Cities & Architecture

To Be Truly Inclusive, the Smart Cities Project Must Also Protect Non-Human Lives

Banning the manufacture and sale of plastic bags, improving animal care and creating an empowered animal welfare enforcement agency are some of the measures that could be included in the project.


A cow stands in the middle of a busy road as auto-rickshaws pass by in Bengaluru, India. Credit: Abhishek N. Chinnappa/Reuters

In 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Smart Cities project for 109 cities across the country, which aims to enhance the physical, institutional, social and economical scale of the cities with the stated purpose of improving lives.

One would therefore assume that the primary aim of the project is to improve the quality of life, rather than to juggle with the digital and technological paraphernalia that focuses on the delivery of conveniences through gadgetry.

According to government websites, the Smart Cities scheme will ensure adequate water, electricity, sanitation, solid waste management, urban mobility, public transport, affordable housing, IT connectivity, good governance, citizen participation, sustainable environment, and the safety and security of citizens – particularly women, children and the elderly.

But there are no documents mentioning the welfare of India’s non-human and non-voting citizenry – the urban animals. If inclusivity is one of the stated missions of the Smart Cities scheme, and if it should mean of all life, then a pro-active blueprint for the rights of animals to be a part of the protected urban life should also be scaled up.

An arrogant, myopic and anthropocentric Smart Cities mission relegates other life forms to remain mired in archaic laws, and in garbage bins and gutters, slaughtered and transported without adequate measures of science or compassion and incarcerated in the government-run Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. In short, urban animals are not the beneficiaries of any improved parameters of the scheme, which makes me wonder if there is a government or corporate budget for animals in the Smart Cities project.

The environment ministry, after a pogrom of unthinking actions against animals, made a public declaration on the sentience of animals by instituting short courses on animal welfare in Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University, “to recognise animals as sentient beings, capable of pain and suffering and to promote their welfare as part of the social development of nations”.

However, one hopes that this kind of ‘welfarist’ syllabus, as opposed to a rights-based one, doesn’t have a utilitarian sub-text of training personnel to escalate and extract higher animal yields in government and private commercial projects (like the out-dated animal husbandry department), but genuinely creates a cadre of humans who will care, fight and lobby for animals.

I hope the university goes a step further in creating an animal studies department, hence setting a precedent for other educational institutions.

Prioritising animal welfare

Many cities of the world have prioritised animal welfare to earn their smart city designation. Independent city councils, with a balanced quorum of real animal science experts, administrators and activists, usually under the mayor, arrive at local city decisions without seeking approval from state governments and without being bogged down by political interference.

For example, Seattle has built a state-of-the-art animal shelter. City mayor Ed Murray said, “The welfare of animals in the care of the city is a priority”. The Los Angeles City Council, making history, voted out the sale of commercially bred dogs, cats and rabbits, thus ending puppy mills and breeders. Councillor Jordi Martí of Barcelona said that Barcelona was the first Catalan city to ban animal sacrifice, the presence of wild animals in circuses and bull runs. Collecchio, in Parma province, Italy, has passed a legislation that forces citizens to use silent fireworks in order to protect animals.

After 140 years, Buenos Aires has shut its zoo, declaring that captivity is degrading to animals. In all these cases, the decisions were city-based and genuinely furthered the cause. Similarly, smart cities must enact proactive bylaws that foster safe, humane and liveable communities for people and animals alike.

Becoming a true smart city

In India, we have a plethora of animal-friendly laws that are defined by their lack of implementation. These ‘good’ laws are manipulated and twisted around by politicians for tawdry votes, like the attempt to bring back banned sports like Jallikattu (bull fighting)  despite court verdicts or retaining elephants in captivity by citing ‘culture’ and tradition, or not bringing in new laws against the cruelty to animals. Unless these laws are changed, animals will continue to be tossed around by the vagaries of delayed or no legislation.

A city that does not care for its non-human life is unintelligent, unethical and immoral and not worthy of being called ‘smart’.

To begin with, no city can be deemed smart unless there is a ban on the manufacture and sale of plastic carry bags that clog every nook and crevice of cities, including in the bellies of cows, which are the bovine victims of squalid urban garbage bins and filthy illegal oxytocin-ridden dairies.

For all the nonsensical cow rhetoric in this country, they are the most exploited and shabbily treated of all urban animals and mainly live off human waste. Buffaloes, who are tied up in dark and dingy urban dairies all their lives, die without ever moving or seeing a sliver of sunlight. The only time they get to walk is when they march towards their own death.

Smart cities must launch an aggressive animal birth control (ABC) programme for stray dogs and cats – the only humane way to control their numbers and to end rabies. Unused spaces of hundreds of defunct animal husbandry departments can be utilised for ABC in collaboration with NGOs. Garbage-free cities and legal protection of animal caregivers, who continue to feed, vaccinate and neuter, despite severe hostility, will help contain stray dog proliferation.

State-of-the-art government veterinary colleges, ambulances and hospitals with well-paid vets and para-vets for small and large animals will bring pride back to the veterinary profession and will bring in funds for research and development.

As a commentator on future cities said, “Cities can’t manage animal shelters like janitorial way-stations for euthanisable strays”. The infamous lock-up-and-forget dog pounds will have to be stopped before they even come into existence.

High-level modernity must inform transport of animals for slaughter and rule-less abattoirs where animals are primitively slaughtered in full view of each other.

Smart cities should ban religion-based sacrifice of animals in streets, temples and backyards and institute strict rules for the welfare of chickens in the egg industry who suffer a lifetime of misery.

Pet shops should also adhere to strict rules. Ruthless, unlicensed dog breeders must be heavily fined or put behind bars along with those who sell wildlife and their parts through websites like OLX, Quikr and Amazon.

Smart cities should investigate the lives of horses that are used in weddings and buggy pullers as well as ban the use of donkeys in construction sites and of elephants for commercial purposes.

Many cities globally are phasing out zoos. Rather than showcasing animals, smart cities should free them from captivity. Importing Humboldt penguins to Mumbai’s Byculla zoo is not a smart move.

If all this is to be done, a smart city should seriously consider incorporating an empowered animal welfare enforcement agency, as opposed to the present advisory bodies in order to relieve the already overburdened regular police force from attending to animal cruelty and rescue reports.

These could be uniformed units on vehicles, with authority to lodge cases, fine, arrest and impound, somewhat akin to an animal police force. Special animal courts with trained judges in animal laws will ensure fast track justice for animals and the rescue and rehabilitation of traumatised animals must be quick and efficient.

Smart cities can become like Gotham City or they can be verdant and forested, brimming with birdsong and wildlife, where monkeys and wild boars can live in peripheral natural habitats, where the wagging tails of happy community dogs on garbage free roads can re-instate India’s commitment to the growing global discourse on animal ethics.

Rukmini Sekhar is a writer and activist committed to including animals in the social justice movement.  

  • Karina1

    A very articulate and well thought out article. In fact it makes more sense than most city planning schemes I have read over the years. It seems in this ‘Smart City’ planning animals in cities are totally ignored and are like the elephant in the room, (no pun intended).