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Keep the Change: Can Bengaluru Sustain the Lessons of the Pandemic

Civil Society | Others | COVID-19 | Apr 30, 2020

This is an edited version of a panel discussion moderated by Rohini Nilekani, on the city’s hope for a new normal post COVID-19. The focus is on what we have learnt from the pandemic, why it is worth preserving and, most importantly, how that good can be preserved, post lock down. The panel included Nitin Pai, Veena Srinivasan, Manu Chandra, Tara Chacko and Ravichandar.

The past few months have been horrific for millions of people around the world and in our own city, Bengaluru. We all know what the pandemic and the lockdown has inflicted on people, especially the poor migrants, labourers, the elderly, and the vulnerable. Until we have some hope of a cure or a vaccine, this anxiety will continue. Some of us have to bear this burden more than others, which means that those of us who are privileged have to reach into our hearts and our pockets and help others as much as we can.

However, during the past few weeks, people here in the city have experienced many positive and sometimes unexpected changes. For example, all of us are experiencing the difference in air quality. We have seen pictures of the Vrishabhavathi flowing clean and clear. Nature is replenishing itself. Even in our homes, we have had chances to learn many new things about ourselves. We have rediscovered how to bond with our families, begun to work as a team, and have acquired new respect for all those around us who we took for granted. Some of us have learned to work from home. Almost all of us, rich and poor, have reduced our consumption of material things and have begun to relook at what consumption even means. Many of us have reached deep into our communities to help, bond, and be inspired by our interconnectedness, because clearly we are all in this together. So the world is different and our gaze is fresh in many ways.

I hope we can focus on the positive changes that we have experienced, and perhaps think about how we can sustain these positive changes. How can we stop ourselves from going back to business as usual as soon as the lockdown is lifted? How can we remember to be grateful? How can we remember to reduce our imprint on the earth? How can we continue to be inspired by our mutual dependencies?

A New Paradigm For the City

Nobody thought that Bengaluru could go back to how it used to look in the ‘70s and ‘80s, with few cars on the streets and rivers clean and clear. Veena Srinivasan points out that there has been a huge impact of the industrial shutdown in regards to our rivers. At the Byramangala reservoir, which is where the Vrishabhavathi flows into, we have started seeing dramatically substantial improvements in the water quality. It has meant almost a five-fold decrease in the Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD), which is a way to quantify the quality of the water. So clearly the story of clean water is not just hearsay. It shows up in the data and tells us exactly how much damage industrial activity has affected our water quality. Data on air quality is equally dramatic. The reports show about 65% to 70% improvement in the air quality indices.

However, we have not changed our economy or the policies that would replace ecologically destructive production. Moreover, we have no policies that would prevent mass unemployment if we suddenly changed the structure of our economy, as Veena rightly points out. So the concern is that when lockdown ends, we may go back to how things used to be. But there are a few lessons we could use. One of them is to rethink the nature of how we regulate. In the past few years, the pollution control board has maintained that everything that we were measuring in the rivers was historical legacy pollution, and that there was no current pollution. That argument is now moot, and we should be demanding a complete restructuring of how we look at pollution control. The second lesson is about our levels of consumption. Many people are talking about how much more they’ve enjoyed cooking at home and spending time with their family. So there is definitely a shift from materials to experiences, and reexamining our priorities.

From the perspective that V Ravichandar gives us, the learnings during this time have fundamentally been about the right to health and safety. The lockdown has been the biggest manifestation of this. What was invisible became visible through the migrant crisis, when we saw the mass of humanity on our roads. Suddenly we had 30% to 40% of our cities’ population, who form the bottom of the pyramid, out on the streets. Their life has always been difficult, but now even more so. When we hear of certain neighbourhoods being sealed off, suddenly we are now worrying if we have any domestic workers who live in those areas that are now coming on our radar. Going forward, there may be a greater concern for how the marginalised live and the conditions there, which could drive potential change.

What we should take away from this is that we need to work towards widespread prosperity for all, and equitable development going forward. In order for this to happen, as Ravichandar argues, the poor and marginalised need to be at the centre of the city planning. We need to plan our cities in a manner that works for all citizens and not just for a segment of the citizens. We also need a localised plan, to plan what’s good for Bangalore, and not just follow global models. Currently our model of land use, zonal regulations, and transit-oriented development are dysfunctional and have been failing us over the years.

The woes of the poor are compounded. There is no land title or tenure, and we don’t have the concept of social rental housing which accentuates the problem. So we need to rethink our master plans to be inclusive, dynamic, spatial, and strategic. The new work from home model is the ultimate integration of the home and the workplace. We need to figure out how to make this happen for all, including the underprivileged and domestic workers. From a master planning point of view, we need to think of mixed-use and mixed-income groups and plan across income groups living in the city.

