services and unplanned urban sprawl. “Policy-makers now realise urbanisation is set to accelerate with India’s rapid growth. There is still inadequate understanding of the need to plan for urbanisation and translate these plans into action,” said economist Isher Ahluwalia.

Ninety per cent of COVID-19 cases were found in urban areas, making cities the epicentres of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes the disease, according to the UN report. In India’s case, recent data showed states with a higher proportion of urban population had a greater COVID-19 case load. The nine largest cities accounted for a third and a fourth of the country’s total confirmed caseloads and active infections respectively.

These characteristics of Indian cities not only challenge, but also seemingly dismantle SDG 11. The goal, according to the UN, stated:

Making cities sustainable means creating career and business opportunities, safe and affordable housing, and building resilient societies and economies. It involves investment in public transport, creating green public spaces, and improving urban planning and management in participatory and inclusive ways.


Sub-optimal housing and overcrowding

Target 11.1 is to ensure access to adequate, safe and affordable housing and basic services, including the upgradation of slums for all by 2030. The 2011 Census estimated 66 million Indians lived in slums. This was 5.4 per cent of the country’s population and 17.4 per cent of its urban population. Urban spaces were, thus, more prone to transmission of SARS-CoV-2 owing to their high density and overcrowding.

Forty-two per cent of households in urban India had no room for social-distancing as three or more individuals share a room in such households, according to data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4, 2015-16), a large-scale, multi-round survey conducted in a representative sample of households throughout India. It provides state and national information for India on fertility, infant and child mortality, the practice of family planning, maternal and child health, reproductive health, nutrition, anaemia, utilisation and quality of health and family planning services.

About 61 and 55 per cent of urban households of the poorest and poorer quintiles respectively, had houses where more than three individuals slept per room, implying congestion and aggravating the risk of infection. This risk — due to overcrowding and space constraints in slums — can lead to physical-distancing and self-quarantining becoming almost non-existent.

Access to water and sanitation

The state of water and sanitation was a by-product of the planning process in cities if basic services were to be improved as envisaged in Target 11.1. In slums and informal settlements, however, access to clean water remained sub-optimal.

Every fifth household in India received drinking water from sources located outside the dwelling area, showed data. Almost every second and fourth household belonging to the lowest and second-lowest wealth quintile respectively, had to arrange water from outside, the burden of which mostly fell on women.

Around 80 per cent of these households and an overall 71 per cent of households that had no access to water within the dwelling area depend on women for fetching water from outside.

This consumed time for many women who are forced to manage other household chores simultaneously. This opportunity cost prevented them from pursuing opportunities that can lead to their socio-economic progress. The risk of exposure also makes them more vulnerable to infection.

Every second and fourth household belonging to the lowest and second-lowest wealth quintile did not have access to soap and water, while every fifth urban household in India lacked proper hand-hygiene practice, according to NFHS-4 data.

This dismal state of hand-washing among the urban poor posed risks for infection as hand-washing is a strong mechanism for preventing infection. Similarly, about 15 per cent of urban households used shared toilets, indicating further risk of infection from contaminated surfaces.

This practice is almost equivalent across the poorest and poorer quintiles (26 and 27 per cent respectively) as the practice of open defecation is more common among the lowest wealth quintile.

All these challenges — along with the loss of income, uncertain livelihoods and exhausted savings during the lockdown — exacerbated the urban poor’s vulnerabilities. In the din of current crisis, the aspiration of inclusive and sustainable urban settlements needs to come in the forefront of development policies.

Access to green spaces in urban areas

The pandemic limited our movement, but also renewed the importance of open green spaces in urban areas. Shivali Jainer and Shivani Yadav — of Delhi-based think-tank Centre for Science and Environment — charted out the importance of green spaces and how they can be put to use during the current pandemic.

The 2014 Urban and Regional Development Plans and Formulation and Implementation guidelines by the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs allocated 25-35 per cent land use for open and recreational spaces. Most Indian cities, however, did not meet the standard benchmark. Another appalling factor that fell flat in envisaging equitable green spaces was the exclusionary mechanism of their access by the marginalised.

Most urban green spaces were in the vicinity of gated colonies that house mostly the affluent. Vulnerable groups are systematically denied entry to these spaces.

The conspicuous socio-economic cultural disparities in urban India give way to apathy towards the marginalised.

A recent study carried out by the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay affirmed this notion as authors discovered neighbourhoods with better socio-economic conditions had better access to green spaces, compared to those with poor socio-economic conditions in Mumbai.

Revisiting SDG-11

Deep-seated inequities embedded in urban India were unmasked by data of the lowest wealth index quintile across indicators.

The pandemic exposed the lopsided trajectory of India’s urban growth and planning. As urban vulnerabilities were amplified during the pandemic, the idea of ‘sustainable cities’ previously envisaged in SDG-11 needs to be revisited and implemented.

As large cities grow, new arrivals concentrate either within the city or in urban fringes, where the city extends itself as well. Compact settlements along the urban fringe and in surrounding satellite cities and towns must, instead, be encouraged.

Focusing on the larger urban region instead of restricting focus on the city as the area that needs to be planned and developed, can help protect natural pre-existing green areas, including water bodies, water supply, food-growing areas, air quality and natural resources.

This form of distributive urban region planning also helps keep dwellings less congested for longer periods. Approaches such as these can potentially keep the cost of urban regional development low and generate employment in satellite cities as well. Navi Mumbai is a successful example of a planned satellite city that substantially diverted burgeoning congestion in Mumbai.

The challenges of fetching water from a distance and risking infection calls upon expediated implementation of policies like the Atal Mission of for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation, that aims to ensure every household has access to a tap with assured supply of water.

One of the targets of SDG 11 is enhancing inclusive and sustainable urbanisation and capacity for participatory, integrated and sustainable human settlement planning and management in all countries. Proactive implementation in collaboration with civil-society organisations and government departments needs to be carried out, if India wants to achieve SDGs.

Views expressed are the authors’ own and don’t necessarily reflect those of  Down To Earth.

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