The journey to a smart city

Smart City interventions require an attentive reading of the city first—its layers, its basic infrastructure, its municipal balance sheets, its solid waste, its hoardings, its people and their stories


Photo: Mayank Austen Soofi/Mint
Photo: Mayank Austen Soofi/Mint

Paharganj in Delhi is a difficult place to place. “Yeh puraani Dilli hai,” said a restaurateur in one of the cramped, winding lanes of Paharganj, as he frowned at the construction dust falling in light layers through the ceiling of his establishment.

This is old Delhi, part of what Delhi Development Authority calls the “Walled City Extension”. Its pin code is 110055; it falls within Zone A1 & A2 as per the Master Plan for Delhi 2021, and is situated next to New Delhi Railway Station. These are facts that tell you many things, but not everything, especially if you approach it with an intention as noble and deadly as “development”.

Conversations with residents of Paharganj reveal narratives of slow, enduring change; changes in tourist and backpacker demographics, changes in the shopkeepers’ wares, the restaurant menu-boards, and the languages they speak. There is something elastic and adaptive about Paharganj, ready to absorb change instead of being broken by it. The residents are hard-boiled observers of small, incremental changes; weary of Paharganj, but confident of their place in it.

Connaught Place is a short, brisk walk away from Paharganj, and it can be placed effortlessly. There is an incontrovertible logic to how the space is arranged—directions are not to be disputed, everything is numbered, named and in place. So the elements that are out of place feel the anxiety of being on the wrong side of urban planning, like the pavement-dweller next to the Barakhamba Road Metro Station, who repairs locks, shoes and everything else imaginable. “Yeh NDMC hai”, he says joylessly.

This is the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC). It is always impounding his sparse rag with his tools and trappings, a constant reminder that he is illegal and out of place here, that he doesn’t belong in Lutyens’ Delhi if living on pavements is what he plans to do. There is an obduracy, if you will, to NDMC. A refusal to acknowledge the many million ways we use the spaces in a city.

In January, the area under NDMC was chosen as a Smart City by the ministry of urban development. The meaning of such a choice is at best cloudy for those who live and work in both Paharganj and Connaught Place.

They have not read the Smart Cities Mission guidelines, nor attended the scores of smart city conferences, nor read the news reports. A non-committal shrug is all they can offer by way of an answer before getting back to their daily grind. “Smart” is still a distant metaphor for many. But in the history of Indian urban development, this is momentous.

The central government’s objective of developing 100 smart cities and 500 Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) cities over five years marks a laudable commitment towards sustainable and inclusive urbanization. The Smart Cities Mission, in particular, has received much attention from various quarters in the recent months. So far, 33 cities have been chosen as smart cities. They were chosen through an innovative national competition where cities submitted proposals for fostering urban revival through ICT-enabled basic infrastructure, increased citizen participation in governance, and vibrant economic growth. As the chosen cities move into the implementation phase of the Mission, it is a moment for deliberation. It is this moment that Mint’s special issue on smart cities is responding to.

This issue is an effort to critically engage with ongoing public interventions in Indian cities. The issue seeks to contextualize the Smart City Mission within a larger frame of urban development and evaluate the possible repercussions of such measures. It features the voices of leading urban development experts and public intellectuals, and stories about the lived experience of urbanization in India.

Mint’s special issue on smart cities hopes to provoke a set of conversations about the places we live in, how they might change and towards what end.

Even as we evaluate and critique smart city solutions, it is necessary to remember that the answers to a city’s problems are not self-evident, no matter how obvious they might seem. Such fixes are not to be looked as successes or failures, but as particular ways of having read the city.

Smart City interventions require an attentive reading of the city first—its layers, its basic infrastructure, its municipal balance-sheets, its solid waste, its hoardings, its people and their stories. Paharganj has to be read differently from Connaught Place, CP from Kakinada, Kakinada from Bengaluru, Bengaluru from Singapore, Singapore from Shanghai, Shanghai from Rio, Rio from Paharganj. If such things are read with criticality and empathy, we might find that what we had proposed as a solution was, at best, an interpretation.

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