New Urbanism

India doesn't need smart cities. It needs smart citizens

Technology is only a means to improving the quality of life in India's urban areas. Vision and integrity are much more important.

The promise to build 100 new "smart cities" was among the items on the election manifesto that swept the Modi government into office. But if India’s wave of urbanisation is to deliver the highest quality of life for city dwellers, the country needs more than just the technological jargon that is being bandied about.

One thing is clear: India’s existing top 50 cities and urban agglomerations would be completely capable of providing a comfortable living environment to a significant proportion of the country's population if they are governed with sincerity. When there is integrity, the right technological solutions flow effortlessly.

But today, Indian cities are prevented from meeting the needs of residents by the complete lack of transparency in the way they are governed. Public money is squandered on projects without accountability and there are blatant manipulations of urban policies to benefit vested interests.

For the decade or more that I have been involved with urban issues in Mumbai as an activist, there has been no improvement in the quality of life. It is the same tale of woe across India's other metros.

To begin with, citizens must acknowledge that they bear some responsibility for the plight in which they find themselves. In my interactions with city dwellers around India, I have found a singular lack of understanding about how municipal corporations function, how their budgets work, the role of various committees that take decisions on city issues and the way these committees sanction public money for projects.

Civil society members are squeamish about discussing the conduct of elected representatives and senior officials who take decisions because they want to avoid personal confrontations and hope that things will somehow change if they talk in terms of generalities.

The understanding of public policy is far worse. Even the well educated know little about the numerous ways in which the working of a city can be distorted through decisions on land use, and through the kind of transport that the authorities encourage. Politicians are perfectly happy with such residents, because they are easily swayed by "smart" rhetoric.

Mumbai's pathetic roads are a good example. You cannot drive for two minutes without having to slow down on a bumpy stretch. Year after year, crores of rupees of public money are spent on filling potholes and fixing broken stretches, which reappear in no time. Since 2008, the city’s municipal corporation has spent Rs 4,000 crore on building new roads; last year, it spent Rs 70 crore on fixing potholes. Here, too, the word "smart" gets bandied about. There is an entire lexicon relating to various technologies to fix potholes, and machines from Germany and Austria that can be imported.

Then there are vendors who offer to sell smart IT solutions to monitor traffic congestion using GPS, and data from cell towers and cameras. But these solution-providers are not concerned with the road department and how it functions. There is no integrated, unified planning for transport in the city. Every cartel finds its own niche in controlling a part of the public's money and seeks to leverage their control.

The latest fancy idea of politicians and bureaucrats is to develop a 36-km road along Mumbai’s western coast at a cost of Rs 9,000 crore, which they are touting as the ultimate solution to the city’s traffic congestion problems. To blunt opposition from groups advocating sustainable transport solutions, the same bureaucrats who sabotaged a bus rapid transport system for Mumbai are promising that they will run such a system on this corridor.

The truly smart solution, it would seem, would be to keep the city's 2,000-km of road network in good shape and improve throughput by a minimum of 20% from the same street rather than spend Rs 9,000 crore on a 36-km coastal highway.

The US is now realising what a public finance nightmare it is to generate funds for renewing the highways and flyovers that looked so smart in the 1960s. In the 21st century, "smart" ought to be defined as learning from the mistakes of the 20th century.

Smart is what is happening in Europe today, where the top 50 cities are building incredibly rich infrastructure or public transport and non-motorised transport. This involves choosing the right technology but is driven by a smart vision founded on a strong base of integrity.

A smart city is one that has mixed land use that sets residential and commercial establishments in the same areas, and sustainable mobility. It is a place where vision comes before technology, as technocrats from the European Union emphasised repeatedly at a conference organised in July by Mumbai First, an industry lobby group that aims to make Mumbai a “world-class” city. The EU experts had been flown in to give Indian bureaucrats insights about how to deal with the city's waste and tackle other environmental problems. Not surprisingly, the India bureaucrats were looking only for technology and did not care about the need for a vision.

In the current climate, many believe anything smart is a function of technology, of big spending, of vendors who can supply the right gadgets and of IT-enabled services. But if our cities are to be smart, what we really need are smart citizens.

Rishi Aggarwal is a noted environmental and urban issues activist  in Mumbai. He is a fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai.

 
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