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Business News/ Topic / Kerala-floods/  Misplaced priorities

Misplaced priorities

In its current form, the smart cities project is analogous to an emperor installing an automated toilet in his palace in the name of improving sanitation in his kingdom

Photo: Ramesh Pathania/MintPremium
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

When smart cities were proposed as an answer to the rotting state of Indian cities, nobody knew what ‘smart’ meant. The project was the proverbial carrot to woo the otherwise neglected urban population of India during the 2014 general election. Two years down the line, with 33 cities being awarded the rights to turn smart, it is finally becoming clear as to what urban India will get under this dreamy scheme. Unfortunately, after a careful reading of the fairly voluminous smart city proposals, it is fair to conclude that these are not what a common urban Indian had imagined them to be.

The government’s 100 new smart cities project is very significant as it marks a momentum shift in national policy. Historically, cities were never on the government’s priority development agenda and were usually merely sites for monument building. Policy had long been governed by the dictum “India lives in her villages" and efforts focused at averting urbanization instead of facilitating it sustainably. The smart cities project, for the first time, proclaims that urbanization is not a rogue child that needs course correction but an integral part of India’s future.

As the project was finalized for execution, it seemed more practical to renew and retrofit existing cities than to build new ones. Cities take decades to build but a government only has a five-year term. This compromise went against the very justification of the project, growing urban population and its needs for the creation of more space to house people with dignity and comfort.

It is worth calculating the spatial limit of the smart cities mission. The area-based development (ABD) plans are limited to approximately 500 acres per city. The government of India’s plan to spend 48,000 crore on smart cities roughly works out to be a crore per acre of ABDs. If all the 100 ABDs are placed together, their cumulative area will work out to be similar to the size of Kolkata. The estimated increase in the urban population by 2030 is pegged at about 300 million, a number that justifies the creation of 100 new Kolkatas. The reality is that these ABDs would not even accommodate the current four million population of Kolkata as most are regulated low-density zones and they don’t plan to change this privilege. Twenty-six of the 33 smart city winners have opted out of the requirement of providing affordable housing from the checklist of essential features of the ABD plans. This disinterest is despite the fact that the requirement of 15% of housing to be affordable is the bare minimum—the government’s own assessment says that 70-95% of housing shortage is in the affordable sector.

Almost every city has selected administrative enclaves, central business districts or heritage core of their cityscapes as ABDs. The poshest addresses, be it Qaiserbagh in Lucknow or Connaught Place in New Delhi, have made the final cut. But these ABDs, small enclaves as they are, are getting a budget which roughly equals what 500 whole cities are getting under the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT).

Twenty-one smart cities have decided to not follow the requirement of 80% buildings to be energy efficient and green, citing the retrofitting nature of their development plan. This is a lame excuse. Retrofitting of existing buildings for energy efficiency and green performance is a common practice globally. The Bureau of Energy Efficiency (BEE) has shown energy savings of 20-30% in government office buildings it has been retrofitting for efficiency since mid 2000s. BEE also runs a star rating scheme to assert energy performance of existing buildings akin to the one it runs for appliances. Mandating this BEE star rating for all buildings in the ABD zone and impressing upon the need to improve star ranking over a fixed time-frame could result in saving substantial amount of energy. This makes eminent sense as all cities have agreed to invest in solar power to meet at least 10% of their ABD’s energy demand. Without stopping outdated buildings from wasting 20-30% energy consumed due to inefficiencies, employing solar power and smart meters will never be able to tame the energy crisis.

The same holds true for water, excessive emphasis on 24x7 supply and no importance to about water efficiency and sufficiency.

At the urban scale, heavy emphasis has been laid on sustainable mobility but no meaningful architectural or design systems are being pushed through to ensure inclusive urbanization. Globally, cities are bringing down boundary walls and encouraging roadside activities to improve safety, especially of women, by putting more eyes on the streets. But we seem to be building even higher walls on the pretext of security.

In short, the majority of these so-called “smart" enclaves which hardly house any common person will continue to keep out new urban denizens. They will continue to guzzle energy, water and money but will now have token solar panels and LED street lights to parade their concern for the environment. They will have pedestrian-friendly roads but not many people walking to work. These were the cleanest spots in the city and now will be even cleaner by exiling the open defecator to non-smart hinterlands.

In its current form, the project is analogous to an emperor installing an automated toilet in his palace in the name of improving sanitation in his kingdom. But as un-smart as the mission might seem in its details, it is still better than what we currently have. Besides, since actual work has not yet begun, there is scope for course correction. Insistence on resource efficiency and sufficiency via proper design and management interventions even at building level can certainly plug the gaps in the ABD’s demand management.

But there doesn’t seem to be any non-revolutionary solution to the mission’s exclusionary nature. It would be truly smart if a slum were resettled to dignified, affordable and comfortable buildings within these ABDs. But in the current set-up, expecting anything beyond a demarcated street vending spot is wishful thinking. There is more scope for environmental and social justice in AMRUT, which plans to fix urban infrastructure of 500 whole cities. The slip here is that it lacks the budgetary edge per person that smart cities enjoy.

Avikal Somvanshi is the programme officer for the Sustainable Buildings and Habitat Programme at New Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment.

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Published: 02 Aug 2016, 11:25 PM IST
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