Creating smart cities is a welcome move. Several projects that involve cross-sector collaborations for effective management of urban services are on the anvil of policy-makers. A smart city plan should provide for core infrastructure, which while ensuring a decent quality of life to its citizens, also focuses on a creating a sustainable and inclusive environment. However, while current smart city plans seem to focus on tangible outcomes that pertain to physical aspects of development, they fall short of addressing the requirements of the country’s human capital, including the welfare and well-being of all children. One such reality is the issue of migration from rural to urban centres. Such migrations almost always include children, many of whom get displaced and end up in street situations.
India is urbanising fast with over 7,000 cities and towns of different population and sizes. The country’s cities and towns constitute 11 per cent of the world’s urban population. As per the UN’s projections, India’s share in the world’s urban population will rise to 13 per cent by 2030. Making smart cities inclusive is also consistent with Goal 11 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
More than 3.6 crore children (in the age group of 0 to 6 years) live in urban areas, of whom at least 81 lakh live in slums. According to Save the Children’s recent report, ‘Life on the Street’, there are well over 20 lakh children on the streets of India. Various studies predict that 40 per cent of the country’s population will be living in cities and towns by 2030. This, unfortunately, could increase the number of street children manifold. Save the Children and The National Commission for Protection of Child Rights recently developed a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for children in street situations. The SOP has been endorsed by the Union Ministry of Women and Child Development and needs to implemented on a pan-India basis.
According to the UN’s Smart City Framework, a “child-friendly city” should be a multi-dimensional and comprehensive concept, where, children are active agents and their opinion influences the decision-making process. Save The Children’s report, Forgotten Voices notes: “A child-friendly city is one that has a system of local governance, and is committed to fulfilling children’s rights, which include influencing decisions about the city, expressing their opinion, participating in social life, receiving basic services, walking and playing safely, living in an unpolluted environment and being an equal citizen.”
The focus needs to be on smaller towns and cities in India. This is important because 68 per cent of India’s urban population does not live in metros but in towns that have a population of less than 100,000. Reaping of the demographic dividend will require focus on urban governance, health, nutrition, water, sanitation and education.
The smart city concept in India is at a nascent stage. It could still include components that will make it amenable to children’s needs. It could aim to ensure that children do not end up in street situations. This would require comprehensive planning and partnership among various policy-makers and stakeholders. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has, on several occasions, said that the country’s young population is its biggest strength. But realising the full potential of this section will require including children from the most vulnerable and marginalised classes in the nation-building process.
Addressing the needs of 20 lakh children in street situations, as well as other children across all smart cities, is not merely a question of their survival and dignity. It is also not merely a matter of moral responsibility: It is vital for ensuring a peaceful, prosperous and just India.