The Indian urban landscape paints a picture of sharp economic contrast.
While many Indian cities have shown potential for unprecedented growth and development, the growth has been unchecked and rather oblivious to its social consequences. The Indian government´s answer to this quandary is smart cities. The government has allocated close to Rs 6,000 crore for transforming cities into advanced urban areas with adequate utilities and facilities for all its citizens. Apart from the basics such as water and electricity, these cities will also be equipped with robust digitalisation, IT infrastructure and housing. Citizen participation and good governance will be among the crucial features of these cities.
Redefining smartness to include the marginalised However, as the number of urban poor increase, the need to correctly define smart cities becomes even more important. Will the vast lower middle-class and poor be able to afford to live in these cities? Speaking at UltraTech presents India Under Construction ´Smart SoCIeTY´, PK Das, Architect and Urban Planner, notes, ´Multiple barriers between people and development decisions that are being continuously reinforced by sophisticated policy and programmes are often leading to unacceptable and unsustainable growth with alarming social and environmental consequences.´ The smartness of these cities will be gauged on the basis of their ability to cater to the masses. It is extremely important to craft smart cities and a public policy that ensures a distinct socio-cultural identity of deprived and marginalised groups.
The way forward
Housing: For the Indian government, the first step is to acknowledge the problem and take lessons from countries such as Brazil. The country has a government policy in place to address slum upgradation and has recognised informal settlements special zones for the city´s social interest. It has laid down the framework to provide marginalised citizens with legal protection by preventing forced eviction and arresting the deterioration of living conditions in these settlements. Once this first step is taken, it will become much easier for governments and policymakers to create development plans that plug these sections into the mainstream urban planning process.
Employment: This is another significant factor in the ´inclusiveness´ debate for smart cities. The government must look at ways to embed business into communities to maximise the use of spaces for commerce, transit and socialisation. Considering India´s massive workforce that falls under the low-skilled category, formal industry and modern services have little to offer in terms of employment. There is an urgent need for employment generation focused on upgrading the real estate sector and small-scale construction industries to address this issue.
Infrastructure: In a country where less than 5 per cent households own four-wheelers and just 21 per cent own a two-wheeler, the need for gigantic eight-lane roads must be reassessed. With a considerable focus on just four-wheeler infrastructure in most Indian cities is counter-productive to pedestrian movement. In other words, while these cities are constantly building new roads and flyovers to accommodate the dizzying influx of automobiles, the average citizen must still climb two stories to use the subway to cross a road.
Healthcare: While cities are taking great strides in integrating the Internet of Things to ensure better healthcare, one must also wonder if these amenities will be available to all. State-of-the-art healthcare facilities for all will improve safety, efficiency and quality of health for the masses. Remote monitoring devices can be used to gauge patient health cutting out the need to make long, and often costly trips to the hospital. Electronic healthcare records will also be really helpful for the poor cutting out the need for paperwork entirely. However, the bottomline for the success of these measures is affordability and availability to every single citizen.
Highly inclusive approach
As Indian leaders and policymakers chalk out a plan for a smarter future for Indian cities, they will be faced by a number of social and ethical challenges along the way. The process of improving cities must be a self-reflective one. By definition, a city can only be deemed smart if it is built from the bottom-up, and this points to the adoption of a highly inclusive approach. The best way to achieve this kind of smartness is to ask, at every stage of planning and development, ´Who is the city for?´