5 September 2014

‘The city’ has always held an undeniable place in our imagination of space. History offers numerous examples of how the ‘making’ of a city tends to add intriguing dimensions to human experience. The world order has shifted many a time since the days of the Greek city-state, the eternal Roman city, the ancient Indian puras… Today, as a fair deal of humanity gathers around our mega-metropolises, urbanisation seems an irrevocable process. Governments feel the pressure to build more and newer variants of the city. For instance, the newly appointed Indian government has announced the shiny and luring project of 100 smart cities. As we approach the deadlines, we also watch an empty field growing between the conception and the construction of these spaces. Is the smart city a no man’s land of methodology in today’s urban planning? This week on LILA Inter-actions, we turn towards two experts, to explore the present situation of policies, methodologies and actual development for the smart cities in India. MN Buch assesses the various kinds of ‘new cities’ that have cropped up in history, and urges the government to work for conceptual clarity before embarking on execution. Vinita Yadav lists the necessities that the smart cities have to satisfy, even as she insists that they must be well thought out, planned and executed in a dense relationship with an organic regional planning.
Debate

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Jargon or Reality?

MN Buch

Smart Cities within Regions

Vinita Yadav

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MN Buch dtr-215

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has announced that India will set up 100 Smart Cities in the near future. Amongst the arguments in favour of smart cities is the often-cited demographic shift from village to town, a trend that will accelerate, and we need to create the urban infrastructure that will gainfully employ the new migrants. It is a fact that while, between 1901 and 2011, there was a fivefold increase in the total population of India, the increase in the urban population was seventeen-fold. However, as a proportion of the total population of India, in 110 years the increase of urban population was only three-fold. This is not by itself alarming and is not indicative of skewing the settlement pattern.

Successive censuses have shown that the highest growth is taking place in the middle level towns. If we take the fifty-three metropolitan cities, they contain 19.24 percent of the total urban population of India, but as a proportion of the total population, they account for a little more than six percent. This does not suggest the kind of mass movement from rural areas to urban settlements as has been experienced, for example, in China. When we again fine slice the urban population we find that about 7.5 percent live in class-six to class-four towns, having each a population of between 3,000 and 20,000, and this represents 2.5 percent of the total population. The nature of such towns in terms of employment is more akin to rural settlements, and if we deduct their population from the total urban population, then, in fact the India that is truly urban accounts for only a little more than twenty-eight percent of our total population.

More than the megacities:
the 6,485 agglomerations of 10,000 inhabitants and more,
as of 2001

There is a certain basic equilibrium of our settlement pattern, ranging from village to mega metropolis, and this is one factor that our planners must take into account. To maintain itself, this equilibrium requires macro level planning, and this can encourage the specific economic activities and sectors in rural and small town India to retain people in these settlements, where they find gainful employment. This would be an exact antithesis of the smart city concept.

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I became associated with urban planning and development in early 1971, and have since then worked in the field of environmental and forest management, and issues relating to watershed development. I was also Vice Chairman of the National Commission on Urbanisation. But, in spite of my knowledge in urban planning and development, I have simply not been able to understand what exactly we mean by a smart city. I spoke to high officials in the Ministry of Urban Development and they told me that they too are not very clear about what is meant by smart city, even as they are trying to work out the parameters of such a city.

About seven or eight years ago, Gujarat started to work on what is termed as a global financial city. It follows the model of similar cities in Shanghai. In fact, it is not a new city but a sub-city that is self-contained, and with the entire infrastructure of a city providing financial services of a high order. Would La DĂ©fense in Paris be considered a smart city, or would it count as an ultra modern sub-city located in Paris? Are new towns such as Evry in the Loire Valley smart cities, or are they new towns like Milton Keynes in England? I suppose one could call a city that is totally technology driven as a smart city, but technology has drawbacks, because human interaction eventually introduces so many elements of unpredictability. Therefore, at best the city remains smart only in part.

