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Home / Industry / Infrastructure /  City Wrap: you and me and the refugee

The Mint City Wrap is a curation of the most compelling stories emerging from our cities today. While the focus is on urban centres, the Mint City Wrap engages with wider geographies in the effort to connect stories with each other across places and borders.

You ain’t got the smarts, kid

Smart cities haven’t featured in the Mint City Wraps for a while, and for good reason. Historically, urban development in India has been patchy, contested and marked by an admirably consistent lack of foresight. The modernist visions of Delhi’s makers have been interrogated by The Guardian in its Story of Cities series. Delhi’s story in The Guardian is an excellent inquiry into the creation of categories of who belongs where and the levels of legitimacy for belonging. In Delhi’s own case, Delhi “had become a ‘partition city’, and its migrants had become residents. But the DDA (Delhi Development Authority) refused to recognize them."

The enthusiasm for smart cities has to be tempered by the lessons of history. Sure, smart cities can help reduce air pollution; with German support, they might marry Indian Jugaad with German Pünktlich; tech giants like Nokia and Tech Mahindra will join the ever-vague club of Internet of Things-based solution providers. To such joie de vivre, Amitabh Kundu provides a counterpoint that the Smart Cities Mission could exacerbate existing inequalities of health and education. Moreover, as Isher Judge Ahluwalia writes in The Indian Express, any substantive improvement through the Smart Cities Mission and AMRUT is dependent on fiscal devolution, institutional reform and capacity building. In Environment & Urbanization, an academic journal, David Satterthwaite questions pitching economic development in cities against climate change adaptation as though they were adversaries. Investment climate isn’t the only climate the present dispensation needs to worry about. Climate change is going to be the real game changer on this planet, so we’ve got to stop getting caught up with red herrings and non-sequiturs like banning short skirts, hankering after diamonds and wax statues.

Environmental justice is the good idea but the tough call

A recent report in IndiaSpend claimed that there were more environmental conflicts in India than any other country. What are we fighting over? Water. Maharashtra is now working on a policy to treat sewage pollution. In Karnataka, the water in the major reservoirs are expected to last only 20 days. Across the country, heat wave deaths have increased three times in the last 23 years. What we need are not just emergency interventions to “ tackle" the ongoing water crisis, but also an evolved understanding of environmental justice, since so many are suffering from the lack of it.

In Ecuador, over 570 people are reported to have died in the earthquake that measured 7.8 on the Richter Scale. Here is a backward glance at the way lives in Nepal have changed since the earthquake last April. There is only one word for it—irrevocable. In March this year, 81 towns and cities were added to the areas prone to earthquakes in India. There are two words for this—pervasive vulnerability.

Borders are not lines, categories are not semantics

Since we live with the kind of pervasive vulnerability that could eradicate our dailiness in one fell swoop, why do we speak of refugees as though their fates were determined to be different from ours? That thing that’s happening in Syria—so sad. With the Libyans in little boats in big seas—so sad. With ISIS flattening out Mosul and Raqqa—so sad. With the Rohingyas—so sad. With the Taliban desecrating Kabul—so, so sad. But that’s only kind of refugee that associated with sectarian and political conflict. UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon recently declared that “refugees have a right to asylum—not bias and barbed wire". Yes, sir, they do. It would be prudent to argue for a broader definition of refugee, which will be cognizant of the many unforeseeable risks climate change poses.

As people who live on a finite planet, we have attempted to maintain order through the creation of categories. We said, “I am this and you are that". We drew boundaries and borders. We said “I go here and you go there", and said, “that’s your place, that’s where you belong." That’s what we did in Delhi, as mentioned in the beginning of this article. But we are getting increasingly mobile, the notion of “home" and “belonging" are diffused across geography, politics and memory. We need to reframe our categories to keep pace with such movement. Otherwise, we’re stuck with violence.

“Other things mean other things"

Listen to Alvin Pang’s poetry. Pang is from Singapore, and says a few important things which we’ll end this Wrap with:

“A cooking pot asks the difficult questions: what will burn and for how long and to what end.

The night is reason enough for tomorrow, whatever you believe."

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