What makes a city really smart?
WITH EYES WIDE OPEN
D. N. Bezboruah
On Thursday, M. Venkaiah idu, Union Minister for Urban Development announced the mes of the 20 cities that had won the Smart City Challenge competition. One of them was our Guwahati. This has surprised me no end not only because I have lived in the city for over half a century and am painfully aware of what decades of unplanned growth has done to it, but also because of what the government, the Guwahati Municipal Corporation, the PWD, contractors and the people have done to the city to make it filthy, waterlogged and ugly. And yet, Mr idu assures us that the selection of the 20 cities was made on the basis of a totally objective and transparent competition based on standardized processes. While I am thrilled to bits over this good news, I cannot help worrying about how much has to be done to undo what decades of mindless planning and callous neglect have done to this city of ours. After all, how can anyone ignore the fact that this riverside city of ours had the potential to be one of the most beautiful cities in the country?
Now that we are likely to talk frequently about a smart city, it would not hurt to take another look at what the word smart means and acknowledge the fact that the meaning of the word reserved for places is not the only semantic value that it carries. Some of the other meanings of the word smart will also turally become applicable to a smart city. Smart as adjective means 1. clean and tidy and stylish; 2. bright and fresh in appearance; 3. (of a place) fashioble and upmarket; 4. (informal) having a quick intelligence, (of a device) programmed so as to be capable of independent action; ? n(chiefly North American) impertinently clever or sarcastic; 5. Quick, brisk. Perhaps the word smart has acquired another semantic value in the Indian context. In India smart often refers to a person quick at taking advantage of others or of a situation for his/her own benefit.
Quite obviously, it will simply not to for Guwahati to be a smart city in the sense that it is just fashioble and upmarket. In the world as we know it, the word fashioble generally goes with what is expensive and out of the ordiry. The word upmarket means “towards or relating to the more expensive or affluent sector of the market”. A city with such leanings will be of little use to thousands of people who cannot afford what is fashioble and expensive. And who can give us what is fashioble and yet inexpensive? I lived and worked in a city that is rated as the cleanest city in India today. I am referring to Mysore. It is a beautiful city with wide roads where even the very poor do not feel out of place. That is the kind of city that we should have in mind. A smart city will also have to carry the semantic values of “clean, tidy and stylish” as well as “bright and fresh in appearance”.
Now that the funding is not going to be a very serious matter in working towards a smart city, we should be paying attention to what Guwahati needs desperately to become a smart city in the true sense of the term. The foremost requirement of a smart city is that it should be clean and have the means to keep itself clean without too much difficulty. This is going to be a tall order for Guwahati considering that it is chronically prone to man-made floods that spread both dirt and mud. The mud eventually dries and turns to dust. Guwahati is also a city that does not have a sewage system. There are innumerable homesteads with septic tanks and many more with no provision for disposal of human excreta at all. The grant of Rs 2,000 crore in the next five years is going to be chicken feed is a sewage system has to be constructed for the city. The other major requirement for keeping the city clean is an efficient garbage disposal system. Garbage disposal is becoming an exceptiolly expensive service all over India partly because it is a service no one wants to undertake. Therefore, agencies that undertake garbage disposal can hold a city to ransom with demands of very high wages that municipal bodies all over India are finding it very difficult to pay. Unfortutely, this situation is likely to get worse in the days to come.
A smart city is also a city where things get done quickly and efficiently. However, for most services one needs electricity and water round the clock. The State’s power generation scerio rules out a dependable supply of electricity 24 hours a day. With the entire State’s power generation limited to around 200 MW, all talk about Guwahati becoming a smart city sounds like a pipe dream. If the power supply situation is abysmal, the water supply of the city is no better. The real trouble is that there has been no planning for power and water for over four decades. Anyone who imagines that a fast growing city’s population will remain static even after 40 years has no business to be in administration. Guwahati’s case is not just typical but unusual. When the capital of Assam was shifted from Shillong to Guwahati, most of the Assamese people working in government offices in Shillong shifted to Guwahati. As a result, the population of the city increased abnormally. This influx of population to the city also resulted in a great deal of hurried and haphazard construction of residential buildings all over the city. This is the main reason for the periodic flooding of R.G.Baruah Road and its by-lanes. Many of the houses built on these by-lanes do not even have septic tanks. What happens to human excreta that is fed into the roadside drains during floods is easily imagible. Quite obviously, we cannot have a smart city where people have to wade through such dirty water every time the streets are flooded.
The other major obstacle for a smart city arises from the huge number of cars, buses, trucks, scooters and motorcycles added to the city’s traffic every month. On an average, the number of vehicles added to those in the city streets are over 5,000 every month. This works out to the addition of over 60,000 vehicles every year and 300,000 vehicles every five years. There are very few cities of the size of Guwahati that can take such a load of vehicles. No wonder, there are traffic srls on the city streets that often last for the best part of an hour. No one can be quick or brisk in this kind of a traffic scerio. A smart city must have an efficient altertive transportation system that can make it quite redundant for people to take out their car or motorbikes to go to work. In fact, it is essential to build in some kind of a disincentive to the use of private cars on the city’s roads. Singapore has done it by making the registration fee for a new car equal to the price of the car itself. In other words, one can buy a new car and put it in the garage, but to use it on the city streets one has to pay for two cars. New York City has brought in this disincentive by charging very high rates for parking in the city (particularly in the Manhattan area). Therefore, most people in New York City use their cars only when they have to go out of the city. Both cities have very efficient public transport systems. In Guwahati, the only practical and feasible addition to the existing transport system of city buses would be an overhead train system like the Skytrain. The construction of an underground Metro system could be disastrous for a city like Guwahati considering our prevailing work ethics. One recalls how long it took to build Kolkata’s underground train service, and how people suffered for years due to the roadblocks and diversions that became necessary for the construction of the Metro system.
While the infrastructure is very important in planning for a smart city, a city is not its streets and buildings alone. A city is judged by its inhabitants. Does it have friendly people? Are they a fun-loving people or glum citizens? Does it have citizens who are willing to take their responsibilities as citizens? Does it have ratiol people or are most of its residents emotiol to a fault even over small issues? In the ultimate alysis, a city can be only as smart as its people are.