What is so smart about the smart city?

The incumbent government has reportedly resolved to build a hundred smart cities in near future. And the concept seems to have taken the world by storm offering little space, if any, for a dissenting voice. Of course, a few tremors of resistance have emerged from areas where the lands are being acquired or have been marked for acquisition. For, resistance is something that is perennial: it never fails to strike back when the forces of eviction and deprivation come together to uproot people from their habitats. Human history stands witness to the fact that it is the mass protest and organized resistance that have compelled the development machinery to re-evaluate its orientation. Arguably, the tendency has actually reinforced and deepened the institution of democracy.

However, let us not overlook the fact that every community or a social group on this globe has taken the course of migration in its quest for development either as a conscious decision or compulsion. As a consequence, the phenomenon has substantially influenced the nature and configuration of habitats, leading the small hamlets to become large villages and bigger villages morphing into towns. Eventually, these very towns end up being cities. This has been quite a predictable trajectory of human development. Historically speaking, the process has involved efforts both at the level of government and the society at large. But, at the same time, we cannot ignore the fact that the government has a far more crucial role to play in it- a role, which is always informed by the ideological outlook of various political parties and governments. This role is also conditioned by the fact whether or not the parties and governments in question seek to build an egalitarian and democratic society.

A cursory look at our own cities, I think, would make it far more apparent. One cannot but acknowledge the fact that barring a couple of historically grown cities and a few distinct conclaves in modern cities, most of the other cities, either in making or already built, have come into existence largely due to people’s own initiatives. For instance, in Delhi, only one-third of its population lives in government approved and planned colonies, while a little more than one-third of it occupies colonies that were built on the agricultural lands. In the view of government all such habitats are illegal. The great majority of people in Delhi, lives in slums. The situation is rather typical of all the large and small cities in india.

The illegal settlements have a precarious status, rendering its residents vulnerable to the real and a potential threat of eviction: the settlements may be razed to the dust at the stroke of a government order. Deprived of basic amenities like water, electricity, sewers, roads, schools, hospital and the public transport etc, the residents of such settlements represent a social community that has embraced the city either as an attempt to escape economic, religious and gender discrimination or build a better future for itself. Though, they may have found breathing space in the city, the dignity and rights of a citizenry still elude them.

The peasants who gave away their lands now feel cheated and the landless labour and artisanal class that lived on the land have been deprived of whatever rights they used to have.  All the natural resources and public resources that were provided by the government have been misappropriated by a small class of people. And it would not be entirely wrong to say that the whole of infrastructure being developed is exclusively orientated towards the well-being and profit of this narrow class. The essential needs like food, Milk, fruits and the vegetables that the cities require, are picked up from the hinterland and yet, agriculture and the dairy farming are prohibited in the cities! The city also requires an uninterrupted supply of water and electricity but their availability at the local level is either inadequate or completely missing. Here again, the city squarely depends on the resources of remote hinterland.  To add to the list, the city as a whole also requires skilled and competent hands to build its home and take care of them, yet the labour classes are systematically deprived of any legal claim to it. The city cannot do without large go-downs and cold-storages. It requires highways and express-ways to facilitate the import and distribution of goods produced in the industrial complexes.

Our cities miserably lack a permanent system of waste management. Companies have come up with ideas to produce fertilizer and electricity from it but rather than achieving the target all such initiatives have only benefited the companies themselves. Most of our cities have their rivers and water bodies terminally contaminated with poisonous chemicals released by industrial complexes. And the ever spiraling network of roads and flyovers, purportedly built to decongest the traffic snarl, has rather proved ineffective in face of a burgeoning car-industry that happily belts out new models every other day. While every city yearns to have Metro rail network and the political parties have turned the demand into a political contest, little regard is shown to the lot of pedestrians, bicycles and the Rickshaws. Nobody cares to designate a secure lane for them. Likewise, Public transport is also nobody’s concern and issues like investing the street-vendors with legal rights and provision of cheap housing and shelters for the poor of cities have no takers. Lately, one also witnesses a new development unfolding where government of every hue and colour have decided to bring urban land into the ambit of circle rates- a move, many believe, would only weaken the hold of people on the so-called illegal colonies. The new rule has already pushed up the price of land in cities. Now, ordinary people find it increasingly difficult to build a house in such residential areas because they do not have a commensurate purchasing capacity. The writing on the wall is all clear: the peasant will either sell the land to a big builder or to the government.

This is the representative picture of our contemporary cities, where despite all the constraints people somehow still manage to find ways to make a living. Now, this city is all set to be replaced by a smart city- a gated campus and a space where the rights of most of the Indian citizens will be substantially curtailed. The tag ‘smart’ would only be bestowed upon such people who are amenable to the definition. With corridors already being laid out all around length and breadth of the country what we are witnessing right now is simply a tip of the proposed dream. The smart cities will be Built with the public and natural resources but owned by the Indian and global companies. Unmistakably, this is the new avatar of SEZs.