Ravichandar notes that when the lockdown is lifted, public transport might suffer and there might be more private vehicle purchase and usage, which will bring back all the effects of carbon emission, pollution, etc. We need to adopt a better framework to address mobility for the most vulnerable. If physical distancing requires six feet, we need more space for walkers and cyclists. All the frontline heroes who have been working during this period don’t necessarily drive to work. So we need to find ways to have public transport at least functioning at 30% utilisation. And we need more public open spaces. In 1995 CDP, open spaces were 25%. In the 2031 master plan, open spaces are down to 4%. Ravichandar predicts that as our work will move further online, people will want to spend more time with friends and family in public spaces, so we need to be prepared to create those spaces.

In terms of governance, the one state that worked very well was Kerala. This is because they have a strong decentralised local government and institutions that people trust. Even in Bangalore, the ward health officers have been on the frontlines, sealing places and testing the people. But the current system is dysfunctional in terms of the city being under the state. We need governance reform, deep decentralisation, and appropriate integration. This virus has taught us about exponential growth. To address this exponential growth, we have taken one of the most radical decisions in our life — a complete lockdown of the country. If that is the case for this virus, why can’t we do transformational thinking in terms of a new paradigm to demand a better city for all?

Working On the Gig Economy

For Nitin Pai, the gig economy is something we should be extremely concerned about. The job losses are serious, with 140 million people losing their jobs in the last two months. From a survey conducted by Pai’s daughter and colleagues, about 20% of people have suffered some loss of income in the family, 45% have found an increase in their workload, including school work, and 36% found that the workload has somewhat reduced. 38% have also found that their health outcomes have become better, and their physical exercise remains the same. 66% said they prefer offline interactions. These are kids who want to go back to school and people who want to go back to their offline world. They’ve realised the value of the non-digital world. The last question in the survey was, “Are you optimistic about the future?” and 54% of the respondents said yes.

The COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the world into the information age with a shock. Although technology has been available for the last 15 years, the model of work still involved employees gathering together. But now you don’t have to be in the same place at the same time, which will have profound consequences going forward. Perhaps the biggest one will be a decrease in traffic. Now we have the option of holding meetings across the city, prevailing over the divisions created by traffic. According to Pai, this is something we need to preserve. As we get back to normal, how much of this Zoom world can we continue? Not all companies need to work 24/7 in the office, and there are certain days, times, or types of employees who can work from home. This would mean a reduction in traffic, which means there would be staggered traffic and more road space available for other things.

Looking forward, many more people are going to form a part of the gig economy. What this pandemic has taught us, Pai notes, is that we need to find some ways to provide social security to these people. This can’t be provided through the traditional provident fund method. Instead we need to find ways using Aadhaar, UPI, and the others, wherein there is an account which has multiple inputs. So the employer and customer can both put money into their account. For example, Zomato today takes tips and gives them to the delivery person. Could we use a similar model for people to pay into the accounts of people who are delivering products? The movement towards social security for the gig economy is something that we have to strengthen as we continue.

Mental Health and Consumption Patterns

People are eating a lot more responsibly than they were earlier, notes Manu Chandra, with less takeaway options for people. Since the supply chain logistics were hit badly for the first 25 days, there was no choice but to start relying on what was available locally. On the other end of the spectrum, the privileged were also seeing a change in the way they were consuming. High-end grocery stores saw an uptake of between 30% to 60% almost immediately. So consumption patterns have changed, and that gives people in the food business some insight into how they must model their businesses going forward. Will people be able to overcome the trust deficit that exists in going out into busy spaces with a lot of bodies?

Social distancing is not the easiest thing to do when running a restaurant — it’s actually the antithesis of running a restaurant in many ways because it is a social outing. People around the world are talking about contactless dining, which takes the romanticism out of going out, but may create a new breed of highly-trained and motivated individuals running these commercial establishments. According to Manu, PE-funded companies were making food cheaper and cheaper because they were burning “cash”, leading to a very strange consumption pattern. With the pandemic, we’re already seeing that changing, with news reports about how some of these aggregators are gonna eliminate this counting entirely, and food will start costing what it actually should cost. This will have tremendous health benefits as well. We have been eating food with such a high glycemic index, that diabetes and poor health is only a natural outcome of it. Post COVID-19, many brands, cottage industries, and MSMEs, which were involved in creating outstanding food stuffs have now come to the fore, as opposed to the big super markets and Amazon.

Unfortunately, for farmers, the lockdown hit when the rabi crop was ready to harvest. The losses incurred were so tremendous that irrespective of a bailout package, it’s going to be a long time before they can recover. Perhaps the positive aspect to note is the fact that the monopolies of the APMCs may find a break so that farmers can sell directly and have more choice. We will be valuing directly grown produce delivered to us. The organisations that have been working proactively to connect the farmer and the consumer directly might see a second wind, and we may be at the receiving end of good quality produce.

We also need to be aware of the impact of the COVID-19 on the mental health of people. The WHO has warned us that there’s going to be a huge increase in the number of people who have symptoms of depression and anxiety. At the same time, it’s important to realise that there’s been a lot of psychological research on resilience, to understand how people adapt in adverse situations and why some emerge even stronger through adversity. Tara Chacko quotes Viktor Frankl, a holocaust survivor from a concentration camp and psychiatrist from Vienna, who talks about our ability to hope and find meaning in life despite its inexplicable pain. He called it our human capacity to creatively turn life’s negative aspects into something positive or constructive.

