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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2680

Modi-Fixation With Smart Cities

By *D R Ahuja - Syndicate Features

With Prime Minister Narendra Modi set to spend a day in Toulouse during his latest three-nation tour of the West, the talk of the town is that the BJP-led NDA government may finally opt for the French model for its Smart City project.

For the uninitiated, Toulouse, about 580km from the French capital, Paris, belongs to the league of Smart Cities like Seoul, Singapore, Yokohama and Barcelona. Spread over 380 sq km, and divided into metropolitan area and 24 independent communes, it traces its history at least since the Iron Age. It is known as the Pink City (La Ville Rose) with architecture made of pinkish terracotta bricks giving the city on the banks of the River Garonne a unique flavour.

Toulouse has transformed into an intellectual and artistic centre by the 12th century. Its tryst with urban building started six centuries later. Wide streets, spacious boulevards, and new age transportation helped the city to withstand two massive waves of immigrants.

Today nearly 67 per cent of its 700 thousand population lives in the metropolitan area that boasts of an extensive bus system, automatic metro trains running on rubber-tyres, and a city-wide bicycle rental scheme for last mile connectivity. It thus perfectly fits Modi’s concept of a Smart City with its ability to preserve its historical and cultural roots while donning the mantle of a modern city that hosts a number of aeronautics, space, electronics, information technology and biotechnology industries. It is home to the European aerospace industry.

It is too early to crystal gaze the outcome of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Toulouse and his dialogue with the French President Francois Hollande. Tentative projections are that the bilateral agreement will be tailor-made for Chandigarh and Puducherry; both boast French connection.

Swiss-French architect, Le Corbusier, designed and built Chandigarh as the first planned city of Independent India. Puducherry was a former French colony even long years after India became independent. So, it wears its French identity on its sleeves. As of now, both cities are struggling to preserve their heritage while meeting the growing demands of urbanisation, and thus qualify for smart city project. Political factors may help push the case of Hyderabad and Nagpur as well.

There is a flip-side to Modi’s Smart City saga. While in Japan last September, he talked about the new tag for the holy city of Varanasi by linking it with Kyoto. Shortly afterwards, Vadodra and Pune became the new targets with no less than the Chinese President Xi Jinping announcing the decision during his India sojourn last year.

So it is premature to go to the town hailing the new Toulouse linkage, more so as the Urban Development Ministry, which is the nodal agency for Smart City project, has not graduated beyond a draft concept note. The draft identifies the ills-afflicting our urban centres and offers justification for creating 100 Smart Cities across the country by developing satellite towns of larger cities and modernising some existing mid-sized cities. We are promised a blue print for action some three months ago. It is yet to be unveiled.

Today we need sustainable physical, social, institutional and economic infrastructure that ranges from electricity to water and sanitation to livelihood to make our living in towns happy and comfortable. “In this context, Smart Cities are those that are able to attract investments. Good infrastructure, simple and transparent online processes that make it easy to establish an enterprise and run it efficiently are important features of an investor friendly city”, says the concept paper.

Institutional infrastructure (including Governance), physical infrastructure and social infrastructure are the three pillars on which a city rests. “The center of attention for each of these pillars is the citizen. In other words a Smart City works towards ensuring the best for all people, regardless of social status, age, income levels, and gender”. Put simply, what Modi government is offering is a citizen –centric, efficient, and accountable system of participatory governance where there will be a sense of safety and security and transparency besides opportunities for creativity.

A caveat will be in order before welcoming the Modi mantra on smart cities. Our cities and towns are in a state of decay; our municipalities and municipal corporations are able to do no more than holding operation. Often they are in no position to pay salaries of their staff. Three out of four municipal corporations of national capital Delhi are in that league.

The sanitary workers of East Delhi resorted to Gandhigiri in end-March after waiting for two months for their salaries. They dumped piles of trash and garbage on the streets and intersections making Patparganj, Laxmi Nagar, Mayur Vihar and several other colonies to stink while experiencing traffic jams. The situation improved after the National Green Tribunal (NGT) intervened and pulled up the AAP government of Arvind Kejriwal.

The short point is that the much talked about Smart city project will succeed if only there is a change in the governance structure. People should be made to feel stake-holders in the governance and development of the city.

Simultaneously, the government departments must shed their colonial hangover of working in isolation. The bureaucracy across various departments must learn to work as a team.

Today each department is an island. Again within each island there are several small water bodies. Take the transport system. Metro rail, buses, roads, parking, traffic lights, and street lights are handled by different agencies. Coordination is something alien to our system. People suffer as a result.

Sound transport system is the USP of Toulouse, and other Smart Cities. Both pedestrians and cyclists get as much importance as public transport in these cities.

The Modi plan must address the inherent weaknesses of our urban landscape in its blue print for Smart Cities. Neither emphasis on automation of municipal offices nor IT-based real time delivery services is the answer as the experience with the five-year-old Passport Seva Project of the Ministry of External Affairs shows. (Syndicate Features)

* D R Ahuja is a Delhi –based veteran journalist and commentator

- Asian Tribune -

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