Home / Politics / Policy /  Cleaning the city environment: A policy perspective

Smart is as smart does. The proposal of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government to build 100 ‘smart’ cities will work only if it can reinvent the very idea of urban growth in a country like India. Smart thinking will require the government to not only copy the model cities of the already developed Western world, but also to find a new measure of liveability that will work for the situation in India, where the cost of growth is unaffordable for most.

One advantage is that there is no agreed definition of a smart city. Very loosely, it is seen as a settlement where technology is used to bring about efficiency in resource use and improvement in the level of services. All this is needed. But, before we can bring in smart technology, we need to know what to do with it. How do we build new cities and repair groaning urban settlements to provide clean water to all, to manage the growing mountains of garbage, to treat sewage before we destroy our rivers, and to do something as basic as enabling breathing without inhaling toxins?

It can be done. But only if we have our own dream of a modern Indian city. We cannot turn Ghaziabad, Rajkot, Sholapur, Tumkur or even Gurgaon into Shanghai or Singapore. But we can turn these cities into liveable models for others to emulate.

We need a new approach to humane urban growth.

The first principle in this is to accept that we have to renew what already exists. Take water, for example.

Our cities have been built to optimize the available resources. They were smart in building lakes and ponds to harvest every drop of rain. This ensured that the city recharged its water table and did not face floods every time it rained. We need to revive that system. It may not be adequate to meet the growing needs of the city, but will cut costs by reducing the length of the pipeline and bring down distribution losses. Once we do this, we should add the smartest technology for measuring supply and for reducing demand. Flush toilets are antiquated. We need smart appliances to conserve water and smart ways to recycle it.

This, then, is the next agenda. We know our cities do not have an underground sewerage network to speak of. A very un-smart thing to do would be to fall into the trap of civil engineers to build a sewerage network. Delhi, which has the highest network of sewerage lines (around 5,000km), needs to build another 10,000 km to meet the needs of its current population. Now, knowing that the existing network which was built over a century ago is already clogged and broken, the task is impossible.

We know our cities used septic tanks or open drains for sewage management. So, instead of burying these drains, the aim should be to treat sewage in these channels and to reuse the recycled water. Use the trajectory of the mobile phone, and build future solutions by skipping the landline.

We can do this in the case of energy as well. Today, our cities are pampered by subsidies because the energy cost is high and supply is squeezed. Why can’t we build a new grid for the city based on rooftop solar generation and super energy-efficient appliances?

This should also be the approach for designing mobility. Our cities have been built to be car-free. We are now desperately shoving, pushing and parking vehicles in the narrow lanes. Think smart. Change the idea of mobility itself—build for walking and cycling, build for the bus and the metro. We can build smart cities only if we are smart. Really smart.

Sunita Narain is the director general, Centre for Science and Environment, and the editor, Down To Earth.

This essay has been excerpted from The Making of Vibrant Cities: A Collection of Essays Compiled by Mumbai First, Rupa Publications India Pvt. Ltd, New Delhi, 2016.

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