Through a dipstick survey Tara undertook, talking to various psychiatrists, psychologists, and social workers, she notes a few trends. In terms of our relationship patterns, the time that we are spending together now is unprecedented. 95% of respondents talked about how the pre-COVID time was rushed and limited. Now we’re seeing that kids are enjoying the 24/7 time that they have with their parents. Some parents shared how they were horrified at some of the behaviour patterns or habits of their children, like the amount of time they spend on digital platforms rather than physical activities.

Transitioning to being hands-on parents 24/7 was not easy, and many people are relearning their parenting skills. They are now enjoying time together and bonding in a way that they’ve never done before. It’s also through this time together that children are opening up to their parents and talking about things that matter to them. Even with extended families, people are using Zoom to connect with family and friends during lockdown. However we also have to keep in mind that staying together in a confined space with the same people over a prolonged period of time can be quite challenging. It also means that we have started paying attention to the needs and issues of those within and outside our families. The other shift that can be noticed is in family roles. There is a slight shift being seen in the participation and sharing of household responsibilities. With the lack of domestic workers, it’s time to renegotiate roles within the family, and getting all the members involved and feeling responsible for the home. We are redefining our needs and learning to live with what we need and not what we want.

Co-Creating a Better Future

The kind of future that we end up with depends on the various paths that will emerge out of this crisis. We’re not out of this crisis yet, as Nitin notes, this is just the first lockdown. We will probably have a series of relaxations and tightenings, each of which will have economic effects in various parts of the country. Since India is a large country, politics is driven at a national level in terms of electoral composition by states other than Karnataka. In that sense, Karnataka will be a price-taker and a policy-taker rather than a policy maker. The kind of future Bengaluru and Karnataka will end up with will depend on the politics and economics that arises out of the crisis in other parts of India which have greater electoral influence in New Delhi.
If we have a greater emphasis on decentralised management for pandemics, i.e. if precautions were applied at the ward level, municipal level, panchayat, and district level, we would be able to create structures of governance that are bottom-up. This means that the rules that apply in South Bengaluru, for example, might not necessarily be the same in Jaunpur district, UP. Pai notes that if we can create the idea that local level governance is important, as a result of managing this COVID crisis, we’ll be creating a psychology that prioritises the local. So we need to begin taking steps towards real local-level governance.

Ravichandar argues that we also need a modified game theory, working on the scions and convincing younger people across the political dynasties to become mayors of cities. Historically, Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, and Vallabhbhai Patel, all started in city life and municipal leadership before going to state and national. A state government will only give more power to cities if they believe that their kith and kin can actually rule the city. Ravichandar’s suggestion is to make that case to the political establishment because we need a reinvestment in local politics, and citizens who feel like they can hold local agencies accountable.

Perhaps we can use the example of this lockdown to connect us back to the larger discussion of climate change. The argument about climate change has always been centred around not being able to sacrifice the economy. However, as Veena points out, with COVID-19 we saw the threat of imminent death and were willing to sacrifice the economy to avoid it. This may give us the opportunity to relook at how we address the threat of climate change and whether we can move to a low carbon, local, decentralised, soft pathway in order to avoid the millions of deaths that will happen in 30 to 40 years. We will also be seeing a general overall shift in supply chains, according to Nitin. Global supply chains will shift out of China into other countries, and national supply chains will move from national to state, while state supply chains will focus on the regional and the local.

If we look at history, there are moments when even the elite begin to understand their connection to everything else, and start to make changes that have ripple effects that benefit those who did not have a voice before. This is what I’m hoping will emerge from the pandemic. We have been allowed to exercise our empathy muscle in these past few weeks, and I think it’s important to continue to do so. We can’t forget how connected we all are, and how to be politically and socially conscious about what’s happening to others while we are ensconced in our own safe homes. As Tara mentions, as human beings, we are motivated by things that give us joy and in a large part this comes from helping other people. With the responses during this pandemic, we have seen that many people have been doing this in small ways, without wanting any credit or fanfare. There is a self-satisfaction that they get from this, which comes from feeling a sense of connectedness with people. That is what we must try to sustain, creating long-lasting changes in our perceptions and habits.

We need to understand that we cannot just consume good governance, we have to co-create it. Hopefully the outcome of this pandemic will be a shift in thinking towards that goal. Clean air and water, better health, de-congested cities, and reimagining public spaces helps not just the elite, but everybody in the city. Right now, many of us feel tremendous gratitude for what we have, and recognise that we are all in this together. On my end, I personally would like to intensify my philanthropy, using a new lens and more empathy. We are going to see many changes in how we deal with our staff and employees, how we understand social welfare and health practices. If we can understand and identify the positive changes, perhaps we can then commit to sustaining them.

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