Liveable Cities Mission is what we need

India’s ambitious > Smart Cities Mission will earmark an investment of $15 billion (close to Rs 99,457 crore). It involves making nearly 100 cities “smart”, and the “rejuvenation” of 500 more. It is not a small project.

The Centre has seemingly given the project top priority (the deadline for nominating cities for this project with clear guidelines for implementation was December 15) and has envisaged sweeping changes in 11 infrastructure elements of urban life: water and power supply, sanitation, public transport, housing, IT connectivity and digitisation, good governance, sustainable environment, citizens’ safety, health, and education.

The government has listed some allied themes that are equally, if not more, important. Creating walkable localities, for instance. Or making governance citizen-friendly and cost-effective. There is one other significant item on the smart city agenda, based on its economic activity: giving a city an identity using its cuisine, education, arts and craft, culture, sports goods, and so on.

These are noble and eminently sensible ideas and, if implemented with the rigour that the Prime Minister has envisaged, will make our cities well-governed and our lives better.

Indices of quality

There is no standard definition of a smart city, so India will have to evolve its own. It is important to specify what we really want out of this mass-scale programme. If there is one aim that the Smart Cities Mission should have, it should be to improve the quality of life of the average urban citizen. Before we go ahead with long-term implementation, perhaps we need to revisit the name of the project and redefine a few goals.

If the ultimate aim of > Smart Cities Mission is to make people’s lives better, we should start by making our cities liveable. Calling it The Liveable Cities Mission makes it more grounded, and allows the government to broaden the definition to make cities more inclusive. It is not just infrastructural change; it is behavioural and needs to be more incentivised.

Like in the case of a smart city, there is no standard definition of a liveable city. The annual rankings of the world’s most liveable cities by at least two organisations across the world feature more or less the same cities: Melbourne (Australia), Vienna (Austria), Calgary (Canada), Sydney (Australia), Auckland (New Zealand), Vancouver (Canada), Helsinki (Finland), Zurich (Switzerland), Perth (Australia), Toronto (Canada), and Adelaide (Australia).

Here’s what they have in common, according to studies published in The Economist and Forbes and the London-based Monocle magazine: every single city scores high on quality of living. For example, in The Economist survey (conducted by the Economist Intelligence Unit) published in August 2015, the magazine counted 30 qualitative and quantitative factors across five broad categories, including crime, health care (private and public), culture and environment, corruption, social and religious restrictions, level of censorship, sporting availability, food and drink, consumer goods and services, private and public education, road networks, public transport, quality of water, good quality housing, quality of international links, quality of telecommunications, facilities for tourists, pollution (air and noise), and so on.

A large part of what constitutes “quality of living” should be social and cultural in nature, and even though The Economist’s parameters forget one important factor — inclusive cities (for both the disabled community as well as for sexual minorities) — the goalposts are well defined.

India’s Smart Cities Mission does not place these interests on top; instead it puts physical infrastructure as the issue to tackle the quickest. For instance, while there is emphasis on public transport and safety of women, there is no word on policing. The world’s most liveable cities are also some of the safest.

Take a parallel in India — Delhi. India’s capital saw a 31 per cent rise in rape incidents in 2014, and an overall crime rate rise of nearly 100 per cent. The number of crimes against women rose from 1,571 in 2013 to 2,069 in 2014. It could be argued that the police began registering more cases in the year 2013-14, but the underlying social and cultural factors for this alarming growth rate have been glossed over. Mumbai is relatively safe, but crimes against women are on the rise in the city, data show.

Compare some other parameters: the number of museums, open spaces, cultural districts, moral policing, accessibility and education for the physically and mentally disabled, public health care, work-life balance, traffic congestion, recreational spaces for families. Then, there is a big question of how liveable the city is for children. Do they get easy access to schools and playgrounds? Are there enough non-school learning avenues for children? In almost all these parameters, Indian cities lag behind their western (or Australian) counterparts by a large margin.

Less than 30 per cent of Adelaide’s area has residential or commercial buildings; the rest is trees and open spaces. Several Scandinavian countries actively incentivise bicycle ridership. Paris has a state-sponsored rent-a-bicycle facility where you can pick up a bike from any location, ride for half an hour and deposit at the next bike station. It’s free, except for a one-time, refundable deposit of €150. Several European cities have put work-life balance at the centre of their social fabric. In Vienna, for example, several supermarkets and retail outlets (except restaurants, malls and pubs) close at 6 p.m. to allow their employees to go home and spend time with their families. The road signs in Amsterdam are so scientific and visual-driven that tourists need not know the Dutch language to go around.

In short, therefore, the question to ask is: if you were a professional or a government officer, what would make you come and live in Indian cities? It is no secret that multinational firms and foreign governments go out of their way to tempt professionals to shift to India, including offering what was contemptuously referred to as “hardship allowance” (it is now masked under other heads after much outrage).

Challenges aplenty

There is another challenge. As India continues to improve its agricultural yields by mechanisation, the dependence on manual labour in villages will reduce, and the logical place for the agrarian economy dependents to migrate is the city. The challenge for cities, as a consequence, would be to not only create employment opportunities for these labourers but also equip them with skills to earn those jobs.

These are challenges not only of economics, but they question our societal structure.

This is not to say that the Smart Cities Mission is not a good initiative; it certainly is. On just one theme alone — e-governance and citizen services — governance measures will ensure that the day-to-day drudgery of dealing with corrupt and inefficient officials is reduced. But for this to happen, other things have to take place simultaneously: a national broadband grid, availability of cheap data services, availability of hardware, and behavioural change in our bureaucratic system… the challenges are several.

This brings us back to the original argument: the Smart Cities Mission should be converted into a Liveable Cities Mission, with focus clearly on quality of life using social and cultural yardsticks rather than a drastic change in merely physical infrastructure. The fear with the latter is that we will end up with the swankiest of railway stations, but with spit stains all over.

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Printable version | May 16, 2021 4:53:05 AM |

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