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‘Smart Cities’ or Smartened Cities

Colin Rowe, the famous architectural historian, once said that cities are the artful juxtaposition of fragments. Indian cities, unfortunately, are the artless juxtaposition of fragments. Amongst our latest ambitions is to create 100 smart cities. We have covered the whole gamut from ‘world class cities’ to ‘Shanghai- like clones for Mumbai’. The ‘Smart City’ is the latest in our lexicon of what our urban spaces should represent. It is a bit hard to understand why we have never listed ‘liveable cities’ as something representative of our national desire. Perhaps this would require an acknowledgement that in describing the present state of our urban spaces, ‘liveability’ is not an adjective that one would willingly use, without a suspension of disbelief.

Be that as it may, the latest attempt is to be welcomed for the simple reason that any structured application of our minds to urban development is a hopeful sign that things can only get better from here on out. There is no doubt that we need to smarten our cities. The pace of urbanisation is only picking up. For the moment, the seminar industry is agog and excited to roll the bands for a road map towards creating smart cities.

Before one gets down to any discussion on the matter, a perspective on the idea of smart cities must be put in place. We need to define geographies due to the continuous debate on ‘greenfield’ versus ‘brownfield’ options. Although locations for new cities take their time to arrive at a conclusion, the process of smartening existing ones has to be set into motion. The cabinet approval is in place to spend Rs 1,00,000 crore over five years for urban rejuvenation and transformation. However, the real work has to start with the States and they must put together a hierarchy of needs for either their principal cities or ones with maximum growth potential.

Historically, design has never been a conscious primary consideration in the way our cities have been planned. It was always a by-product, probably landing third or fourth in the list of priorities. This disparity explains the chaotic and fragmented structure of our cities. The difference between the conceived scheme and the perceived appearance of the city is, therefore, largely because the aesthetics of planning have been left on the margins. Our planners have focused on development and growth and ignored the basic needs for the citizen’s well being. So let us begin by prescribing the creation of spaces that nurture a healthy relationship between people and their cities.

For once, I would plead that we look at the ambience and the geography of these new cities. The culture and traditions of the locales will have a bearing on the prosperity of the city. Indeed, its vibrancy will always draw its inspiration from the embedded inclinations of the original settlers and be the temptation for city seekers to find shelter here. Cities are the ones that create economic opportunities for those living on the margins of the society. Those working in the organised sector may be pleased with their nine to five routine before they retreat to the television sets after a hard day’s work. However, we want democratic spaces for the sake of this young and aspirational population, since they will be the ones who will make tomorrow’s India.

Civic infrastructure is a vital frame for ensuring a citizen’s well being. It needs continuous up-gradation. We need to scale it for fifty years and keep reassessing at five-year intervals. This is the only way to stay ahead of the increasing pressures of rapid urbanisation. People manage with other deficits including a shortage of housing. However, it is the lack of civic amenities that cause maximum unhappiness to the citizen. Indeed, housing is an important dimension of the city life. But housing for all is a meaningless slogan with little chance of it being realised in the next one hundred years. The economics of land and housing markets are designed for those who can pay outright or through installments and those who can offer collateral. It does not welcome the poor, who have either nothing to mortgage or cannot meet the steep EMIs. The housing problem will always need a combination of solutions. Comfortable public transport connectivity is the prime service that can make city spaces truly democratic. It gives people the choice to look for housing within their budgets even at distances from the central business districts.

The second dimension of the answer lies in creating rental housing. Thanks to our misplaced socialist hearts, we enacted the Rent Control Act, which happens to be the single biggest piece of legislation that destroyed housing options for the poor. Almost fifty percent of the housing stock in the country lies unoccupied because of this Act. The sooner the Act goes the better. The courts have also compounded the problem by giving extended protection to tenancy rights in preference to the house owners need to occupy his property and enjoy its fruits. It is still not enough, as financing models need to be reworked so that the need for collateral is diluted through insurance covers for the borrowers. Above all, we need a regulator for the real estate sector. There is no way a housing stock can be created for the consumer, without the fair enforcement of the law which protects him from the builder’s extortionist tendencies. I would go as far as to say that the seriousness of the objective of ‘housing for all’ is in doubt unless key regulations and a regulator are put in place. To smarten the city, we need smart management adhering to smart laws begetting smart compliance. Our urban local bodies need a prolonged dose of life support systems. The capacity expansion along with a matching human resource belonging to the local body, coupled with professional guidance, is the only way to go. The glamour of the municipal service needs a shine. Only then can we hope to get smart service for the citizen.

A city is not about smart buildings, smart transport or even a smart municipality. It is about real people. Let us not ever forget that. Yes, it is about colleges, schools, hospitals but also about playing fields, greens, cultural spaces. This is the reason why one city attracts and another one repels. A city is about freedoms of people and the underlying assurance of the rule of law. Let us start with acquiring a smart philosophy of urban governance for our smart cities.
Raj Liberhan

Raj Liberhan

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