The National Smart Cities Mission was launched amidst much fanfare in 2015 by the Union Government of India. The Ministry of Urban Development was made responsible to develop hundreds of Smart Cities under the mission. The launch of the mission saw palpable excitement among the cheerleaders of the politics in power, urban enthusiasts, media and more importantly the consultant fraternity.
Specific missions were established in respective cities that were helmed by administrators as CEOs who were responsible to elaborate on the meaning of Smart Cities and to implement that meaning. Corridors of buildings that housed these missions saw hectic parleys by consultants and experts from across India and globally with ideas and detailed project reports (DPRs) about smart cities. Contracts were rolled out and smart city mission across hundreds of cities across India came to life. The first batch of 22 two smart cities under this programme including Agra, Varanasi, Ahmedabad, Chennai and Pune will be unveiled a few weeks from now.
Dehradun Smart City mission was one such mission that deployed Rs 1,400 crore (nearly $200 million) between 2015 and 2022, to transform the capital city of Uttarakhand into a ‘smart city’, from whatever its status was earlier. But in 2022, the chief minister of the state held a critical review of the mission’s progress and was unsparing to conclude that the city is yet to become “smart”.
Environmentalists, experts and historians of the city claim that the smart city mission has hardly made a dent to the city’s dwindling ability to manage waste, rapidly rising urban population and of slums, check pollution and protect biodiversity. The city’s freshwater streams that were once the source of the famed basmati rice cultivation on the city’s periphery have all but vanished. The city does not have a working master plan but the only industry that is alive in the city is the real estate sector. So, what has the Smart City Mission been working on for the last seven years? And, more importantly, what is a smart city, and did the mission rightly scope the smart city plan seven years ago?
What a ‘smart city’ is
Climate change has accelerated academic research on smart cities. It is bringing together urban theorists, economists, planners and scientists to collaborate on “What makes a city smart”. From this collaboration, broad contours that can explain the smartness quotient of a city are increasingly getting accepted and these have three characteristics.
Foremost is this notion that the city should be resource neutral or resource positive. It should give back more than it takes from the nature. This implies that the electricity that goes into powering the city can completely transition to renewables or solar through a distributed grid system. The emission that it generates – methane from waste landfills – should be harvested and put to industrial use for its rich calorific value. Water bodies should be nurtured so that they retain their stamina to recharge always remains in surplus.
Broadly, it means that a smart city should collect and process all the aftermaths of consumption within the city or consume resources within its ability to replace or regenerate. A smart city should not only exist to pursue this equilibrium, but it should also sound an alarm whenever this equilibrium is breached and demand a revert to the status quo. Economist Kate Raworth conceptualised Doughnut Economics for a smarter urban existence on this notion among other principals, and the city of Amsterdam is adopting it for a smart existence.
Secondly, a smart city should prioritise public spaces over private spaces. Sprawling individual houses in a city are more resource inefficient than are community housing complexes and rental living colonies. Public transport more than individual cars should have right to the city’s road systems. Public libraries and public swimming pools should be prioritised over private clubs or golf courses that are designed for exclusion.
A city’s space will only get scarcer and more stretched, and therefore a smart city should prioritise more of its spaces for shared use than for a single individual. This wisdom is an established way of tribal living and is now finding increasing acceptance in movements across Europe, as has seen with activists advocating for more road rights to pedestrians, cyclists and public transport than for cars in cities like Paris, London and Amsterdam.
Finally, a city can’t be smart if its inhabitants can’t decide the course of its current and future existence. From urban planning to deciding fees, levies and taxes for services, people’s representation through urban local bodies is key to determine the smartness quotient of the city.
The autonomy of the elected local bodies of cities to govern, to financially stand on their own feet and to legislate as per the will of the cities’ residents is directly proportional to the cities’ smartness. A near monopoly of the top-down approach to develop smart cities in India faces this reality check, and no better than Delhi can symbolise this reality. It took the city three months to get a mayor after the decisive municipal elections were concluded, leaving it politically and administratively headless so that the executive of the country could get to play the super mayor of the city for that period.
Delhi welcomes you from three entry points into the city with open landfills that are one of the biggest sources of methane emissions in the region and command a towering presence in the city’s world-famous AQI (Air Quality Index). The city’s public toilet ratio for women stands at one for every 10,000 people, against the prescribed norms of one to 200 under the Clean India Mission. An estimated 40% percent of the city’s nearly 20 million population lives in informal living (slums and shanties).
The tragedy of the city of Joshimath sinking under its own weight exposes that this challenge is not only limited to visible metros but also extends to remote towns. The blasting for building a tunnel for a hydroelectricity project and bulldozing of the hills for a “super” highway call into question the ability whether the top-down approach should over-ride the wisdom and the will of the habitants of the town, who know these acts are ecological disasters. For instance, not only did the blasting of hills for the highway pose grave challenges, but the subsequent mitigation that involved design and execution of gradient and sloping along the entire stretch was allegedly ignored, and is a key reason for the tragedy that local experts highlight. There is also a third reason, in that most houses of the town are not connected to any sewage system and the sewage, over time, has seeped into the hills below and made the land mass unstable.
These details bring to surface the top-down desire to promote the “development” of these areas through activities like religious tourism across Uttarakhand, while the bottom-up wisdom says this desire sits at odds with the ecology of the area. It is the local governance that has to act as a bulwark to navigate this interplay, but it hardly exists administratively, politically and morally beyond on paper.
Indian “smart cities” will need to take lessons from city like Venice that now impose a tourist tax to stop “over tourism” or municipalities in Sweden that own and run waste processing plants as a public good. Hyderabad and Bengaluru that surrendered to one spell of rain shower last year and New Delhi that saw only one day of air quality under healthy limits in the whole of last year stand in the company of Dehradun, while they all search for elusive smartness quotient after spending millions for over the last seven years. More importantly, no Indian city can claim to be smart if more than a third of urban India lives in slums and subaltern housing.
While the 22 cities get ready to unveil their smartness quotient, it will be a good exercise to evaluate their smartness on
- share of population that lives in slums
- number of households connected to any kind of closed and working sewage system
- number of days these cities experienced AQI in the green zone in a year
- share of the waste collected and processed
- share of wet waste composted and municipal waste recycled
- number of open waste dump sites
- ability to handle abrupt climate change induced events like flash floods and extreme heat spells
- public use to private use space ratio of the city’s land bank like publicly run creches, maternity wards, public libraries, footpaths
- Average commute time to work
- A working master plan for 30 years forward.
Process owners of the smart city project in India will vouch for the project’s successful implementation in these 22 flagship cities citing a centralised traffic signalling system, signage boards that glow at night and digitised record keeping among other initiatives, but this framework is at odds with the smartness habitants of these cities yearn for.
Ankur Bisen is a Senior Partner at Technopak Advisors, and the author of ‘Wasted: The Messy Story of Sanitation in India, A Manifesto for Change’ (Macmillan; 2019). The author is on Twitter: @AnkurBisen1
The article was first published in The South Asian Times in January 2023. It is reprinted with permission and modifications