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Smart Cities: Myth or Reality?

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India is a budding country of millions of youth with soaring aspirations and beckoning futures. It becomes but necessary for the socialist country which they call their homeland to support these aspirations with the bare necessitates they need to fly high.

Smart Cities – a mission mode project undertaken by the government of India in 100 qualifying cities – is an endeavor to realize these very aspirations. In times, when smart technologies have knocked the world over with their performances, smart cities are a calling of the hour.  But how smart will these smart cities be, is matter of debate.

As envisaged by the government some features of smart cities would include promoting mixed land use in area based developments, expanding housing opportunities and inclusiveness to all, creating walkable localities – reduced congestion, pollution and resource distribution, preserving and developing open spaces, promoting Transit Oriented Development (TOD), public transport and last mile para-transport connectivity, making governance citizen friendly and cost effective – increasing reliance on online services, giving an identity to cities, applying smart solutions to infrastructure and services in area-based development in order to make them better.

In hind sight, what the project promises to give shouldn’t have taken 70 years to take form and 70 years for only the first one hundred, but as the proverbial saying goes, better late than never. What also pinches one’s subconscious is whether the smart solutions are really so smart? What the smart cities prophesize as smart are basic fundamental rights that have been denied to millions in India over the years and are now being offered gift-wrapped.

Land distribution which has been contentious ever since independence and continues to be the cause of a bulk of cases pending in civil courts, has been said to promote mixed use. But with such scarcity do we have an alternative? Besides, with half of the 20 most polluted cities in the world to talk of creating walkable localities appears to be an open lie. While transit oriented development is crucial to give wings to the citizens and enhance last mile connectivity, it would mean little without optimal job creations, which India has been shoddy of.

Another debatable aspect is of governance – laying emphasis on smart solutions and online services. The government’s bid for a less-cash economy is in sync with the above. But with the largest public sector bank, SBI, slapping charges on cash deposits beyond a minimum limit, how can the state expect to go cashless? There are for instance, many students migrating to other states who open a bank account not to deposit money but merely to transact. Does the state owe no explanation to them? Secondly, for online services to gain prominence one needs to put emphasis on digital literacy which the traditional mode of education in many of our schools has not yet adopted.

Giving identity to cities is easier said than done when intellectual property rights and geographical indicators are widely contested inter-state.

And while we talk of smart infrastructure, there is news of ceilings of buildings falling in Connaught Place, whole buildings losing ground in for example, Maharashtra and Kolkata, a flyover in construction falling down killing the very same people they are being created to serve. Corruption and lack of honesty has reduced the price of a common man’s life to a paltry. Speaking of transparent governance, our elected leaders continue playing the blame game as another child in some part of India slips down a pit hole. Worse still, by the time you’d have finished reading this, another person might have died in a road accident.

Despite the lacunae mentioned above, one must appreciate the fact that an initiative of such magnitude has come from the ruling government. The need of the hour is to INCLUDE – Involve all stakeholders in decision making and more importantly those for whom the services are being created, Negotiate the most plausible solutions offered by a myriad contractors, Calculate the impact of the service to the last man, Legally hold accountable any stakeholder involved in corruption or another unethical practice, Utilize every asset to its maximum potential and unanimously don the role of a caretaker, Democratically debate and give space to dissent for citizens to voice their opinions in matters concerning them within the ambit of Smart Cities and finally, Energize the  youth to channelize their huge potential.

What’s also of prime concern is the question of access. Smart infrastructure wouldn’t mean much if it is not easily accessible to each and every enterprising citizen – needless to mention regardless of place, sex, caste or physical abilities. Easy access coupled with co-operation of office holders will go a long in realizing the ambition of a smart city.

Amid all this due concern should be laid on the environment which as the Mahatma said “has enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed”. Our responsibilities further increase in keeping with India’s INDC. These should not remain mere rhetoric but we head on the way of hybrid transport technologies, green buildings and eco-friendly techniques.

In essence, a Smart City would remain a myth till every individual is guaranteed clean drinking water, three square meals, competitive education facilities, institutional healthcare services, minimum wages and a decent standard of living. A smart city wouldn’t be smart enough if what’s consumed is not smartly disposed, if what’s earned is not wisely spent and what’s gained is not adequately served. Smart cities are not a bunch of online features or new technologies we can attribute to a city but a comprehensive concept where in addition to the right to life with dignity, an individual is given a voice and is empowered.

Lastly, for smart cities, we need smart citizens. A responsible law-abiding citizen who is equally aware of her duty towards the nation as about her rights shall rightly be the custodian of a smart city. Who we need is an ethical human with an imbibed sense of belonging to the nation and service to her neighbour. A smart citizen is no superhuman with super powers but one with a civic sense, one who restrains self from crossing traffic signals, does not honk in busy streets, stands in queue and gives her turn to a needier one, not occupies seats reserved for the needy in public transport, optimizes electric and fuel use and holds herself accountable. To be a first-class citizen, one must be a first-class citizen.

To India the future beckons and it is set to reach the highest echelons. When the aspirations of her citizens become the aspirations of her rulers, smart cities would no longer be a myth but a happy realization nurturing the dreams of its million many.

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