Smart Cities & India's Urbanisation Problems

Industry By Dr Preeti Kapuria

Being 'smart' and 'inclusive' requires intervention at four levels - policy and legislative levels, at the state and city level, in participatory processes and finally in capacity building.

Are smart cities the panacea for the increasing urbanisation problems in India? This question is being increasingly asked even as the Narendra Modi government is speeding up its smart city mission.

During a workshop on ‘Smart Cities’ in Kolkata, co-organised by Observer Research Foundation (ORF) and the Heidelberg University, Germany, on August 9, 2016, scholars emphasised on the need to use the new technologies, especially Information Technology (IT), to find solutions to many issues.

The workshop was kicked off by Mr Ashok Dhar, Director, ORF Kolkata, while the inaugural address was delivered by Mr Olaf Iverson, Consul General of the German Mission, and the keynote address by Mr Debashis Sen, Additional Chief Secretary, Urban Development Department, Govt of West Bengal, and Chairman, Office of the New Town Kolkata Development Authority.

Discussing the issue of inclusive cities in one of the sessions, scholars felt that though from a theoretical and historical point of view, the idea of smart cities appears very promising, but in reality it is a utopian experiment. It was argued that smart cities may also lead to social polarisation that subsequently engenders social mistrust, violence and so on.

One of the most vital questions that one can, therefore, ask is how can history and political ecology make us conscious about theoretical approaches and frameworks? It is in this respect that urban environmental history assumes importance because it introduces concepts and heuristic devices to assess the urban ecological framework.

Attention was drawn to the fact that the idea of smart cities is basically a Western concept, meant for cities driven by IT and whether they were suitable for India. It was observed that being ‘smart’ and ‘inclusive’ requires intervention at four levels - policy and legislative levels, at the state and city level, in participatory processes and finally in capacity building.

Housing was emphasised as an important sector in the smart cities concept since it is a unique private good with immense social, economic and environmental impact. However, the quantum of housing provided by the public sector is low. Housing shortage is highest among the urban poor constituting about 95 percent. Hence, being inclusive in this regard would necessitate inclusion spatially, economically and socially.

The discussions in the session were diverse, varying from theoretical and historical point of view to the idea of smart cities to urbanisation leading to disparities of different types, and finally, the kind of interventions required for making cities smart and inclusive. Elaborating on the statement of different types of disparities which can be classified into regional, interstate and intrastate, the characteristics of such disparities were examined in the state of West Bengal.

The session ended by underscoring 8 aspects of the New Urban Agenda in India, which comprise the promotion of inclusive urban growth, strengthening of local governance, boosting the information and knowledge management systems, cooperative federalism, social justice and gender equality, harmonising agglomeration economies, providing finance for housing and infrastructure and finally, the complexities of the rural urban continuum.

The interactive session on smart transportation emphasised on strengthening people, Public Private Participation (PPP) for achieving the goals of ‘Smart City Mission’ of the Govt of India.

It was recognised during the course of the discussions that the initiatives to develop smart transportation in cities can be implemented through PPP. It was argued that the improvements in public transportation will not only increase public mobility, but would also help in decongesting city roads and possibly, reduce the frequency of fatal road accidents. However, these targets necessitate behavioural changes as well, which would require, among other things, sensitising people, especially, the future generation about road safety and value of human life. Modernisation of, and, an addition to the existing infrastructure in the form of transport hubs, central bus terminals, utilisation of tramways, creation of unobstructed footpaths for walking and cycling are some of the initiatives that can improve mobility of the residents.

The role of technology in providing efficient solutions to the problems of lack of access and availability were also reviewed. Through the discussions, advancements in technology were even viewed to find solutions to a city’s solid waste management that can prove to be both time-efficient and cost-effective. The Global Positioning System (GPS) and smart bins can boost collection of data, performance analysis, plan collection, etc.

The session on ‘Urban Infrastructure Planning’ started with deliberations on the concept plan for smart cities. A city model, which is not claimed to be technologically advanced, but can be superimposed on an existing city layout without demanding additional land, which is always in short supply, was presented. The model envisioned a better quality of life by strengthening neighbourhoods and spending quality time with friends and family. A model that claims to reduce car movement, crowding of public vehicles, time to travel to work and back with offices at the periphery that allows for flexible time, offices to be connected to headquarters through internet, etc.

Less dependence on public and private transport also helps in reducing traffic congestion and pollution, easy access to public utilities, access to information, payment of bills online, receipts of permissions and approvals.

The observations in the session on ‘Social Infrastructure’ focused on the need to develop education and health as integral components of smart cities. Features and benefits of various ICT interventions in health possibilities in smart cities were presented by giving examples of 5 such ICT applications introduced in some of the hospitals in West Bengal since 2014. Further, innovations introduced in the realm of education in the past two decades that included amenities such as photocopying, online library, online availability of term papers, dissertations and research papers, online coaching with YouTube lectures, etc were discussed. Emphasis was laid on the need to evolve specific measures for elderly people with high disease susceptibility and suffering from hearing and visual impairments.

The concluding session revisited the concept and scope of a smart city. The phrase ‘Smart City’ is an interdisciplinary and a multifaceted concept. It encompasses a variety of projects. While there was a unanimous view on the importance of the ‘Smart City Mission’ of the Govt of India, development of hinterlands was realised as one of the key strategies for taking the ‘Smart City’ initiative forward.

The workshop on ‘Smart Cities’ highlighted strengthening of village economy through market networks as one of the steps towards reducing urban population pressure. It was acknowledged that IT is crucial in developing hinterlands, while reducing the role of intermediaries that distort prices.

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