COVID-19 Reveals The Ugly Truth Of India's Urban-Rural Divide

The need to prioritize comprehensive planning is just as acute in both in urban and rural areas.

A boy at the site of demolished slum dwellings At Okhla In New Delhi
A boy at the site of demolished slum dwellings At Okhla In New Delhi
Ranjit Sabikhi


The second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic that we are currently passing through will have a disastrous effect on the life of large numbers of people across India and is more serious than the government acknowledges.

The biggest impact is going to be on the poorer sections of society that constitute more than half of the population, particularly the daily wage earners who were suddenly made helpless with the onset of the pandemic and the arbitrary announcement of total lockdown in March 2020.

These were the people who lived in slums and highly congested areas in cities who could not pay rent and did not know how to feed their families. They left for their homes in rural areas, with an estimated 25 to 30 million migrants escaping the cities.

Many of them found no work after returning home, and their household income fell drastically. With the partial revival of economic activities after the first lockdown, several workers were able to return to the cities by February 2021, finding employment at salaries that were 8% to 10% less than what they had previously earned.

The second wave of the pandemic has now hit them hard, leading to uncertainty and fear, as they have again been forced to return to their villages. They and their families are in urgent need of a sustainable plan for their future.

People who lived in slums left for their homes in rural areas.

Except for a draft national policy on migrant labor prepared by Niti Aayog, government agencies entrusted to provide help have not attempted to study, record, and analyze the details of the massive migration of workers that took place last year. There has also been a complete lack of sympathetic response to the uncertain future that migrant workers face.

The various programs set up by the government to provide food and jobs have not reached a large number of migrants. Recent surveys reveal that 74% of them had no access to subsidized cereals like rice and wheat, and only 12% got pulses. Less than 10% got jobs in public works at their native place under the MGNREGA plan.

The demand driven skill training under the Garib Kalyan Rozgar Yojana (GKRY) did not reach most migrants — only a very small number of migrants got any skill upgrade or training at their native place. Almost all the relief plans that the prime minister announced with such fanfare have been poorly implemented in only bits and pieces, and have failed to be of real help.

Safe spaces for everyone

In planning for post-pandemic development in both urban and rural areas many issues will need to be addressed.

First and foremost is the issue relating to the provision of space on an equitable basis for all sections of society. To minimize the spread of infection, minimum distance has to be maintained between individuals in all areas whether at work or home and also in public areas and streets. This is an issue that is related to equitable access to land, both in the urban and rural areas.

As per the 2011 Census data, almost 46% of the urban population consists of migrants who need rental accommodation. Wherever there are concentrations of low-income housing in cities, they are squeezed into minimal size plots built as four- to six-story walkup apartments.

Many of these are built on 25 square meter plots — an area on which you can barely squeeze in a single room, a toilet and a narrow staircase. Each floor on such plots has a single dwelling unit accommodating one family of four to six persons and this is the basis on which large numbers of unauthorized colonies have been developed all across Delhi. This is where over 60% of the population of the national capital currently lives.

With the realization that these are the hot spots where the coronavirus contaminates large numbers of people, it is necessary to ensure that future development — even with small sized residences in urban and rural areas — has substantial open space both within and around it.

With the return of migrants to their villages, the problem of long-term rural development requires urgent attention.

This change is not easy to bring about, particularly due to the stranglehold that politicians and administrators have on land all over the country. To develop plans where space is allocated on a fair and equitable basis to all sections of society, a complete change in the approach to planning and urban design is called for.

To ensure that the same mistakes of crowded development in urban areas are not repeated in the rural areas, a more sympathetic and responsive framework of planning needs to be prepared. With the return of migrants to their homes in villages, the problem of long-term rural development requires urgent attention.

Keeping careful records

For proper planning, the GIS survey of every village in the country, along with a record of all existing structures, access roads, trees, forests as well as all individual farm holdings is essential. It should be the responsibility of each state to get such accurately updated records.

All new developments can then be properly considered and planned on a comprehensive basis. The process of regional planning also calls for the active participation of professionals like economists, sociologists, demographers, engineers, architects, town planners, urban designers, landscape architects, etc. to produce long-term plans to bring about meaningful change.

Concrete buildings in India — Photo: Juniper Photon

Currently, there is no separate administrative body to deal with the effective implementation of development in rural areas. For improvements and development in village abadis to happen, proposals need to be prepared with the active participation of the local Panchayats.

Because of the enormity of our rural areas and the different social and economic conditions that prevail, it is necessary to set up a separate Rural Administrative body for effective coordination with the state and central government.

This is needed urgently. It has been proposed repeatedly in the past, but IAS (Indian Administrative Service) officials have resisted these plans, which they see as an intrusion on their domain. Many years ago, Jayaprakash Narayan, a senior politician, wrote a detailed note on the subject, stressing the need for proper rural development, but the note was never able to get past the IAS stranglehold.

Plans are shelved or stuck in the administrative quagmire.

Regardless of the obstacles, the enlargement of the entire rural administrative setup in each state is now essential. With the proper regional planning of rural areas in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, locations from where the largest number of migrants originate, large scale employment opportunities need to be created within the states themselves.

It is essential to have accurate surveys for the proper planning of rural areas. The Svamitva plan for the survey of village abadis and mapping with aerial surveys was launched in April 2020, and is in the process of being implemented by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj. One of the components of the Svamitva plan is the preparation of comprehensive GIS survey maps of the rural areas in each state. Until April 24, 2021, maps had been generated for only 875 village abadis in Haryana, two in Karnataka, and 976 in Uttar Pradesh.

The plan aims to provide an integrated property validation solution for rural India. The demarcation of rural abadi areas is being done with the help of Drone Survey Technology.

The intention is to help provide the "record of rights' to village household owners possessing houses in inhabited rural areas in villages, which in turn, would enable them to use their property as a financial asset for taking loans and other financial benefits from banks. The process will also help to create accurate land and property records of land ownership.

And yet, as of March 2021, surveys have been completed in only 31,000 villages, and property cards have been distributed to around 230,000 property holders in 2,626 villages.

As in many of the current government schemes, shortcomings including their slow progress have not been corrected, and the process of implementation is long drawn out. In this particular program, proper coordination with local panchayats has not been done, and a process of entrusting property rights along with the issue of proper property titles has not been followed through with individual states.

Similarly issues of property ownership such as multiple owners, and the recognition of an individual or joint women's ownership rights, and their correct record on property cards, have not been resolved. It is also necessary to introduce legal changes to empower gram panchayats to collect and utilize property tax for the development of village areas.

In the absence of proper follow through, including the need to set up the necessary rural administrative infrastructure, it is likely that this important plan may lose focus over time.

Like with most of the prime minister's ambitious development proposals, the approval of adequate funds is a major problem that ultimately leads to the plan being shelved or stuck in the administrative quagmire. But seeing how deeply this year has impacted migrant workers across the country, it is imperative that urban and rural planning be more carefully considered and prioritized.

Ranjit Sabikhi is an architect and urban designer. He was formerly a Professor of Urban Design at the School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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