For India, smart cities can wait

Neeta Lal says India's priority should be making existing cities habitable

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 July, 2014, 12:33pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 August, 2014, 3:58pm

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has embarked on an energetic mission to build 100 "smart cities" across the sprawling nation. These glitzy conglomerates will be outfitted with sophisticated technology controlling their essential services – power, water supply, solar panels, automated rubbish collection, water treatment systems and recycling plants.

Last month, Modi announced a US$1.2 billion investment package over the next year for this futuristic project, which will have funding from private institutions as well as foreign governments.

A number of these new cities are already in the works across the country. For instance, Modi's flagship smart city - the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City - features an 80-storey "Diamond Tower" floating on an artificial island. The city was launched soon after Modi, then Gujarat's chief minister, returned from Shanghai in 2011 where he, it is said, was visibly dazzled by the Chinese city's glamorous architecture.

Modi says building new cities will decongest the existing ones while accommodating the country's rapidly migrating rural diaspora. However, critics point out that this is more about competition with China, which announced a US$8-billion investment fund in smart-city technology earlier this year.

The reason why India is chasing the dream of 100 smart cities was further reinforced by finance minister Arun Jaitley. While tabling the budget last month, Jaitley said: "The pace of migration from the rural areas to the cities is increasing … Unless new cities are developed to accommodate the burgeoning number of people, the existing cities would soon become unlivable."

However, the moot point is that most of India's existing cities are already unlivable. More than a third of urban India lacks access to piped water connections. The average daily per capita availability of water in the country has plummeted by over 20 per cent in the past 15 years to an estimated 100 litres, available for just one to three hours.

Further, only a fifth of waste water generated in Indian towns is treated.

During each monsoon, India faces the spectre of collapsing buildings, usually dilapidated multilevel structures. In June this year, a building collapse in southern Chennai killed 60 people. In another incident, 10 people, including five children, were killed in the capital, New Delhi, when a 50-year-old apartment block crumbled. Last September, over 50 people were crushed to death when an apartment block disintegrated in Mumbai.

The reason for this decrepitude, say experts, are lax and poorly enforced construction standards on the part of civic authorities amid booming demand for housing. Further, corruption lets unscrupulous builders get away with building violations after they pay bribes compromising safety.

Mumbai, projected as India's Shanghai, is a seething metropolis of 21 million people where a surge of monsoon rains whittles down the city to a watery mess year after year. On the skirts of New Delhi, another city, Gurgaon - touted as India's Millennium City - flaunts gleaming towers and spiffy malls. But civic woes point to it being the worst planned city anywhere.

So, rather than pumping billions into flashy new projects, how about sprucing up India's older cities and making them habitable first?

India's urban population is projected to balloon to 600 million by 2025, say experts, which is approximately the combined total population of the United States, Russia and Japan. Providing these people with basic necessities – food, education and jobs – ought to be a priority for a nation hosting one-seventh of humanity. Smart cities can wait.

Neeta Lal is a New Delhi-based senior journalist and editor