Will India's 'Smart Cities' Be Climate-Resilient?

The smart cities programme needs to reinvent its entire urban planning process even if only for the reason that it's fallacious to assume creating assets makes a city smart.

When the government announced a roster of 20 ‘smart cities’ it had shortlisted for development, it was beaming about how they’d someday come to boast top-notch IT connectivity, smart-parking, and health and education, but quietly sidestepped any details of how they’d cope with natural disasters. The Chennai floods in 2015 and Srinagar floods in 2014 are grim reminders of the need to factor in extreme events that are predicted to increase with climate change while Delhi’s smog highlights the perils of pollution.

To be climate-resilient, the smart cities will need more than high levels of wealth and assets in the form of infrastructure to adapt to impacts of global warming, and to be environmentally smart, cities will need to reduce their emissions and waste.

On January 28, the government released the first list of 20 smart cities, drawn from 11 states and Delhi, involving an investment of Rs.50,802 crore over five years, and a collective development of 26,735 acres of real estate for making them smart with a public-private partnership model of financing.

Minister for Urban Development Venkaiah Naidu said on the occasion that smart cities would lead to “integrated urban planning by addressing the issue of infrastructure, land use planning, transport, urban design and architecture in a holistic manner unlike in the past.”

The ministry’s website says there is no universally acceptable definition of a smart city, and that “it means different things to different people”.  It adds that the mission’s objective is to promote cities that provide core infrastructure and a decent quality of life to its citizens. The core infrastructure elements include adequate water supply; assured electricity supply; sanitation (including solid waste management); efficient urban mobility and transport; affordable housing; robust IT connectivity and digitalisation; good governance, especially e-governance; sustainable environment; safety and security of citizens; and health and education.

And its ‘smart solutions’ envisage a slew of electronic options such as electronic service delivery, video crime monitoring, smart parking meters, intelligent traffic management and telemedicine, among others.

Increasing climate-adaptability

It is not spanking new infrastructure but economic diversity that could help cities adapt to the impacts of global warming such as intense rainfall spells and flooding, Ulka Kelkar, fellow, climate change, at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bangalore, said at a meeting of the Indian Society for Ecological Economics (INSEE), held during January 4-6 in Bengaluru.

Kelkar’s team analysed secondary data for 160 Indian cities using indicators that factored in unique features such as economic connectivity, market dependence, use of resources such as water and land, and occupation diversity to explore relative vulnerability to climate change at the city-scale. They also studied how this measure has changed between 2001 and 2011, and tried to understand the trade-offs between economic competitiveness and environmental sustainability.

Their analysis showed that to be climate-resilient, the smart cities need more than high levels of wealth and assets in the form of infrastructure, and that “cities with diversified economic opportunities will be better equipped to adapt to risks posed by climate change”. Kelkar says this finding supports earlier research, which showed cities heavily relying on a single resource or exported commodity have low potential to adapt to climate change. Economic diversification fosters innovation and facilitates knowledge transfers.

The ATREE research cautions against urban planning and infrastructure creation that are devoid of ecological considerations. In many cities, for instance, due to encroachment of drains, streams and lakebeds, heavy rainfall events – projected to happen more often due to climate change – often lead to traffic disruptions, loss of work hours, water logging of homes and increased risk of water-borne diseases, Kelkar said.

The disastrous results of improper urban planning was most recently highlighted in the 2015 Chennai floods. “Chennai was complacent about its vulnerability, despite planners knowing that it is a flat land and faces frequent storms and recurrent floods,” says A. Srivathsan, an Ahmedabad-based architect.

Chennai has grown by filling up its water bodies by draining out the water, which disrupts natural water flow, he adds. “It is important to plan according to the local topography. There are few details at this stage of what kind of projects the government will invest in as part of the smart cities programme, and it is unclear whether it has factored in future natural disasters and extreme events that are projected to increase due to global warming.”

Not enough continuous monitors

Another aspect that planners of smart cities seem to have ignored is pollution. Sarath Guttikonda, director of the independent research organisation Urban Emissions, highlighted how it was time Indian policymakers started planning for better air quality in Indian cities.

