Cities that are smart, and also scaleable

In recent years, India’s capital city has undergone a drastic change. Skyscrapers and landmarks blanketed by thick smog, long queues of vehicles jammed against each other on roads, increased number of people wearing pollution masks, all these have become a part of our daily lives. Few more years and we will resemble a dystopian society from a sci-fi movie. The uncontrolled effects of urbanisation are unavoidable and if this reality is not checked in time, it would lead to a catastrophic public health emergency.

Between 2014 and 2050, India is projected to add 404 million people to its urban population. India recorded the highest annual growth in the urban population at 1.1% between 2010 and 2015 among major global economies. At a time when the idea of developing smart cities dominates policy discourse, India faces challenges due to uncontrolled urbanisation.

A quick search will tell you that urbanisation refers to the population shift from rural to urban areas. When evaluating it in Indian perspective, it is observed that major problems of urbanisation here are migration, overcrowding, housing, unemployment, transport, water, and urban pollution.

The government, in fact, acknowledges the gravity of the situation. It has come up with ambitious targets to provide housing for all by 2022. There are multiple schemes and projects that aim at upgrading transport, sewage and drainage system across India. Technological support is being sought to build “smart cities” with better-managed traffic, waste and other urban systems. However, the out of control growth of the capital city catapults the set targets beyond reach.

Since 2005, New Delhi has added an exponential 10 million to its population. Now, it’s no secret that one of the major contributors among the other complex ones for increased pollution is increased population. More people require more resources, which essentially means as population increases, infrastructure and transport also increase in correlation.

Most Indian metropolitan cities are a traffic nightmare. India’s road network grew at an annual rate of 4% since 1951, while the number of vehicles has increased at a rate of 11%. This has resulted in choked roads and increased air pollution. The government has been lagging behind in constructing roads and flyovers to match the increase in vehicles.

The recent case of Rani Jhansi Grade Separator in New Delhi reflects the mismatch between the need and supply. The flyover took two decades to complete after multiple delays and a project cost 10 times of what was projected initially. The separator has been unsuccessful in resolving the traffic woes of the North Delhi region. Though the authorities are busy mudslinging at each other for the failure, an important observation that cannot be ignored here is the failure of the authorities to plan the infrastructure with the increased need.

Directly related to the growth in vehicles are the levels of pollution. The recent dip in the quality of air in New Delhi, although blamed at the stubble burning in neighbouring states, can be attributed to increased vehicles and industries in Delhi NCR. Stubble burning is a contributor but seasonal, whereas the major culprit behind it is the air pollution caused by vehicular and industrial emissions throughout the year.

The India plan

A recent data published by the WHO shows that seven of the world’s 11 most polluted cities are in India. Going by the grand plans envisaged by the government, India would have to invest more in its cities to make them not just livable but scalable as well. Urbanisation is increasing at a rate quicker than expected and unfortunately, our metro cities are challenged in terms of infrastructure. Increased urbanisation is stressing our cities and breaking them down.

Globally, a smart city is one where existing infrastructure is upgraded, monitored and controlled. However, in the Indian context, the approach has to be different. Since most of our cities lack basic infrastructure, framework and proper governance, a smart city initiative should ideally first involve providing basic civic amenities and infrastructure which are robust and scalable.

Urban living is complex and the authorities must invent smart ways to manage it. This can be done possibly in two ways, either by building greenfield cities or by upgrading and transforming the old ones. The government, with a view to modernise India, has launched two flagship programmes — the Smart Cities Mission and AMRUT. However, lack of planning in terms of providing the infrastructure that meets the growing needs of an urban city is a roadblock that requires immediate attention.

Today, urban India is a hotbed of unplanned construction, ill-equipped public transport, unbreathable air, traffic jams, unemployment, and inefficient ULBs. What we have are cities which are overcrowded and hardly smart. The choice is ours. Let’s take it while it is still ours. 

(The writer is founder, director & CEO of Fiinovation and Chairman of Centre for CSR and Sustainability Excellence)

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Cities that are smart, and also scaleable

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