Expert Speak Young Voices
Published on Dec 15, 2020
To make cities catastrophe proof, digital solutions need to be adopted, prioritised and made available for all
Digital Dream Destination: Bulletproof Cities

The Coronavirus pandemic has not only affected our personal lives but also magnified the gaps in the resilience of cities. It is important to address digital infrastructure as one of the solutions to rectifying these gaps, and to focus on how cities can be pandemic proof in the future by employing suitable digital transformations. The ambit of smart cities goes beyond establishing infrastructure with competent technology – it must also ensure accessibility and inclusivity of and for all the citizens using this technology. Digital resilience implies bridging the digital divide which requires governments to be proactive in providing and monitoring the use of the technology among all social groups.

Gaps in the digital infrastructure of India 

With the onset of COVID-19 pandemic, everyday activities such as education, entertainment, communication and more have been shifted online. However, India’s low number of internet users made the shift difficult once the nationwide lockdown was announced in March 2020. Reportedly, 50 percent of Indians do not have an internet connection. This lack of internet access has not only led to the exclusion of many from their daily activities but also caused problems in staying connected and remaining aware about the growing pandemic. Moreover, the increased online activity demands steep bandwidth usage, which has in turn put a lot of pressure on internet service providers. The fall in India’s position by two notches on the Ookla SpeedTest Index as soon as the lockdown in March was announced is testimony to the same. 

It is important to note that the digital divide has deepened due to the pandemic, especially in the case of education. E-learning tends to be exclusive and unsustainable, with over 320 million learners in India excluded since the onset of lockdown. This not only leads to a loss in human capital but also reduced economic opportunities in the future. A number of students who lack digital literacy, gadgets or an internet connection due to loss of livelihood and financial difficulties have grappled with online learning with cases of withdrawals from schools or colleges especially in the case of females.

The agriculture sector has been affected deeply as well due to insufficient machinery and restrictions on logistics and transportation, which in turn affects the movement of goods between rural and urban areas. Disruption in supply chains have been detrimental for tribal communities which tend to be the most vulnerable. Shutting down of markets has devastated labourers who are employed in the primary sector and produce perishable commodities. Migrant workers have been adversely impacted by the lack of shelter, food and money and the suspension of trains and buses halted all movement, including their return to villages.

The pandemic has magnified the issues within Indian cities and deficient preparedness for the same. A plethora of hurdles ranging from small personal problems to major national concerns have risen which asks for cities to be resilient in order to ensure secure and steady lives for its citizens. Governments have to make sure that essential services such as healthcare, education, transportation, electricity, water, etc. are affected minimally and mitigate future economic crises by having better data management, awareness creation and actively investing in technology to be an “intelligent” city.

Government’s Digital Initiatives: What has been done?

For a country with low numbers of access to the internet, the Government of India launched the contact tracing app “Aarogya Setu”, which is flawed since its very installation requires one to have internet access and be well versed with a smartphone. According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), by the end of 2019 there were 54 internet subscribers per 100 people. However, this does not imply 54 percent of India’s population had access to the internet as an individual can have multiple connections to their name. The same holds true for mobile connections, since every user may have many connections. The barrier to adoption of Aarogya Setu is not limited to internet connections. Out of India’s total mobile users, the number of people owning a feature phone which lacks the advanced functionality of a smartphone is about 550 million as compared to 450 million users of smartphones. There is also the added concern of the Aarogya Setu app allegedly invading the privacy of its users as it fails to disclose how it complies with the Information Technology Act, 2000, and IT Rules, 2011.

In the pre-COVID era, the government launched its “Digital India” campaign, which aimed to make government services available through electronic media. A part of this campaign which facilitated linkage of Aadhar number, Bank Account (Jan Dhan) and mobiles, has been labelled the JAM Trinity and is instrumental as a medium of financial assistance during testing times for many. It was used to make transfers under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan scheme, which proposed to grant Rs. 500 in the account of females with Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojna accounts for three months and Rs. 1000 to senior citizens for the same.

Other technological initiatives taken by state governments are those such as Co-Bots for transfer of medicines and food between beds to avoid risk of infection by Jharkhand and spraying disinfectant through drones by the municipal corporation of Bengaluru.

The use of technology to bridge the distance between various functions and communities is necessary for a city to be resilient against any calamities. A major portion of this is the economic infrastructure that needs to be digitised to ensure financial aid can be remitted efficiently to vulnerable groups and communities. The failure to curb the pandemic effectively can be attributed to the slow action to build this infrastructure both before and during COVID-19. The government’s lack of proactivity in establishing a robust digital infrastructure, prior to the coronavirus pandemic, can be seen in the BharatNet program. The programme, initiated in 2011 aimed to connect 2,50,000 Gram Panchayats through an optic fibre cable network, has had only 1,50,000 Gram Panchayats connected as of March 2020, with its deadline being revised six times. This has been due to delayed commencement, permission problems and right of way rules (which are key for establishing optic fibre cables).

Conclusion: Optimising technology for Pandemic Proof Cities 

The global crisis has rendered cities helpless and scrambling for a variety of measures to bulletproof the economy and residents. The amalgamation of the physical and digital worlds is necessary while we transition into smart cities, starting with a number of cyber reforms. Sensors and devices which monitor real time count of air quality, traffic, carbon emissions and more are becoming increasingly important. For the inadequate reach of the internet, the Universal Service Obligation Fund (consolidated through the revenues of telecom operators) can be employed to incentivise increased data usage limit or subsidies to those paying from relatively remote areas. E-learning platforms require not only tangible infrastructure to be available to learners and teachers, but also the need for capacity building to upskill both parties in order to achieve digital literacy and continue with a resilient operation of education no matter the predicament of the time.

It is vital to undertake these steps in order to protect the livelihoods of those engaged in the primary sector as well, as rural agricultural life directly affects city sustenance. Stimulating and managing supply chains during crises and access to markets for farm produce is one of the needs. A thoughtful platform needs to be established for perishable products along with providing necessary machinery to continue with activities during social distancing. Sources of formal credit should be accessible to avoid informal borrowing and economic aid should be readily available in the form of transfers, low interest rates, waivers, amongst others.

With high digitisation comes an exponentially increasing amount of data. A city’s digital nervous system needs to be shielded and safeguarded against cyber attacks. This is critical to ensure that the privacy of citizens and sensitive information is kept confidential at all times. Additionally, transparency must be present to maintain the trust between the government and its citizens with active suggestions, criticisms and revisions of the shortcomings in the digital system.

With the world expecting to see more pandemics, the government must expedite adopting secure and developed technology to be truly pandemic proof. Digitisation acts as a catalyst to present the citizens with a safe, preventive and stout future and helps make cities more resilient with progress. It assists in adapting to a new normal in case of catastrophes, aims to foresee any threatening situations, is indispensable to fight against possible future pandemics and prepares thoughtful contingency plans for the same.

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