On The Other Hand | Columns

Smart cities? Don’t make me laugh

It’s time we went back to the drawing board on civic governance

A few days post Diwali, after thumbing our collective noses at the Supreme Court and the choking haze of celebratory firecrackers just about clearing up, is as good a time as any to look at the state of our cities. And for those too rushed to read much beyond the headline and first para, here’s the conclusion, upfront: our cities are in a shambles.

Of course, you didn’t need me to tell you that. Anybody who lives in any sort of urban agglomeration in India already knows that thanks to personal and painful experience. But once in a while, it is good to get some external validation for one’s outrage.

The ‘Big Seven’

That came in the form of a study released by the global real estate consultancy, JLL, and the think tank, The Business of Cities, whose report ‘Decoding City Performance 2017’ was released about a week ago. The report analysed as many as 300 different types of comparative city indices brought out by various governments, research and academic bodies, and others interested in the space, to work out a list of the best performing cities worldwide.

They scraped data bases to track the performance of cities along several criteria. These range from business and investor demand (the most number of indices) to brand, reputation and destination; quality of life; and growth and jobs performance. Then there are more new-age indices tracking things like ‘smartness’, innovation, research and development, sustainability and resilience, culture and diversity, as well as mundane ones looking at infrastructure, costs, governance and the like — all of this to come up with a sort of super index of the best cities of the world.

The ‘Big Seven’ cities — London, New York, Paris, Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong and Seoul — appear to have cracked the code to emerge as the top ranked cities across all these diverse parameters. They were followed by ten cities which the report dubs as ‘contenders’ — those that are either on the way to becoming ‘big’ or have a clear plan to become ‘big’ or super cities in the real sense of the term. With the exception of Shanghai, Beijing and Sydney, the others are European or American/ Canadian cities.

In the news for the wrong reasons

Needless to say, India doesn’t figure anywhere in either of these lists. It is little consolation that apart from China, Japan, South Korea, and Singapore, there are no other Asian cities there either (indeed, there isn’t a single BRICS city apart from the two Chinese cities amongst the contenders).

No, our cities are making headlines for other reasons. Whether it is in India’s financial capital Mumbai, or in its technology capital Bengaluru, or wannabe cyber-hub Hyderabad, people are dying in floods triggered by spells of heavy rain. Vector-borne diseases like dengue are claiming dozens of lives every year in our mega metros. In the shiny National Capital Region, breathing problems caused by choking pollution have emerged as one of the major reasons for hospitalisation.

Our cities are broken. Perhaps beyond fixing, at least with traditional remedies. The creaky, colonial-era infrastructure underpinning most of our major cities has just about rolled over and given up the ghost.

It is against this dystopian backdrop that the government is trying to paint its grand vision of urban India of the future — smart cities populated by smart people living smart lives.

Changing goalposts

Is this even possible? Clearly not, as the government itself appears to have realised. The concept itself, as Persis Taraporevala, a researcher with the Centre for Policy Research, pointed out in an article in the Hindustan Times, has transformed drastically. From the pre-2014 poll promise to build a 100 new smart cities from scratch (itself a response to China’s grand 2 trillion yuan plan to build 193 smart cities), the plan has shifted to building “satellite towns” and “modernising existing mid-sized cities”, to focussing on “compact areas within existing cities”, and then to creating a “replicable model” which would “inspire similar urban regeneration across the nation”. Budget allocations too have been shrinking year after year (this year’s budgeted spend is under ₹4,000 crore). Four years into the experiment, the pace of change has been glacial, racked by controversies and corruption scandals, and looks set to degenerate into the kind of usual pork barrel politics that we are wearily familiar with.

Is there a way to fix this? Yes, there is, but the change will have to start from the ground up. We are nearly a $2.5 trillion economy now, and money is not really the problem. The way it is spent is, and that is largely shaped by the way our cities are run.

The kind of municipal administration system bequeathed to us by the British is no longer working. Elected representatives are hardly representative; the bureaucracy is not even remotely accountable. This has to be drastically altered. From planning to budgeting, to spending, priorities need to be arrived at by a more democratic and inclusive process than what we have now. In this age of technology and near-universal connectivity, that’s not as difficult as it looks. In fact, a truly ‘smart’ city would make it easy.

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Printable version | Jun 3, 2020 10:55:39 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/columns/smart-cities-dont-make-me-laugh/article19897715.ece

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