From Mohenjodaro of antiquity, Indraprastha of the Vedic Age to ancient Rome, cities bear the imprimaturs of rulers and civilisations. Mohenjodaro was famous for its cleanliness, water engineering and granaries while London and Paris overcame filth and epidemics to become shining examples of the modern world. Unlike the Pataliputra of King Vikramaditya with its clean orderly streets, efficient sanitation systems and pleasing architecture, hardly a single metropolis can now be called a jewel in modern India’s crown. For the past few weeks, both Patna and Pune have been in the news for the wrong reasons.
Though they enjoy the privileged Smart City tag, “Apres Pataliputra le deluge’’ was Patna’s story when floods ensured that boats were used to evacuate senior political leaders out of their inundated official bungalows in posh residential areas. In Pune, over a dozen persons died when a drain was breached by heavy rain. It seems successive monsoons have washed away the artisanal achievements and heady heritage of Indian cities. Many Smart Cities are vandalised by the scourge of nature’s fury and human folly which arrives every year like an unwelcome visitor bearing fatal news. The speed and enormity with which Indian cities are falling apart has exposed the hollowness and indifference of India’s civic administration.
During his last term, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s epiphany of creating smart cities was born out of his concern about urban decay. He conceived the novel idea of restoring a few chosen cities as symbols of ideal living. The Smart City Mission anchored by the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) was designated to transform Urban India. MoUD subsequently invited proposals from each state, listing the cities they would like to promote as ‘Smart.’ They were also asked to give deadlines and parameters to elevate them to oppidan havens. The basic philosophy behind the Smart City concept is to adopt a comprehensive plan which includes urban developmental derivatives from infrastructure improvement to sewage treatment—very crucial to avoid situations like marooned politicians being evacuated by boat. The Centre accordingly earmarked Rs 48,000 crore (2015-19) for the project.
Since the monetary inducement was huge, every state hired high falutin experts to prepare hi-tech presentations to win the title. After extensive scrutiny, around 100 cities were shortlisted. Each one received an initial seed money of Rs 500 crore. None of the major metropolises were included as the emphasis was to improve the pathetic plight of Tier Two cities. However, the area under the New Delhi Municipal Council and a part of Chennai were incorporated in the list. Around 10 crore citizens live in these cities whose estimated total development cost would be around Rs 1,64,000 crore. It is evident that Modi and his team had done extensive brainstorming before launching the program.
The Mission statement says “Cities are engines of growth for the economy of every nation, including India. Nearly 31% of India’s current population lives in urban areas and contributes 63% of India’s GDP. With increasing urbanisation, urban areas are expected to house 40% of India’s population and contribute 75% of India’s GDP by 2030. This requires comprehensive development of physical, institutional, social and economic infrastructure. All are important in improving the quality of life and attracting people and investments to the City, setting in motion a virtuous cycle of growth and development. Development of Smart Cities is a step in that direction.”
Ten core Smart City elements were identified for implementation: adequate water supply, assured electricity supply, sanitation including solid waste management, efficient urban mobility and public transport, affordable housing, robust IT connectivity and digitalisation, good technology based governance, sustainable environment, safety and security of citizens and health and education. Yet one man’s dream is another’s fantasy and a nightmare for the people. Modi’s Smart City dream has been reduced to a fantasy by bureaucrats and local leaders who haven’t addressed the above issues. Floods are not new to Bihar. But Patna was expected to improve under Nitish Kumar’s progressive vision. Maharashtra is an efficiently governed state, but Pune reeled under Nature’s vengeance. More than half of the Smart Cities habitually become choked when it rains. Tier Two cities are plagued by traffic crawls, potholes and stinking with overflowing sewage and dangerous drains.
None of them have developed an efficient transport system or a method to protect the environment. The blame for the sabotage of Modi’s Smart City ambitions surely lies at the doorsteps of ministers, civil servants and engineers who have converted it to yet another vehicle for retaining their jobs. According to official data, only half of the budget allocation has been released, of which just 36% has been utilised. Even worse, of the Rs 17,000 crore released for different projects, only Rs 6,100 crore has been used. In 28 cities not a single project has been finished. In 14 cities only one project has been completed. It is shocking to discover that none of the cities chosen for the Smart trophy have complete maps of roads, drainage, water lines and other civic utilities. Some do not possess complete ownership records of public land for development and new enterprises. A major reason for the mission’s failure is unstable administration in municipalities and other agencies. For example, the average tenure of a District Magistrate or a municipal head is less than two years. Engineers who refuse to buckle to local political pressure to ignore violations of municipal laws are frequently transferred. There is hardly a municipal body in the country which is not corrupt.
With failure staring them in the face, officials are changing the goal posts. Instead of choosing genuine projects with long term impact, they are taking up showy schemes like placing solar panels on school roofs, improving parks or putting benches on footpaths. Ministers and mandarins who have spent a major part of their life either abroad or only in tony megapolises have hired graphic designers to create fancy content to post on social media. Even NITI Aayog babus who have done credible work in the past are now wining and dining MNCs, CEOs and corporate leaders to seek their indulgence for providing a faux glow to decaying cities. None of those responsible for the Smart City mission have bothered to find out for themselves if drains have been cleaned, water bodies restored or encroachments on public land which causes water logging and traffic jams identified.
A classic example is the unplanned expansion of the Metro rail system. It has indeed taken load off the buses, but all Metro Delhi stations are sources of pollution and traffic jams. It is evident that the success of a dream or an undertaking lies in the involvement of people at the bottom of the social pyramid. A top-down approach has rarely worked in this country lacking a mechanism to turn the masses into stake holders. If India has to become a better and cleaner country, evolving a bottom-up model is imperative. Smart ideas require smarter instruments of change and not just ladder climbers with the smarts.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla