India’s 100 smart cities project and a new urban renewal mission are important steps toward dealing with an old problem that has only got progressively worse over the years: urban liveability. With an estimated investment of $15 billion, Smart Cities Project is given top priority by the centre. With this mission, the union government has envisaged sweeping changes in 11 infrastructure elements of urban life: water and power supply, sanitation, public transport, housing, IT connectivity and digitisation, good governance, sustainable environment, citizens’ safety, health, and education.
Why do we need smart cities?
- About a third of India’s population now lives in urban areas, overcrowded cities and towns with infrastructure bursting at the seams. This problem will only worsen with little or no intervention happening.
- The proportion of the urban population can only go in one direction — upward — as more Indians migrate to the cities and towns in search of jobs. Cities are engines of growth, and as a result attract a lot of people.
- But, urbanisation in India has for the longest time been viewed as a by-product of failed regional planning.
The Smart Cities Mission can cope with the challenges of urban living and also be magnets for investment.
What is a ‘Smart City’?
A ‘smart city’ is an urban region that is highly advanced in terms of overall infrastructure, sustainable real estate, communications and market viability. It is a city where information technology is the principal infrastructure and the basis for providing essential services to residents.
- In a smart city, economic development and activity is sustainable and rationally incremental by virtue of being based on success-oriented market drivers such as supply and demand. They benefit everybody, including citizens, businesses, the government and the environment.
Attempts before Smart Cities Mission:
- Population in different cities across India is swelling. On the other hand, there is little incentive for people to migrate out of cities.
- Earlier attempts at providing better urban infrastructure or at creating new townships have not been able to deal with the issue of liveability satisfactorily.
- Even successful special economic zones have had to contend with the issue of lack of social infrastructure, which usually means access to avenues of education, health, arts, sports, and so on.
So far, all such initiatives have not been able to decrease the burgeoning urban population.
Smart cities Vs Liveable cities:
Smart Cities Mission aims to improve the quality of life of the average urban citizen. But, according to few experts, it is necessary to make cities liveable first before making them smart.
- The Liveable cities model is based on eight core pillars that are demographic, education, health and medical standards, safety, housing option, socio-cultural-natural environment, economic environment, and planned environment.
What is a ‘Liveable City’?
A city is livable when it directly offers favorable living environment to its citizenry and indirectly benefits as well as attracts the visitors.
- Here, the favorable environment includes various measurable factors such as, strong infrastructure setup, presence of quality education and health institutions, safety of its citizenry, planned environment, proficient governance, job etc.
Problems with the Smart Cities Mission:
- India’s Smart Cities Mission does not place the above mentioned factors on top; instead it puts physical infrastructure as the issue to tackle the quickest. For instance, while there is emphasis on public transport and safety of women, there is no word on policing. On the other hand, the world’s most liveable cities have better policing, which make them safest cities.
- Compare some other parameters: the number of museums, open spaces, cultural districts, moral policing, accessibility and education for the physically and mentally disabled, public health care, work-life balance, traffic congestion, recreational spaces for families. In almost all these parameters, Indian cities lag behind their western counterparts by a large margin. And Smart Cities Mission has failed to address these issues.
- There is another challenge. As India continues to improve its agricultural yields by mechanisation, thedependence on manual labour in villages will reduce, and the logical place for the agrarian economy dependents to migrate is the city. The challenge for cities, as a consequence, would be to not only create employment opportunities for these labourers but also equip them with skills to earn those jobs.
The above said challenges are not only of economics, but they question our societal structure. This is not to say that the Smart Cities Mission is not a good initiative; it certainly is. But, it is not a panacea for all the problems. Hence, the Smart Cities Mission should be converted into a Liveable Cities Mission, with focus clearly on quality of life using social and cultural yardsticks rather than a drastic change in merely physical infrastructure.