Notes on 100 smart cities

Indian cities are in a rut. The explosion in urban population and the need of modern comfort and aspiration have turned them into unmanageable monsters. Cities were never the priority of the government’s development agenda because policies were governed by the dictum that “India lives in its villages”. It is in this context that the National Democratic Alliance government’s grandiose “100 smart cities” project holds significance. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley allotted a little over a billion dollars to seed the “100 smart cities” project in his maiden budget in 2014. He told Parliament that smart cities are needed to accommodate the rising numbers, pointing to a rapidly expanding middle class with “aspirations of better living standards”. It is another matter that the Ministry is likely to surrender almost 90 per cent of the allotted money this fiscal because it could not spend it. Jaitley essentially picks up from the previous government’s urban renewal mission which invested $20 billion in 65 select cities during 2005-14.

As things stand, the urbanisation agenda has been expanded and, in three parts, covers urban renewal of 500 cities, rejuvenation of heritage cities (like Varanasi) and the implementation of 100 smart cities (understood to be both “greenfield” and “brownfield” development). The Urban Development Ministry is yet to announce a definition of and guidelines for Indian smart cities. Shankar Aggarwal, the Urban Development Secretary, says smart cities will roughly encompass “e-governance, a 24x7 supply of utility services like water and power, universal broadband connectivity, and super-fast public transport”.

Smart cities technology is a global market, estimated to be worth $1.7 trillion, and India has just opened its floodgates. But before India brings in smart technology, it should know what to do with it. How does it build new cities and repair groaning urban settlements to provide decent housing and clean water to all? How does it manage the growing mountains of garbage, treat sewage and do something as basic as breathing without inhaling toxins? Can technology alone fix what institutionalised governance, planning and engineering have destroyed over decades?

The answer is complicated. Yes, technology is needed. A centralised data system might help city authorities analyse and predict possible infrastructure failures like power outage or flooding. But do cities have the capacity to prepare effective mitigation plans that will work in their local context? Will they have real resources like engineers, fire-fighters, public health facilities and staff to execute and implement their plans? Do cities have the required political and financial autonomy? Who will be the priority—vocal residents of posh colonies or humble sufferers of middle-class localities?

Our experience with the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) has not been very encouraging. Cities made mobility plans using data generated by smart technologies and highlighted the need for pedestrian-centric infrastructure. But when it came to seeking investments, all made an un-smart pitch for developing infrastructure that impedes pedestrians. The government’s agenda and most so-called smart city projects currently under way in India are some sort of abbreviation of UAE’s Masdar City, which is the first smart city of the world, initially slated to be completed by 2015. But Masdar is turning out to be too expensive even for the oil-rich nation, with the project deadline extended to 2025 and many smart features being dropped to cut cost. Masdar’s $22 billion cost to house 50,000 people is a ridiculous development model for India which needs to fix habitat for its existing 377 million city dwellers and prepare for another 300 million likely to be added in the next 20 years.

Even if the financing is worked out by a private-public partnership model, smart cities in India are not going to be cities at all, but commercial, residential or industrial enclaves, feeding upon adjacent cities. They can at best be described as the culmination of the elitist and exclusionary gated community concept, which is reducing the world further into refined, high-end enclaves surrounded by vast slums, where e-governance and broadband connectivity are of little immediate relevance. A country like India, which is still just one-third urbanised and where half the population of its two biggest cities officially lives in slums or illegal settlements, cannot prioritise exclusionary urbanisation. The country needs to reinvent the very idea of urban growth. Indian cities have been failed by their planners, engineers and governments and their collective desire to copy London, Tokyo, or Masdar.

Today, smart thinking will require finding a new measure of livability that will work for the Indian situation, where the cost of growth is unaffordable for most. We need smart jugad (improvisation) where technology meets street-smart Indians and builds upon highly compact, mixed-use and pedestrian-friendly designs of our traditional cities.   For example, we know our cities do not have underground sewerage to speak of and have been using septic tanks or open drains for sewage management. So can we get technology to treat sewage in these septic tanks and channels instead of getting a technology to drill expensive sewerage lines?

Validate the smartness that exists
The 100 smart cities emerging on India’s urban horizon attempt to converge the latest technological developments of the 21st century to create controlled and efficiently administered environments. These would represent the best of urban practices as we know them today. Compactness, eco-friendly gestures and intelligently run administrations are some of their hallmarks. 

There is little reason to believe that the utopian move by the government is dramatically different from previous ambitions of a similar kind. After all, statecraft has always involved creating new cities. It allows for a symbolic resurgence of administrative ideals, which is then used to communicate its virtues to the kingdom at large. It allows for postponement of state performance and blames the past for all that is presently wrong. On the bright side, new urban ambitions can genuinely help us avoid past bad habits and start afresh. It is not helpful to be cynical beyond a point.

Since urbanology has consistently striven to work from the other end of the master-planning process, we are not as well-equipped to be innovative about smart cities as our colleagues who are architects and planners. They are more attuned to start afresh from tabula rasa. We already see a lot of smartness in urban spaces, which can contribute to smarter cities. When a neighbourhood is economically productive, has creative space-saving arrangements which combine living and working activities, when it creates collective infrastructure on its own and uses in-house skills for construction activities, then surely it can be considered fairly intelligent and resourceful. Mumbai is full of such neighbourhoods, with the most celebrated one being Dharavi.

Unfortunately, many such neighbourhoods are not seen to be valid, let alone smart or intelligent. Since they emerged outside the planned city, with developed real estate where people hold only occupancy rights, they are shabbily treated by the administration. Consequently, they see a decline in civic infrastructure and the dynamic and intelligent arrangements they embody are never acknowledged. 

(Views expressed are strictly personal)
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