The major slum zones of NCT Delhi are located
right next to the green and imperial area
of Luytens’ New Delhi

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Obviously, one hundred new smart cities will be greenfield ventures, separated from our existing settlements by a technology chasm. When Jawaharlal Nehru built steel plants in the middle of nowhere, whole new cities such as Bhilai, Durgapur and Rourkela came up almost overnight. An earlier example was that of the Tata-built city of Jamshedpur. I suppose in their own day and age they were smart cities. So, I presume, are new capitals such as Chandigarh, Islamabad and Brasilia. But have these cities been left untouched by the rest of the country in which they are located? Chandigarh, designed as the perfect planned city, has become like Lutyens’ New Delhi, with a green and almost imperial core – both are under heavy pressure from the rest of Delhi and the National Capital Region, and Mohali and Panch Kula, respectively. Ultimately, these new towns become oases of planned prosperity in the midst of a desert of poverty, so it is but natural that the poor drift towards the new cities in search of employment. We thus have a planned city surrounded by a mass of unplanned settlements, resulting in a situation where a planned city and an unplanned city are in close juxtaposition. Can this be avoided in the one hundred new smart cities? I can state with a great deal of conviction that till India achieves a level of equity and equality in income, job opportunities and lifestyles, the smart city will be the magnet, the people will be the iron filings attracted to the magnet and soon the magnet will wear an untidy beard of iron filings. Has anyone thought about this?

India’s cities are old and multi-layered. The medieval is overlaid with the imperial, the imperial with post-independence settlements and the post-independence portions are now heavily inter-layered with slums, unplanned or unauthorised colonies and new colonies developed by builders with neither character nor aesthetics. And almost every city has a major problem of physical infrastructure including roads, water supply, sewerage and drainage, power and communications. Extreme poverty impinges on extreme wealth. Should the existing cities be allowed to rot because available resources are diverted towards creating new smart cities? Has anyone ever considered where the new smart cities will draw their water requirements? What about transportation links, power supply, etc.? Gurgaon, which is located next to Delhi and is now the hub of a great deal of business, has no centralised water supply system and suffers from crippling power shortages. Will the new smart city in Haryana not have these problems?

Gurgaon, hub of technology for India,
lacks centralised water supply

Without rejecting or condemning the concept of a smart city, one would suggest that governments should first conceptualise properly what a smart city would be, then look at its dominant functions, plan for the entire infrastructure needed to make a city smart and then view it in the larger perspective of its location and hinterland. It is these factors that will determine whether the city will be smart, or just like Bhilai, the planned steel township, or even, the entirely unplanned settlements that have sprung up around it. Capital should be invested in smart cities only after these issues have been addressed and have been introduced into the planning process. Right now, we seem to be groping in the dark.

Vinita Yadav-588 dtr-bw--

For Nam and Pardo, a smart city has three main dimensions: technology, people and institutions. But can the smart city be co-terminus with cities acquiring and developing e-democracy and e-governance? Or, as defended by T. M. Vinod Kumar, would it aim at achieving beyond just these two? The question is whether a smart city is a city where all the services are e-governed, or whether it would rather turn into the amalgamation of problems associated with migration, unauthorised space occupation and informalisation of labour force. On the one hand, smart cities would be smartly governed to ensure the effectiveness and efficiency of service delivery. An optimum utilisation of resources, population controlling growth as well as vehicular growth and citizen involvement in decision-making are a few basic requirements for such a smart city. But, can a city be smart if the influx of population far exceeds the population for which the city is planned? In a city where every footpath is encroached by people, how will we make sure that there will never be another tragedy like that of Trilokpuri in late August, when an e-rickshaw kicked a mother carrying her infant, making her drop the baby, who fell and died as burnt alive in a heating utensil?

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The migrants are necessity for any city – in fact, many of us are migrants to the National Capital or to other large urban agglomerations. But how will the smart city dweller expect not to find a migrant at every inch of this new type of space? What options will be there for them to avoid having to resort to robbing, looting or attacking on public spaces for a living? Democratic countries provide everyone with the right to move at free will, but they also promise to ensure liberty and equality. Clearly, our model of the city has turned its back on the provision of equal services, to artists staying at Katputli Colony in Delhi for instance, or to the sex workers in Gokak, Karnataka, or to leprosy-affected community in Delhi or Allahabad. That does not seem to really matter to politicians, bureaucrats and officials. The regularisation of unauthorised colonies has been time and again used as a mean to garner votes during elections, but no concrete effort has been made to safeguard the interest of the poor by providing them with a space and the amenities required for a decent living. E-governing the city can create smart cities, but it can also happen by a management of space, benefiting each and everyone.

The promises of e-governance may engender
unreasonable hopes on technology alone

City administrators and managers are performing their duties for the city, but can administration and management be enough, or should a city be also conceived as per Master Plans and Regional Plans? Planning has to be at the forefront when turning a city into a smart city. It should not just be one out of a list of ten indicators, or worse, the missing element in all the requirements that make a smart city.

