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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With those withdrawal symptoms kicking in, all you need is a good rebound show.

Hangovers tend to have a debilitating effect on various human faculties, but a timely cure can ease that hollow feeling generally felt in the pit of the stomach. The Game of Thrones Season 7 finale has left us with that similar empty feeling, worsened by an official statement on the 16-month-long wait to witness The Great War. That indeed is a long time away from our friends Dany, Jon, Queen C and even sweet, sweet Podrick. While nothing can quite replace the frosty thrill of Game of Thrones, here’s a list of awesome shows, several having won multiple Emmy awards, that are sure to vanquish those nasty withdrawal symptoms:

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2. Westworld

What do you get when the makers of the Dark Knight Trilogy and the studio behind Game of Thrones collaborate to remake a Michael Crichton classic? Westworld brings together two worlds: an imagined future and the old American West, with cowboys, gun slingers - the works. This sci-fi series manages to hold on to a dark secret by wrapping it with the excitement and adventure of the wild west. Once the plot is unwrapped, the secret reveals itself as a genius interpretation of human nature and what it means to be human. Regardless of what headspace you’re in, this Emmy-nominated series will absorb you in its expansive and futuristic world. If you don’t find all of the above compelling enough, you may want to watch Westworld simply because George RR Martin himself recommends it! Westworld will return for season 2 in the spring of 2018.

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3. Big Little Lies

It’s a distinct possibility that your first impressions of this show, whether you form those from the trailer or opening sequence, will make you think this is just another sun-kissed and glossy Californian drama. Until, the dark theme of BLL descends like an eerie mist, that is. With the serious acting chops of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as leads, this murder mystery is one of a kind. Adapted from author Liane Moriarty’s book, this female-led show has received accolades for shattering the one-dimensional portrayal of women on TV. Despite the stellar star cast, this Emmy-nominated show wasn’t easy to make. You should watch Big Little Lies if only for Reese Witherspoon’s long struggle to get it off the ground.

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4. The Night of

The Night Of is one of the few crime dramas featuring South Asians without resorting to tired stereotypes. It’s the kind of show that will keep you in its grip with its mysterious plotline, have you rooting for its characters and leave you devastated and furious. While the narrative revolves around a murder and the mystery that surrounds it, its undertones raises questions on racial, class and courtroom politics. If you’re a fan of True Detective or Law & Order and are looking for something serious and thoughtful, look no further than this series of critical acclaim.

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At its heart, Empire is a simple show about a family business. It just so happens that this family business is a bit different from the sort you are probably accustomed to, because this business entails running a record label, managing artistes and when push comes to shove, dealing with rivals in a permanent sort of manner. Empire treads some unique ground as a fairly violent show that also happens to be a musical. Lead actors Taraji P Henson and Terrence Howard certainly make it worth your while to visit this universe, but it’s the constantly evolving interpersonal relations and bevy of cameo appearances that’ll make you stay. If you’re a fan of hip hop, you’ll enjoy a peek into the world that makes it happen. Hey, even if you aren’t one, you might just grow fond of rap and hip hop.

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7. Modern Family

When everything else fails, it’s comforting to know that the family will always be there to lift your spirits and keep you chuckling. And by the family we mean the Dunphys, Pritchetts and Tuckers, obviously. Modern Family portrays the hues of familial bonds with an honesty that most family shows would gloss over. Eight seasons in, the show’s characters like Gloria and Phil Dunphy have taken on legendary proportions in their fans’ minds as they navigate their relationships with relentless bumbling humour. If you’re tired of irritating one-liners or shows that try too hard, a Modern Family marathon is in order. This multiple-Emmy-winning sitcom is worth revisiting, especially since the brand new season 9 premiers on 28th September 2017.

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8. The Deuce

Headlined by James Franco and Maggi Gyllenhaal, The Deuce is not just about the dazzle of the 1970s, with the hippest New York crowd dancing to disco in gloriously flamboyant outfits. What it IS about is the city’s nooks and crannies that contain its underbelly thriving on a drug epidemic. The series portrays the harsh reality of New York city in the 70s following the legalisation of the porn industry intertwined with the turbulence caused by mob violence. You’ll be hooked if you are a fan of The Wire and American Hustle, but keep in mind it’s grimmer and grittier. The Deuce offers a turbulent ride which will leave you wanting more.

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9. Dexter

In case you’re feeling vengeful, you can always get the spite out of your system vicariously by watching Dexter, our favourite serial killer. This vigilante killer doesn’t hide behind a mask or a costume, but sneaks around like a criminal, targeting the bad guys that have slipped through the justice system. From its premier in 2006 to its series finale in 2013, the Emmy-nominated Michael C Hall, as Dexter, has kept fans in awe of the scientific precision in which he conducts his kills. For those who haven’t seen the show, the opening credits give an accurate glimpse of how captivating the next 45 minutes will be. If it’s been a while since you watched in awe as the opening credits rolled, maybe you should revisit the world’s most loved psychopath for nostalgia’s sake.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Hotstar and not by the Scroll editorial team.