Today we are faced with three alternatives. First, we keep up the struggle going with the same old strategy. Secondly, while organizing movements for the rights of poor in a piece meal fashion and extending all possible support to the protesting groups, keep the city as an agenda at bay. Thirdly, we begin to imagine the city as a developmental stage of a democratic, vibrant and inclusive process.

While the first and second alternatives have already been a part of our repertoire, the third one emerges as something new and has the potential to situate the city in a new context. The new imagination of the city is distinctly different from yesterday’s city. Today, we have a capital of experience, as it were, that may help us learn from mistakes committed in the past. Giving priority to local needs and traditional skills, we may now possibly turn the world into a better place. The older idea of urbananization privileged giant-sized factories, imposing dams, sky-scrappers, neatly laid out roads with cars whirring past on them. This culture of urbanization was notorious for producing a lot of waste. It had no place for agriculture, cattle rearing and traditional skills. A mode of development like this is inherently opposed to the spirit of decentralization. Its flaw lies in a philosophy which seeks to exalt the man to the centre of nature. Needless to say, the misconception has destroyed our natural and cultural heritage and we would do well to learn from this havoc.

This was the pre-dominant ideology of industrialization at the time of our independence. And our political leadership decided to flow with the global current. The world at the time was divided in two camps, namely left and the right blocks, however, our leadership chose to tread a middle path and opted for a mixed economy- a device that ensured an equal infrastructure in both private and public sectors. while on one hand it enjoined TATAs to provide all the standard facilities to it workers at the Jamshed pur steel plant, it also ensured housing, education, health, leisure and pension facilities in every public enterprise. However, all the three paradigms were predicated upon common indicators of development and necessitated exploitation of natural resources.

In that scenario Mahatma Gandhi was the only voice that betrayed a concern for the eco-system. He was first of the thinkers who believed that ecology could also be harnessed as a reference point of socio-political change. And it was in keeping with this understanding that he proposed an idea of a decentralized and self-reliant society. Today, our cities get most of their resources that lie far from their physical location; consequently a greater chunk of the investment being pumped into urban development is actually sucked up by the infrastructure itself.  The waste produced by the city has assumed gigantic proportion and comes as a global challenge. It goes on unabated as the conceptual design of city lacks a system to control the production and treatment of the waste. Human excreta and leftovers of food are one of the major sources of waste which can be easily recycled as manure and fodder. If utilized properly much of this waste can ensure a steady production of food, fruits, vegetables and the milk. This would clearly do away with the need to fetch food stuff from remote destinations and the need to have large scale infrastructures. The initiative may also reduce the consumption of energy.

Let us meet the question head-on as to why I consider agriculture and dairy-farming important for the city. Here, I would like to explain this by a couple of personal reminiscences. The first incident belongs to a youth camp where participants like me were asked to stay with families. In the evening when the session drew to a close the moderator directed us to use the nearby fields for nature’s call. He also instructed us that each one of us covered the stool with a handful of soil. He did not care to give a precise reason as to why this was a desirable act. We were simply unable to understand the logic of it. Years later, in 2000 I was in Finland spending a week in countryside with my friend Thomas Belgren. The house where we were staying had a make-shift toilet with provisions such as soil, sawdust and some paper napkins. The first day when I felt an urge and walked towards the toilet my friend gave me a little instruction on how to use it and explained its relationship with the environment. It was here that I was finally able to link up the instruction given at the youth camp and appreciate the significance of it.

I was born and brought up in the city of Gaya. My family had a little agricultural land. In those days chemical fertilizers and insecticides had a little circulation. The human excreta generated in homes were channelized to tankers that were installed at different locations. The local municipality saw to it that the excreta, which eventually grew into rich manure, were outpoured into pits built outside the city. The municipality would sell the manure to the farmers. During a certain period when the farmers left their lands fallow for purpose of regeneration, the municipality had the human waste laid to the fields and covered it with a layer of soil.

We did not have adequate space to keep the cattle at our home, yet there stood a little pot in a corner where we dropped the crumbs of meal and vegetables etc and other watery wastages. This waste was collected by our neighbours, who would mix it with the cattle fodder. Sometimes we got a pint of buttermilk as a gesture of thanksgiving! In brief, this was actually a culture where people meticulously managed their production and the waste. The culture is still around but people no longer feel a connect with it. Of course, toilets are crucial for the maintenance of hygiene, but a change of the mindset is far more significant.

The second major source of city’s waste is the water and other garbage that is produced by the industry. One way to control this waste is to transfer some of the goods from large scale industry to the cottage industry and adopt a requisite technology. However, we may look for other options where such an alternative is not available. Similarly, in order to reduce the level of energy consumption and provide for ventilated and adequately lit spaces we may explore an environment-friendly architecture. We should ensure that each household produces a certain portion of its energy requirements and meets other needs from the local power station. Likewise, people may also devise strategies to recycle and conserve water at home and regulate the public distribution of water resources in a decentralized manner.

