Mission (im)possible 3

S. Madhusudhana Rao

Prime Minister Narendra Modi officially launched three schemes on Thursday to change the face of urban India. Touted as BJP’s flagship programmes to improve every facet of people’s lives in cities and towns, the three missions — Smart Cities, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and Housing for All – have been talked about and widely debated earlier.

In fact, ever since the Prime Minister has floated the idea of giving a facelift to the county’s urban face, rural folk and urbanites have been dreaming of smart cities without knowing what it is all about. We too, surely, are confused whenever our leaders and officials promise a brand new smart city or transforming an existing one.

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S. Madhusudhana Rao

For example, after losing Hyderabad to Telangana as its capital, the chief minister of the residuary state of Andhra Pradesh, Nara Chandrababu Naidu, has been promising Andhra and Rayalaseema people a smart new capital city that would shame the City of Nawabs. His rival in Telangana state K Chandrasekhar Rao has grandiose plans for the twin cities and already has launched several schemes to make Hyderabad a global city.

Similarly, every state capital wants to be or become a smart city. The tag itself makes an urban area special. But if we know the criteria that make a city a cut above others, then at least people would be prodded to do something about getting that honour. If the parameters are not clear, everybody has his/her own idea of a smart city. Is it cleanliness or pollution-free environment or 24X7 water and power supply or ‘world-class’ infrastructure or beautiful dwellings in green environs or the sum and total of all these? What’s the public perception of a smart city? Should it look like Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong or many other glitzy cities in Far East or Dubai in the Gulf or London, Paris in Europe or any one of the American cities?

With the official launch of the three schemes, some clarity seems to have emerged. Under the Mission 100 Smart Cities, which would be identified according to set criteria, quality infrastructure, ‘smart’ solutions to civic problems and issues, a sustainable environment, among others, will be created.

To complement the city effort, 500 towns with 1 lakh or more population will be chosen for development under AMRUT. Modi sees these urban centres as engines of growth and turn themselves into Smart Cities in due course. The aim of these two projects is to make the towns and cities self-developing, keeping in mind their overall present and future growth. We agree with what the PM has said about urban planning in this county: “There is a lack of holistic vision about urban planning and expansion is driven not by the administrators of a city, but by property developers.”

While Modi has hit the nail on the head, how to save urban centres of growth from the clutches of realtors is a point to ponder. Incidentally, to move the third programme in urban revival, Housing for All, the BJP government needs massive infusion of private capital into real estate sector across the country. The government estimates that these schemes together cost nearly 4 lakh crores. Even if the projects make a beginning, by the time they come to fruition their cost will skyrocket. And, we should not forget the fact that migration from rural areas is increasing and urban population is rising. If the twin factors are ignored in future planning, no urban renewal mission will succeed (See Wanted: A new urban mission, June 23). At the same time, the original character and charm of a town/city should not be destroyed in our over-enthusiasm to turn the existing urban areas ‘smart.’

Barring a few that maintain the old world charm, many cities of great historical importance and cultural significance in the world have sold their souls to real estate developers. Their commercial considerations and profit motives have made public interests and aesthetic values subservient. As a result, in some cities like Dubai that are growing at breakneck speed, horizontally and vertically, there is no national cultural identity. It is kitsch in the name of modern development. Nevertheless, they are clean, efficient, have 24X7 power and water supply, good roads, well-run and maintained public transport systems, and above all, have either enforced or cultivated civic sense.

In contrast, even the best among Indian cities present a pathetic picture. Open sewage, piles of garbage, people urinating in public, animals lazing around on roads, erratic public transport, lawless driving, zero civic sense, to name a few, are common features. The less we talk about water and power, environment and pollution, administrative efficiency and corruption the better. They are ubiquitous and have become part of urban life.

By some magic, if these blots are all made to disappear, won’t our cities look clean and beautiful? In fact, some of the Indian cities look better than their counterparts in other countries if we care about sanitation and cleanliness, mind our habits, cultivate some civic sense and observe simple rules to make life a tad simpler and easier.

However, for some inexplicable reasons, some people flout all rules and throw civic sense to the wind. Even if public toilets are built, roads are machine-swept every day, piped water is supplied and 24X7 power ensured, they are misused. Tap water flows freely onto road; street lights burn brightly during the day; people pee around but not in the urinal (A man urinating in Delhi metro coach that went viral on social media is the latest example).

If that is the state of affairs and that’s not going to change in the near future, how does a smart city function? After all, smart cities are not going to change their residents’ mindsets and habits.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley set apart Rs 7,060 crore in the Union Budget for Smart Cities Plan. The allocation is peanuts even for spadework. But blueprints can be prepared for 100 cities @ Rs 70 crore each. Even if a beginning is made, what’s more important for their success are the people. They have to make them habitable in tune with the spirit and vision of Smart Cities. A case in point worth studying from the perspective of urban mission is Swatchch Bharat launched with much fanfare. Do we see its impact except giving VIPs photo opps?

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