Urbanisation in India is not something that is planned but something that happens—and haphazardly at that. There are permanent installations—65 million people living in slums. And there are seasonal exhibits —every year, natural calamities expose the ugly underbelly of unplanned urbanisation.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised to change the face and pace of urbanisation. The 100 Smart Cities initiative—the big campaign promise and now one of the core ideas of good governance—is not just an aspiration but an imperative for India. The policy though is yet being deliberated, discussed and drafted. The idea is travelling between ifs and buts of reality and the commas and semi-colons of guidelines.
As India awaits the perfect template, the tragedy in Kashmir offers a unique window of opportunity for real-time design of policy. Rains and floods combined with Indian urbanisation to devastate postcard-pretty Srinagar. Homes, schools, shops, power lines, water supply systems, tele-infrastructure, roads, bridges have been destroyed. Chief Minister Omar Abdullah described it as the worst devastation in a century. Entire sections of the city, it would seem, will need to be rebuilt.
The tragedy presents a challenge and an opportunity for the Modi Sarkar. Why not rebuild and showcase Srinagar as India’s first smart city.
Founded over 2,000 years ago, Srinagar expanded much like other Indian cities without concern for safety or ecological sustainability. The destruction in Srinagar reflects the multiplier effects of multiple failures. The magnitude of the tragedy, the scale of reconstruction and rehabilitation demands urgency, and presents an opening for in-situ design of a plan for a smart city. Make Srinagar the muse for the idea of 100 smart cities.
There are many interpretive models of a smart city. There are European, British, Japanese and American models. The templates are mostly anchored on innovation in design on land use—for homes, business, government offices, public transport and recreational space—and use of information and communication technology for efficiency in energy management, adoption of green energy and practices that make growth sustainable. In essence: efficiency and harmony with nature.
And it is not a new idea. Since the 14th century, cities like Venice, Antwerp and Amsterdam had nurtured growth and managed nature eloquently without losing their competitive edge to deliver a better quality of life for businesses and families. From modern times, there is Curitiba in Brazil and there is Santiago in Chile representing eco-friendly smartness.
And there are enough global examples to learn from, particularly cities that were rebuilt post disasters. Greensburg in Kansas which was flattened by a mile-wide F5 tornado in 2007 chose the green, smart route to rebuild the city. More recently, Fukushima which was bludgeoned by an earthquake, measuring 9 on the Richter, and tsunami is being rebuilt—albeit haltingly—with new concepts. The lost landscape—and golf course and airport—is being converted into renewable energy fields. Closer home, post-quake reconstruction of Bhuj, Latur in Maharashtra, and tsunami-hit areas of Tamil Nadu hold lessons on the necessity for involving civil society—on private funding and private partnerships.
The clock of mindless expansion needs to be reversed with smart concepts while re-building Srinagar for the future. The first lesson is that almost everything that could have failed, did fail in Srinagar. The aerial footage, satellite pictures, television footage, still photographs and most importantly the notes of the Army will give a glossary of what should not be done and what needs to be done.
The first step required is to restore the primacy of environment management—revival of traditional systems —and re-map and codify land use. Located in an ecologically fragile zone, it desperately needs induction of better weather forecasting —Doppler radars, promised since 2010, and other modern systems are a must. Re-location and re-design of utilities like power and communication systems to reduce chances of aggravating failure is another must. Information technology must be deployed to create early warning alerts and evacuation systems. Then there is the aspiration list: a modern mass transport system like in Curitiba, alternate renewable energy systems and so on.
India could invite global and Indian architects, designers and planners to present their ideas—it could even be a contest. Indian technology companies which are servicing global smart cities could be asked to pitch in and chip in to create smart solutions. The Modi Sarkar has committed to lend its might for reconstruction and rehabilitation. Given the economics of the state, the bill will be picked up by the Central government. Why not convert the tragedy into an opportunity to reach out? The circumstance of tragedy demands it. As a destination on the eyeball of international tourists, the economics demands it. And yes, there is no doubting the geopolitical dividends that will flow, but what is more critical is that this is an opportunity to win the hearts and minds of a people.
Hundreds of years ago, the bard said about Kashmir, Agar firdous baroye zameen ast, hami asto, hami asto hami ast (If there is paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here). India could make the verse come alive, once again.
Shankkar Aiyar is the author of Accidental India: A History of the Nation’s Passage through Crisis and Change