The question of public transport is rather far more complex. While the global experiences tell us that a change of paradigm in the arena of transport has always been dictated by the socio-political movements, our government and the people at large continue to believe that it is only the experts and engineers who can debug the system. The public transport system (including all the differently sized vehicles) comes at second place after the number of bicycles. The existing studies and figures reveal that we can bring in a just system of public transport with quite a small budget. The improved system would not only remove the traffic snarls, but also conserve the environment. Apart from saving the energy and time, it will also potentially secure the climate from further degradation. Today, we have a rare combination where opportunity and alternative walk hand in hand. Now, it is for us to decide where we go from here.

The forces of change must recognize the challenge and devise ways to re-articulate and refine the principles they have been living with for long. Is this not the right moment to extend to agenda of a self-reliant village to the ideal of a self-reliant city?

Smart City: The implications

One could make a little idea of what the smart city has in store through invoking the image of colonies that were developed by DDA on the agricultural lands. All such colonies betray an increasing polarization between the rich and poor. The pedestrian paths, roads, parks, schools and the hospitals provided in such colonies were supposed to be accessible to all the citizens irrespective of their status. However, the residents of such colonies have erected enclosures around them in the name of the safety of neighbourhood. Today, all such colonies have turned into gated enclaves with security guards posted at the gates and CCTVs installed in every nook and corner. The non-residents are, as a rule, asked to show up their identity-card before they are allowed to let in. This is clearly a case of usurping the public space for personal use by an exclusive community. The residents of such colonies have had an open space transformed into a locked space where the notice boards unambiguously prohibit entry of ‘ Ricksaw, junk-dealers and street-vendors’. The erstwhile link roads to the colonies have been completely blocked. Let us explain the phenomenon through the instance of nizamuddin east, adjacent to the eponymous railway station. Until recently Nizamuddin east had a road passing through it, which served as a linking road to the station with public transport buses plying on it. One fine day the resident association of the colony cooked up a grievance saying that plying of buses on its road was detrimental to the environment. The rich and the powerful residents of the colony approached the government and their demands were readily accepted. Today, the buses are not allowed to ply on the road but all the roads and pedestrian walks put together have been turned into a parking space for the cars. The instance makes it amply clear how the democratic rights of common citizens are compromised for the private facilities of select few.

All such extra-legal acts are being committed with the connivance of police and administration and the Builders have been making lots of money out of such shady incidents. Alarmingly, one finds such instances replicating themselves in most of the cities.

The smart city will be managed, controlled and commanded by elite companies leaving little options of livelihood for the common people. It is for such reasons that the smart city may eventually grow into a stranglehold of ruling class. Are we, then, witnessing a re-enactment of feudal age when every aspect of people’s lives was controlled by the feudal lords?

The Roads: Equality of Access

The pedestrian must, as a matter of right, enjoy the status of primus inter pares with regard to the use of roads. But the motor vehicles have ousted the pedestrian from this space. As a consequence there has emerged a global resistance movement in many metropolitan cities like New York, London, vienna, kopenhagen, amsterdam, Helsinki, Geneva, paris etc to counter the ouster of pedestrian from the public roads. The movement to reclaim the public street and making it free from the cars is now a global phenomenon. The resistance is gradually gaining visibility in many Latin American and African countries. Today, the public spaces and residential areas in cities like Bogota, Quetto, qurieteeba and Cape Town etc are being redeveloped according to the needs of pedestrians and bicycle users. The lanes of Benaras and the narrow market places in Delhi serve as an automatic speed-breakers and allows you to walk around comfortably. Here, one has to treat the fellow pedestrian with equal dignity. The scenario is quite the same in the ancient city of Gaya and contemporary Kolkata. The hill stations like Mussorie and Simla were built with an imagination to keep them car-free. Now Gangtok, Bodh Gaya and Fazilka are taking idea the forward. You feel secure and hassle free in such cities.

Our politicians and policy makers, however, keep reminding us that there is a substantial difference between Indian and global cities as the latter are not so crowded. The constant refrain they often resort to is that we have a population which is always increasing, but they never tell us the other side of the truth that our urban population has registered a growth of just ten percent while the numbers of cars have gone up by hundred percent. Thus, on a rough estimate while a family requires just one home to live, a car needs at least double of the space to accommodate itself. Our government happily doles out two houses to the cars but expresses its inability when it comes to providing housing to the common people.

Let us acknowledge the reality that our cities cannot become better places by simply widening the roads and putting more flyovers on their map. The road to a better city necessarily involves the task of decongesting it from the motor vehicles. This is the only way to make the city smart and vibrant and take the stress off from the citizens who have the first right to access its public spaces. The city can never be rendered secure by just installing the CCTVs, on the contrary, it is the street vendors who make it a safe place to live.

We have an opportunity to kick-start a new beginning.

– Rajendra Ravi

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