OPINION: India’s response to Covid-19 spearheaded by its smart cities

by Jaideep Gupte & Kunal Kumar | @JaiGupte | Institute of Development Studies (IDS)
Thursday, 9 April 2020 09:14 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

With cities seriously threatened by the pandemic, India’s response to Covid-19 will depend on the successful use of its smart cities investment

Jaideep Gupte is Research Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies and Principal Investigator on Smart Data for Inclusive Cities (SDIC), a capacity strengthening project funded by the European Commission.

Kunal Kumar is Mission Director, Smart Cities Mission, Government of India. 

What are smart cities if they cannot help us live a good healthy life? Cities are expected to house 40 percent of India’s population and contribute 75 percent of India’s GDP within the coming decade. But cities are under serious threat from Covid-19. 

As we write this, there are over 4500 confirmed cases in India, with a 12 percent jump in the past 24 hours. More than 86 have died. The pandemic has dramatically impacted our daily lives. Over the past month, Google estimates a 77 percent drop in visits to places like restaurants, cafes, shopping centres, and cinemas. And a 22 percent increase in movement in residential areas.

The very nature of the virus, means it can spread faster in dense urban environments. The 104 million people living in densely populated informal settlements and slums, with inadequate access to water and sanitation, and poor waste management, will be hardest hit. It is virtually impossible to physically isolate those who live there, while a reliance on informal drug and health care providers means we have little data on the extent of the virus.

Slowing down the spread of Covid-19 is going to require, among other things, a heavy reliance on India’s data infrastructures – providing real-time data readings for critical decision making - and its Smart Cities Mission.

India launched the Smart Cities Mission in 2015 to deliver liveability, economic-ability and sustainability to its urban residents through adoption of context-specific solutions supported by robust IT connectivity, digitalization, and improved e-governance in 100 cities. India’s response to Covid-19 now depends on the successful use of its smart cities investment.

As of today, 45 cities have operational Integrated Command and Control Centres (ICCCs) set up under the smart cities mission, a further 31 cities are in the process of constructing theirs, and 18 more are issuing tenders. ICCCs act as 24/7 nerve centres for city managers creating a situational awareness and real-time coordination of emergency response services. Cities are having to creatively deploy the ICCC infrastructure - control rooms, web portals, sensors, drones, public address systems, surveillance cameras – to coordinate activities related to information, awareness, collaboration, management, predictive analysis and implementation of lockdown. Covid-19 tracker applications, monitoring quarantine/isolation cases, apps for coordinating city departments and logistics, and telemedicine for medical appointments, are some of the manifestations of technology which stand out.

Four key next steps for smart cities will be:

  1. Spatial analytics, likely aided by drones and high-res satellite imagery, is critical to aid isolation strategies. To determine wash-sites, in responding to critical patients, and to do all this in real-time and in light of the impact of the impending monsoon. The rains will change drainage and access patterns, and soil conditions, particularly in informal settlements, and will increase the risk of other vector borne disease, such as malaria or cholera. Spatial analytics will also be essential in planning, designing, and building urban infrastructures over the longer term.
  2. E-Governance and e-Banking will be essential in dealing with the aftermath of the lockdown. With livelihoods on hold, and destitution in slums rising, savings are being depleted but a temporary spike in prices and a breakdown in market supply chains is expected when  lockdowns end. This means cash transfers and access to credit will be essential. Distribution and monitoring cash transfers will need to be agile, while eGovernance infrastructures will need to be relied upon to identify and address grievances as they arise.
  3. There are five main categories of technology-based Covid-19 proposals and ideas emerging: contact tracing; testing and responder capacity; early warning and surveillance; quarantine and social control; and research and cure. Smart cities need to invest in safeguarding citizen rights and in trust building so that we emerge sager and more resilient, and avoid draconian surveillance. ICCCs can become the centres of coordination and consensus building that they were originally conceived to be.
  4. Challenges vary from one city to another and so do solutions. Key capacities must be reserved to document best practices and for open-source platforms to share and scale up initiatives. Not only do Indian cities stand to benefit, but critically, lesson sharing across countries and continents will be key to the global fight against Covid-19.