How can our Smart Cities get Smarter?

India having become the fastest growing large economy in the world has the potential to transform the lives of its people as the size of its economy heads towards the $4 trillion mark, likely to be achieved when we celebrate our 75th Independence Day. At the same time, the country, as indeed many other parts of the world, is faced with growing challenges. Among them is the need to meet the aspirations of rapidly growing urban population in the face of housing shortages, service delivery deficits and environment degradation. We will see these challenges testing the capabilities of the best minds in the world. How can we measure up?

We share a vision of cities for all, referring to the equal use and enjoyment of cities and human settlements, seeking to promote inclusivity and ensure that all inhabitants, of present and future generations, without discrimination of any kind, are able to inhabit and produce just, safe, healthy, accessible, affordable, resilient and sustainable cities and human settlements…….” states the first para of the shared vision of the New Urban Agenda, part of the Quito Declaration adopted at UN HABITAT-III. It is an overarching vision of the global community for our cities and indeed for mankind.
It is a powerful statement of intent and all-encompassing, it is indeed a vision – a statement that is encouraging and inspirational.
Cities occupy just three per cent of the earth’s land area yet account for nearly 80 per cent of economic output and a similar amount of greenhouse gases. The inevitability of rapid urbanisation is matched only by the growing challenges and the often inadequate, feeble response of policy makers and city managers to the phenomenon. Whether it is air quality and green spaces, or housing shortages and the proliferation of slums, or the traffic congestion and fragile public mobility, challenges are evident everywhere especially in the developing world.
Smart Cities Mission is intended as a policy intervention in response to these challenges and an effort to roll-out best practices using modern technologies in our efforts to stem the slide; not just that, but to bring about transformational impacts rather than tinkering for incremental improvements. The number of cities at 100 is satisfactory both in terms of providing adequate visible examples of excellence (lighthouse for other aspiring cities), and also impacting reasonable number of people; however, concepts like the redevelopment over a small area could have limited impact by creating islands of hi-tech living and undermine inclusivity.
Some areas of particular interest call for more focused actions.

Housing
There has been a marked improvement in the number of new ‘affordable housing’ projects. During the last few years; home prices in our cities are beginning to sound more affordable, aided by subsidies under the PMAY and bottom-of-the-pyramid demand. However some of these projects fail the test as far as ‘livelihood accessibility’ is concerned. Housing in remote suburbs, even if affordable may not be preferred if livelihood options and children’s education are not easily accessible. These are the same essentials for which migration from rural areas happened in the first place.
An option could be to create a large stock of rental housing where the ownership of the tenement is with a government, quasi-government or such body and is rented out to eligible families. In addition to other benefits, this would not ‘tie-down’ a household to one residence and therefore to the nearest employment opportunity in the city and could even provide mobility across cities. Thus citizens have access to livable housing till the time they can afford to buy one. The example of Singapore’s HDB is often quoted in this regard. The solution in the context of Indian cities could be highly challenging but we surely have it in us to put together some ‘smart’ measures.

Smart Cities Mission is intended as a policy intervention in response to these challenges and an effort to roll-out best practices using modern technologies in our efforts to stem the slide; not just that, but to bring about transformational impacts rather than tinkering for incremental improvements. The number of cities at 100 is satisfactory both in terms of providing adequate visible examples of excellence (lighthouse for other aspiring cities), and also impacting reasonable number of people

