While COVID-19 pandemic has impacted all sections of the society in various parts of India in one way or another, the largest cities are hardest hit. The Urban Local Governments (ULG) are at the forefront of combatting COVID-19 with limited resources at their disposal for a crisis of this magnitude. The ULGs and their frontline workers are also not duly recognised and compensated.
Of over 100,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases in India, nearly 80% are from 30 cities, including our most prominent metros like Mumbai, Delhi, Ahmedabad, Indore, Pune, Jaipur, Thane, Surat, Chennai, Bhopal and Agra. Despite continued strict vigil on the identified containment zones, these metropolises continue to show an upward curve of COVID-19 infection cases. While districts in the Green Zone are slowly getting back to normal life, it is unlikely that restrictions imposed on the metropolitan hotspots will be fully eased out any time soon. These cities have to brace themselves for a much longer battle with COVID-19 and an even longer recovery from its adverse impacts.
Such a concentration of COVID-19 cases in metropolises is a matter of serious concern due to higher population density, particularly in slums and informal settlements, and greater probability of community spread where maintaining physical distancing is almost impossible. The population density of Mumbai is 20,482 persons per square kilometre; Delhi is at 12,591, and in Ahmedabad it is 12,000 persons per square kilometre. Mumbai’s Dharavi slum has a staggering density of 2,77,136 persons per square kilometre – thirteen times higher than the citywide density.
During a health disaster like COVID-19, urban local governments (ULGs) continue to provide essential municipal services such as water supply, sanitation, public health and health. In addition, they have to swiftly redeploy the available financial and human resources to contain the fast spreading life threatening disease. For instance, the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai has not only made its hospitals COVID-19 ready, it is actively involved in contact tracing of COVID-19 positive persons to identify high risk cases in Dharavi and other areas, testing as well as in quarantining persons with symptoms in its own facility. In Delhi, municipal workers of the four ULGs are sanitising high risk containment zones and buildings. Staff of the Municipal Corporations of Ahmedabad and Chennai are conducting household surveys in containment zones to identify persons with COVID-19 symptoms.
The waste management function of ULGs for keeping the city clean is especially hazardous in the times of COVID-19 as the virus can survive up to 72 hours even on inert waste materials like paper, cardboard, plastic, glass and metals. Workers engaged in cleaning of streets and public places, waste collection, separation, and disposal are at a high risk of being infected. Hence, along with doctors, nurses, lab technicians and other health workers, municipal sanitation and public health workers are also frontline warriors battling COVID-19.
The Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana Package for COVID-19 relief announced on 26 March 2020 stipulates offering an insurance of Rs 50 lakh to the kin of health workers who lose their life fighting COVID-19. While designing state-level packages under the scheme, some states have included municipal sanitation workers, as is the case with Gujarat, offering Rs. 25 Lakh compensation to a wider list of frontline workers. The Government of National Capital Territory of Delhi has increased the insurance cover to Rs. 1 crore, but limited it to health workers fighting COVID-19. After the death of its sanitation worker on 26 April 2020, the South Delhi Municipal Corporation is demanding for their workers to be included in the insurance scheme. In fact, this scheme should cover municipal sanitation and public health workers in all affected cities to recognise their contribution in managing the crisis.
In addition, sanitation workers need to be compensated while they are doing this hazardous work along the lines of the United Nation’s Supplementary Danger or Hazard Pay and the Government of India’s Risk and Hardship Allowance to government and armed forces personnel posted in perilous locations. So far, only Telangana has announced one-time cash incentive of Rs. 7,500 for each sanitation worker in the Greater Hyderabad Municipal Corporation and Hyderabad Metro Water Supply and Sewerage Board, and Rs. 5,000 in municipalities and village panchayats. It is recommended that all COVID-19 frontline warriors in India, including municipal workers, be given a Hazard Allowance for the period of their active involvement in combating the pandemic.
Most ULGs in India are not in the best of financial health. Now that the ULGs of these hard-hit metropolises are incurring significant unforeseen COVID -19 related expenditure, they should be given immediate commensurate financial assistance from the central and state governments.
A longer-term strategy for post COVID-19 recovery and bridging the revenue gap of ULGs requires serious rethinking of the functional and financial devolution envisaged in the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act, 1992, which has still not been fully realized.
Finally, supporting ULGs now to monitor the disease over an extended period will help contain the countrywide spread of COVID-19, which is in the best national interest.
The author is a Senior Visiting Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. Views expressed are personal.