Column published in Business Standard, July 18, 2014
We’re well-acquainted with smartphones and smart cards, but what do we really know of smart cities – 100 of which the finance minister has promised at a cost of Rs 7,060 crore? Is it one of Arun Jaitley’s smart-aleck phrases to appease a set of aspiring urban geeks, or just another castle-in-the-air that budgets with shaky foundations are built on?
The simple answer is that there’s no acceptable definition of what a “smart city” is. It’s not as easy as a smartphone or a smart card that slips into a pocket, but a fuzzy, New Millenium fantasy, imperfect on probables, and distinctly Cloud Nine-ish as a utopia. On basic parameters a smart city’s essential infrastructure works on sophisticated information technology. Services from power and water supply to transport and garbage disposal are controlled by a “network of sensors, cameras, wireless devices and data centres”. It is environmentally clean, fuel-efficient and crime-free. People ride bicycles to work; no thugs lurk about after dark; school teachers clock in on time; buildings are safe, pavements wide and well-lit; and hospitals are orderly temples of germ-free hygiene and good health. There being no universal standard, smart-city definitions soon descend into a heap of fashionable phrases such as “social and human capital”, “e-governance” and “citizens’ participation”. Some quoted examples of smart cities are Amsterdam and Vienna, Songdo in South Korea and Malaga in Spain; depending on what yardstick you apply sections of Edinburgh and Dubai count as smart. Believe it or not, there is a “smart village” in Cairo, that chaotic and politically explosive of world capitals, and a “Smart City Summit” is slated to be held in Mumbai next month. Its brochure is full of junk phrases such as “Create the buy-in you need to push your city into the elite of smart cities”. Definitely not a smart idea in a seething metropolis where a surge of monsoon rains reduces it to watery collapse year after year.
The jury is out on whether Singapore is smart. But it is eager to support Narendra Modi’s dream of 10 smart cities on the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor. In Gujarat, Mr Modi has embarked on the GIFT (Gujarat International Financial Tec City), 18 kilometres outside Ahmedabad, at a cost of Rs 7,000 crore.
India’s experience in smart cities is pretty woeful so far. I spent some days in Bangalore’s Electronics City last year. It took nearly three hours to get there from the airport through a nightmare of snarled traffic and clogged city streets. The smart hotel I stayed in had weird design ideas: black furniture, brown carpets and a dizzying tubular bronze sculpture in the lobby that loomed like the Leaning Tower of Pisa. The Wi-Fi didn’t work and took hours to fix. Ian Jack, the Guardian columnist, wanted to see where the worker bees of the information technology industry lived. We strolled down to the bazaar – a regular Indian market offering vada pao and vegetarian thalis – and packed above the food stalls were rickety buildings with paying guest accommodation. They were packed, three to four occupants in crummy rooms, with stinking shared toilets down each corridor. The stark contrast between the work places and living spaces of the aspirational young was grim.
Gurgaon’s gleaming towers and luxury apartment blocks are regarded as a showpiece of modern India. In fact, it is one of the worst planned cities anywhere. The British journalist John Elliott in his recent book, Implosion: India’s Tryst with Reality, describes it as an “unplanned, uncoordinated concrete and plate glass jungle … with a total lack of infrastructure … all spelling disaster”. The city’s water supply is failing; its palatial penthouses and office blocks may boast of restaurants that offer Norwegian salmon and New Zealand lamb, but there is neither adequate sewerage nor drainage. Most residents use septic tanks for sanitation. Mr Elliott quotes the environmental activist and Business Standard columnist Sunita Narain as saying, “Gurgaon is drowning in its own excreta.” On current planning by 2021, she reckons, Gurgaon will be unable to treat even half the sewage it produces.
All definitions of a “smart city” are unanimous in emphasising a basic standard of quality of life. In the view from Lutyens’ Delhi, however, they are exclusive enclaves of the rich. The rest, as in the high-tech cities of Bangalore, Hyderabad or Gurgaon, live in slums or chawls.