Urban mobility and infrastructure
There is unanimity of opinion across the world’s cities that they need to move towards public transport options and shared mobility platforms if they are to address the chaos with respect to congestion, air quality and safety that plague the roads of almost every city on the globe. In our move to add smartness to our streets, efforts to promote electric mobility are indeed welcome and will help air quality issues to a great degree. Creation of battery charging infrastructure seems to be holding back faster roll-out. Therefore, can vehicles be designed for quick replacement of battery where one visits a fuel station and just drops off the drained battery and gets a charged one fitted? Should not be too difficult; and would be smart too. Are we also working too hard on smart parking, which goes to encourage more private car and bike use? Moving people to public transport and shared mobility must also include discouraging use of personal transport (including its parking) by making it more difficult and expensive. Parking fees on the busiest streets (in the costliest real estate locations) are ridiculously low; it is often free. This will only encourage more private vehicle use. Can we reserve the roads around railway stations and busy markets for use only by public buses and non-motorised transport including pedicabs and cycles? This may not sound ‘hi-tech’ or ‘smart’ but will significantly ease congestion, save time and free-up parking spaces (at Mumbai’s suburban railway stations commuters park two wheelers for the whole day while taking the train to office). Some of these measures could start off being unpopular but citizens would soon see the real benefits and support would come in.
We also need to look at the cost of public transport like buses. As long as using one’s own two-wheeler is cheaper than a bus ride, public transport cannot take off. We must find fiscal means to run buses at low fares by supporting the operator (usually ULB) with the revenue from parking fees, traffic violation fines, and some public transport cess of motor fuels.
How are we locating public infrastructure? Should we be locating these closer to where the demand lies? Wouldn’t that be smart? For example an airport which is two hours’ drive away from the city’s business district or the Tech-park seems such a waste of resources, however ‘smart’ and wi-fi enabled the airport maybe. Do we need 2000 hectare airports where less than half the area is used for aeronautical purposes? Shouldn’t airports facilitate quick, efficient processes and expedite departure/arrival rather than passengers spending several hours shopping and dining?
Small parks and gardens in residential enclaves can provide much greater value to citizens rather than hi-tech, showpiece wonders 50 kms away from the city. The latter can serve as tourist attractions, though.

There is a certain air of inevitability about the phenomenon of urbanisation. While there was earlier, some despair and helplessness given the relentless march of urbanization, there is now growing realisation of the need to consciously facilitate and support urbanisation and see that its benefits can accrue to larger sections of the population. However, there needs to be proactive action to relieve stresses in the rural countryside, not so much to restrain urbanisation but to improve the quality of life of our rural folk

Good governance
Good governance could be as important as ‘smartness’ in our quest for more inclusive and sustainable cities (See Box). Cities need to, over time, create a cadre of well trained and motivated employees who are led by capable leaders. In addition, the governance architecture needs to embrace technology which will bring about transparency in its operations. Systems which are automated and call for little manual interface, as in the case of income tax e-filing, can inject great amounts of efficiency. Processes like bill payments and reporting of non-functional infrastructure by citizens, and issue of NOCs by local bodies have already been transformed by such automation and are a great relief to citizens. Several other aspects like citizen awareness building, skilling, capacity building of ULB staff, climate action and energy efficiency will all go towards building ‘smarter’ cities. Use of technology and hi-tech gadgetry should be combined with greater citizen participation and good governance to address the challenges our cities face.

What about the rural countryside?
There is a certain air of inevitability about the phenomenon of urbanisation. While there was earlier, some despair and helplessness given the relentless march of urbanization, there is now growing realisation of the need to consciously facilitate and support urbanisation and see that its benefits can accrue to larger sections of the population. However, there needs to be proactive action to relieve stresses in the rural countryside, not so much to restrain urbanisation but to improve the quality of life of our rural folk.
Agriculture currently engages nearly half the workforce while contributing about 18 per cent to GDP. However this statistic does not reflect the non-agricultural rural economy. With the growing rural market for FMCG goods as well as durables like two-wheelers and home appliances there is immense potential in rural retail as well as activities like maintenance of white goods and vehicles. Other sectors such as logistics & warehousing (which are receiving greater focus in order to support farmers) and public health (which too is a big national priority) will offer increasing job opportunities for the rural youth.
Within agriculture itself, there is a programme of the government to greatly enhance farm incomes. Currently, Staple crops (cereals, pulses and oilseeds) occupy 77 per cent of the total gross cropped area but contribute only 41 per cent to the output of the crop sector. High value crops contribute an almost similar amount to total output as staples do, but they occupy only 19 per cent of the GCA. Therefore with increase in GCA for high value crops (alongwith improving consumption patterns of citizens), we can achieve higher output both in terms of quantity and value. In recent years, horticulture production has surpassed food grain production (since last 7 years); lower duration being the main attraction for farmers. In addition, vegetables are grown on smaller land parcels thus appealing to the small farmer.
All these augur well for the rural economy and offer significant possibilities of injecting ‘smartness’ to extract greater benefit for the rural folk.
Clearly then, to create efficient, livable cities, there is need to combine many ingredients; smartness (technology and ideas), good governance (transparency and accountability), equity (fairness to all), and most importantly democracy (listen to the citizen). William Shakespeare’s famous words “What is the city but the people” can guide us in our quest for Cities for All.

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