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Vol. XXV No. 10, September 1-15, 2015

Smart cities – at what price?

By A Special Correspondent

The Centre’s deadline for the release of its first list of 100 smart cities is rapidly approaching. Each State has been allotted a certain number of towns that it can recommend for this tag. Tamil Nadu, as one of the most urbanised States of the country, has the second largest number to identify – 12 – being next only to Uttar Pradesh which, owing to its size, has 13. The question uppermost in the minds of urban planners and others interested in holistic development is whether the race for being declared smart will mean sacrificing other and more pressing objectives.

A smart city, to quote Wikipedia, “uses digital technologies or information and communication technologies (ICT) to enhance quality and performance of urban services, to reduce costs and resource consumption, and to engage more effectively and actively with its citizens.” The Centre considers this to be a highly desirable national goal and had earlier this year announced that it wanted 100 cities and towns to achieve this status in the next five years. Rs. 48,000 crore has been allotted for realising this target. Each town will get Rs 100 crore a year for the next five years to help it get on with the activity. A matching grant will come from the State and any additional requirements will have to be met by partnerships with the private sector. The implementation will be in the hands of special purpose vehicles, each to be headed by a Chief Executive Officer. As a first step, every State has been asked to identify a certain number of towns with potential and submit respective vision documents for each. The Centre will then shortlist the first set of 20 towns that will receive the first round of funding at once. It is naturally a matter of prestige for each State to get in as many of its cities as possible in the first list.

But is digital engagement a goal that is higher than many more pressing issues, is the question. It is certainly a laudable objective, but are local bodies capable of executing them effectively? To quote Wikipedia once again, for a city to be declared smart, it needs to enhance digital technology in the areas of Government services, transport and traffic management, healthcare, energy, water and waste management. Taking Chennai as an example, how can digital technology help? There will definitely be benefits in information dissemination – we will get to know of traffic loads, the status of water resources, waste management infrastructure, and energy usage. That means greater transparency certainly. But what are we going to do with this information? Taking into account our experience with the Right to Information Act, for instance, which also aimed at greater transparency, we do know that when an administration wants to stonewall, it can do so very effectively.

Will the plethora of publicly available information mean greater pressure on the administration to act? The answer is an emphatic ‘Yes’. But does it have the wherewithal to act? Sadly, ‘No’. We are aware that one of the biggest banes of Chennai is the tacit builder-official nexus that allows encroachment of public space, construction of illegal structures and the consequent degradation of quality of urban life. We do know that our waste management strategy is woefully inadequate and our civic body is still resorting to outmoded techniques of landfills and non-segregated refuse. That our city is choked with slums is an open fact. How will all this change by making our city smart? Are we not there already?

What is, therefore, needed is that the smart city initiative be combined with a strong effort to clean up the administration. It is not enough that the technology becomes transparent; attitudes have to keep pace as well.

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