Guttikonda says that technical solutions alone, such as introducing compressed natural gas, changing standards for vehicles and industries or relocating industries, will not be sufficient to control air pollution in Indian cities. “We will need institutional changes that will allow ministries and departments to work together and coordinate. A start would be informing citizens about the quality of the air we breathe, the severity of pollution in the air, and where this pollution comes from.”

“Information in hand makes us smart,” he quips. “And environmental information in hand makes us environmentally smart.”

Guttikonda told the INSEE meeting that “the current monitoring and information dissemination system in India is weak and needs a complete overhaul,” in order to reach the level of transparency and accuracy required for implementing  clean air programmes.

A major reason is that the 573 air quality monitoring stations in India are manually operated, collecting information every two days, and data is available only after at least one week of collection. Only a handful of cities operate continuous monitoring stations, currently number 40 in India, and there are not enough in any city to be able to present a representative index. For example, the Delhi Pollution Control Committee operates six continuous monitoring stations compared to 35 by authorities in Beijing.

Guttikonda estimates that for 50 smart cities in India – each with at least 10 lakh people – at least 30 monitoring stations each costing approximately Rs.1 crore (plus 10% annual maintenance costs) will be necessary. The entire cost works out to Rs.7,500 crore for 10 years.

“This is not a big sum. The cost of the Delhi metro system is approximately Rs.75,000 crores, which is currently supporting less than 5% of the travel demand in the city,” Guttikonda says.

Citing the Petroleum Planning and Analysis Cell, Guttikonda says that in January 2015 alone, the total consumption of petroleum products in India was 13.9 million metric tonnes. “Thus, an additional cess of 50 paise per kg of petroleum products sold will translate to Rs.695 crore a month – or approximately Rs.8,340 crores per year – enough to cover the estimated costs to operate a reliable and transparent air quality information management system in 50 cities for ten years,” he adds.

Solving traffic jams

Policy experts also need to figure out how to cut emissions of global warming gases (GHGs) due to increasing urbanisation. A study by Bandana Khataniar and Anamika Barua from the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Guwahati, which looked at the links between urbanisation and emissions in eight emerging Asian economies, found that urbanisation has positive links with both carbon emissions and energy consumption.

And another study led by Purnamita Dasgupta, from the Institute of Economic Growth, University of Delhi and involving researchers from the department of business economics, University of Delhi South Campus, shows a positive link between per capita income in India’s class 1 cities, their population and the amount of solid municipal waste generated. The waste sector adds to GHG emissions, mainly through decomposition and methane formation in landfills, it says.

Given the transboundary movement of pollutants and common problems of unmanageable urban sprawls across South Asia, what exactly makes an intelligent city is engaging analysts in the region. Prashanta Khanal, Clean Energy Nepal, says transport is a major contributor to air pollution and carbon emissions and city planners need to solve the transport chaos first. Khanal cites Enrique Penalosa, a former mayor of Bogota who said, “Trying to solve traffic jams by building more roads is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.”

“The urban mobility problems is not about budget or space. It is about priorities and perspectives,” Khanal told a workshop on air pollution in the Hindu Khush Himalayas, held at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, in Kathmandu in November 2015. He cited examples across developing countries where transit-oriented development, especially ‘bus rapid transit system’ (BRT) which “combines the best features of rail with the flexibility and cost benefits of road transit system; and dedicated bus lanes that increase the bus speed, making them competitive with car travel”, are beginning to work.

“We [in Asian cities] have provided more space and infrastructure of cars than for people to walk and live in,” Khanal says. With $1 billion (Rs.6,764 crore), a city can have 426 km of BRT, 14 km of elevated rail, 7 km of subway. It’s about choices.”

Methods of sustainability

Sunita Narain, director of the Delhi-based non-governmental organisation Centre for Science and Environment, says, “We need to change our method of sustainability. We cannot first pollute and then clean up. We cannot first invest in expensive capital and then try to provide for all. We cannot first invest in cleaning for some and then clean for many.”

Citing the example of car-centric policies that marginalised public transport such as buses, bicycling and walking, Narain says, “We need to reinvent our mobility and city planning.”

The smart cities programme needs to reinvent its entire urban planning process even if only for the reason that it’s fallacious to assume creating assets makes a city smart. Its air should be breathable, roads walkable, and it should be built anticipating disasters that happen once a century. The programme needs to avoid repeating the mistakes of current city planners, not build on them.