There’s good news and some stale news. The good news is that the central government has assured the public of electricity and water supply, sanitation, efficient public transport, security, health and education under the Smart City programme.
The stale news is that this was promised in 2005 under a different name – the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM). The question is why should it make headlines at all? Are these not basic facilities every city should provide to its citizens?
When the Ministry of Urban Development, the nodal agency involved for setting up smart cities, announced the first 20 winners last week, Bhubaneshwar emerged with top marks at 78.83. Those that also made the cut include Pune, Ahmedabad, Kochi and NDMC (New Delhi Municipal Corporation). These cities will mobilise resources through public-private partnerships to fund their respective plans. If eyebrows were raised about the NDMC (perhaps the richest civic agency in the country) being included in the list, it’s apparently because they require funds to make Connaught Place pedestrian friendly and increase its ‘happiness quotient’.
“At the end of the day, it’s not different from JnNURM. But this time they have criteria, a jury and a consultant list. It would be great if they could actually put out more affordable housing, one of the core elements of the Smart City infrastructure,” says architect Sanjay Prakash.
When the Smart Cities idea was floated in August 2014, companies such as CISCO and IBM were enthusiastic about the possibilities in a new market like India. However, this does demand that basic pre-requisites are in place: India is still not ready for technology-enhanced infrastructure. If there were to be sensor-led water metres – one Smart City idea — shouldn’t one have water in taps to begin with? And if your smartphone were to tell you that there is an empty seat in the next bus, shouldn’t there be a bus there in the first place? So if Bhubaneswar has voted for public transport as its most urgent need, the investment in new buses is probably the first step in the right direction.
Buying into the Smart City dream is New Songdo, South Korea. American developer Stanley Gale had evolved a business strategy called “City in a Box” where every component for a house could be bought as one item, from windows to waste management solutions, and constructed in record time. While this seemingly provided a solution for the urban housing crisis, what it took away was the spontaneity and incremental growth of a city. Cookie cutter glass and steel buildings are everywhere, taking away the character of a city, leaving behind the people and their relationship with the street.
Closer home, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi was chief minister of Gujarat, he had envisioned Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT), which would lie in the zone of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor. This city would have centralised air conditioning and security systems, its own metro and rapid transit, piped gas, underground waste management pipes, basically the works. It’s not very different from the “city in a box” where if you don’t belong, you are an outsider. Gurgaon is a case in point: gated communities there have led to larger slums on the periphery, leading to inequitable societies.
In contrast, cities like Eindhoven (the birthplace of Philips) in The Netherlands have developed innovative solutions for urban concerns, however, they choose to call themselves a “smart society” rather than a “smart city”. In an interview in My Liveable City magazine, Mayor Rob van Gijzel, said, “People shouldn’t be the end users but co-developers of technological systems. Humanising technology is what we need. In Eindhoven, we create field labs or road maps with companies, citizens and universities to upgrade our systems together. For example, we have a roadmap to be energy neutral by 2045.”
Their programme includes an experiment with light to see how it affects behaviour of people in aggressive settings. Another helps patients become more self-caring during chronic illnesses.
“Smart cities need smart citizens,” says architect Suparna Bhalla. “It’s important to make the citizen connect, to make programmes inclusive and empower people.” If the central governments initiatives can do that, it will be a breath of fresh air in a country that is 69 years old and still has to worry about roti, kapda aur makan.