What is so smart about the city you live in?

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Exclusionary spaces? Prime Minister Narendra Modi and urban development minister Venkaiah Naidu inspect plans Photo: PIB
Exclusionary spaces? Prime Minister Narendra Modi and urban development minister Venkaiah Naidu inspect plans Photo: PIB

This is the age of ‘things’. You cannot see where the brain of this ‘thing’ is but the inanimate object in your hand, on your table, at your bedside, is scorching ingenuity. The home of our imminent future, the new city, is on the verge of being designed along such specifications — ‘empowering’ being the keyword. Bound with promises of accessibility, networking and higher standards of living, a city must be savvy by all means. It must literally carry and connect us like the machines at our disposal, because what else can our expectations be when our cities are named ‘smart’?

When urbanisation gradually spread its wings over prime cities, it came as no surprise that the cities would have an ‘old city’ as a counterpart to its relatively smarter ‘other’. In Delhi, for instance, ‘old Delhi’, formerly known as Shahjahanabad, is a relic of its illustrious past and a home to most of the city’s historical attractions

Until recently, the vocabulary to explain a city rested upon this binary of the old/new. But now, if the recent list is to be believed, at least some cities are going to be rechristened as ‘smarter’ versions come up.

On 28 January, Urban Development Minister M Venkaiah Naidu released the list of 20 cities that would be developed into smart cities. Chosen from the 98 cities shortlisted for the Smart Cities Mission, these will be the first to receive funds for developing smart cities. Unveiling the news at a press conference, Naidu added that “a total investment of Rs 50,802 crore has been proposed in the selected smart cities and towns during the five-year period.”

Before the 2014 Lok Sabha election, the BJP rode on the back of the Gujarat model of development. Stating that it led to the overall economic development of the state including its progress in electrification and urbanisation, the model was to be followed throughout the country with the hope that it would bring the same supposed magic to the country.

So it was no coincidence that pictures showing a rather hip Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) at Janmarg in Ahmedabad were circulated during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s run up to the 2014 election.

Carrying a tagline of a ‘Modified Gujarat’, the picture was used as a token to represent the urban development that was underway in the state. However, within days, the photograph showing a well-lit BRTS flanked by wide lanes was found to be a picture of China’s BRTS . Yet despite such efforts at eye-washing, the writing on the wall was clear. When the results were declared, the ‘Rurban’ model of Gujarat was set to replace the UPA’s ten-year old scheme of Providing Urban Amenities to Rural Areas (PURA).

The seeds of the ‘smart city mission’ were thus laid once the Gujarat model of development became a rallying point for the BJP. Soon after victory, the Modi government announced the ‘100 Smart Cities Plan’ by promising to allocate a whopping 70.6 billion rupees to it.

According to the concept note put forth by the urban development ministry, these cities would echo the spirit of the developed European cities which has higher standards of living. Elaborating on the definition, Pratap Padode, Founder and Director at Smart Cities Council India says, “There are two connotations of ‘smart’. The first is the element of intelligence which is the ability to decipher the data and information available in making a rational decision. The other element is of technology which enables data assimilation and data analysis process.

Heritage city Many historical monuments set apart Old Dehi from the ‘New’ Photo: Tehelka Archives
Heritage city Many historical monuments set apart Old Dehi from the ‘New’ Photo: Tehelka Archives

“For a city, both elements are necessary. Cities are under pressure to meet the needs of a rapidly increasing pace of migration from rural to urban areas at the rate of one million a day. A ‘smart’ city needs to utilise its resources efficiently in order to make the city liveable, workable and sustainable so that it continues to offer opportunities for growth. Smart Cities is a journey not a destination. As soon as a city attains enhanced smartness, new benchmarks get set due to evolving requirement and expectations.”