[Urbanstudy] India doesn't need smart cities. It needs smart citizens

Vinay Baindur yanivbin at gmail.com
Tue Aug 5 02:25:11 CDT 2014


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.
Rishi Aggarwal · Today · 07:14 am <http://scroll.in/#!/?publisher=&title=>

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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