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In order to make a city a smart city, it has to be developed by adopting a balanced regional approach. Urban Agglomerations shall be considered for the planning of a smart city, as it will help to curtail migration, ensure the essential supply such as milk and vegetable to the region, and provide employment opportunities to the youth. The officials are to be sensitised to imagine the city as their homeland, so that they monitor the space, curtail encroachment and do not take cuts from people, which would anyway lead the latter to lose respect for their administrators. The e-governed city can provide an ease of service delivery to middle and high-income groups, but issues of low-income groups are entirely different. Their struggle is to make both ends meet, and due to government apathy, they are forced to survive through informalisation and criminalisation. Both of these give the city a tag of crime capital, and an image of a space with the lowest level of human development index.

Thus, the smart city is one where there shall be no red-tapism and an increase of the E-R-As: the 3 Es of Equity, Efficiency and Effectiveness, the 2 Rs of Responsiveness and Responsibility, and the 2 As of Accountability and Autonomy. To reach there, some specific policy understanding must be agreed upon:

  • Appeasement of migrants to garner vote shall not be practiced. Only those migrants who are required in the city shall be invited, and proper physical and social infrastructure should be made available at their arrival.
  • A smart city must define a policy to reduce poverty. Bogus ration cards to cipher the funds allocated for the poor reflect poor governance. The low poverty line of statistical records may indeed show that poverty has been reduced in India, but in fact its severity has increased. On the ground, subsidy shall be given only to the most needy people.
  • The region shall be the focus area of a smart city. We need regional planners to plan for the region altogether, encompassing both rural and urban areas with a master plan prepared for each city. The project funding shall be as per the master plan and not on the basis of ad hoc policies of central government sponsored projects.

We should look at what is happening right now in terms of regional planning. The development of the Western Ghats and of the North-East region has received a special focus from the newly appointed Indian Government, which is planning to engage the private sector at a large scale. But two of the reports prepared by the UPA government-formed committees got recently rejected. First was the K Kasturirangan panel report, which recommended that the Western Ghats should be a no-go area for commercial activities such as mining, thermal power plants, polluting industries and large housing plans. The second report rejected was the Madhav Gadgil committee report, which recommended the protection of an area of 60,000 sq. km in the Western Ghats, spanning over six states. There is a constant pressure from the Union and the six state governments, due to several restrictions imposed on projects damaging the ecology of the Ghats.

The Western Ghats: one of the targets
of today’s regional planning

As for the North-East region, the Minister of Environment has commented that we will be able to save our environment only when we will have satisfactorily completed road projects in that part of the country. This kind of a comment raises certain questions of mismatch and deep confusions between ecology and environment on the one hand, and development activities on the other. But such confusions are not so rare. For plains, in particular in metropolitan cities, development can go vertically beyond 30 floors, where technologies such as fire fighting aircraft are available. The smart city going vertically up to 100 floors by relaxing building bylaws and Floor Area Ratio (FAR) may avoid impinging on natural lands, but it will also invite the creation of more slums, unless it is counterbalanced with the necessary residential spaces to host the labour building these colonies or working in them. Only this holistic planning could make such programmes instances of sustainable development.

The smart city projects are like oases of unaddressed questions. Shall the existing cities be turned into smart cities, or will the focus be on census towns, which need investment and boost? Will the government’s decision to involve private sector reduce red tapism or will it turn into giving privilege to a particular sector, at the cost of minimising the government’s involvement, and appeasing capitalist actors? These are a few questions, among many, which need to be looked into, before our country embarks upon the race of the smart cities.

MN Buch is a senior administrator and urban planner from Bhopal. After completing his degrees from India and the UK, he entered in 1957 the Indian Administrative Service from Gujarat. Mahesh N Buch has held a wide portfolio of positions in state governments and at a national level, and he chaired various institutions of development. He is the founder of the NGO National Centre for Human Settlements and Environment. In Bhopal, his work has contributed to the modernisation of the city. In 2011, he received the Padma Bhushan award from the Government of India.
Vinita Yadav is a planner and governance expert. She has held key positions in various Non-government and consultancy organisations, including SEEDS, J.P.S. Associates Ltd. and Praxis-Institute for Participatory Practices. She is specialised in institutional analysis, urban development, governance, financial management, inclusive planning and capacity building. Metropolitan Governance: Cases of Ahmedabad and Hyderabad, her last book, was released by Copal Publishing in 2014.

Disclaimers: The opinions expressed by the writers are their own. They do not represent their institutions’ view.
LILA Inter-actions will not be responsible for the views presented.
The images and the videos used are only intended to provide multiple perspectives on the fields under discussion.

Images and videos courtesy: Nick de Pirro | Cyber Geo | Census of India | Daily Mail | Civil Service India | Simply Decoded

Voice courtesy: Samuel Buchoul

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