Bhopal all set to become ‘smart’, even if hot and barren!

Countless trees have already gone under the axe and several thousands are at risk in Bhopal's Tatiya Tope Nagar, where a government housing project under the Smart Cities Mission is in progress. Environmentalists fume at the toll that such projects are taking.

One among the first 20 cities selected for redevelopment under PM Narendra Modi’s Smart Cities Mission (SCM) launched in 2015, Bhopal faces the loss of a major chunk of its green cover, thanks to the implementation of the smart city project. The number of trees that could literally go under the axe may run into thousands under the Rs 3400 crore development plan in the city, which is still grappling with the consequences of the world’s worst industrial disaster — a gas leak that killed thousands in 1984.

The area chosen for implementing the project, Tatya Tope Nagar (TT Nagar), located in the heart of Bhopal and home to senior bureaucrats and ministers, has the most expensive real estate in the city. The Smart City authority said the area was chosen as 342 acres of government land, which currently has quarters for government employees, was available for the project. Some 1800 government quarters will be demolished and residents asked to move to alternative places. The Smart City authority will then hand over 3000 flats to the government under the project.

The first choice of 350 acres of land in Shivaji Nagar and Tulsi Nagar areas was dropped following widespread protests from local residents, environmentalists and politicians, who said the project would displace hundreds of people and would require 20,000 trees to be cut. Locals said there was nothing ‘smart’ about the project as it deprived the poor and middle class residents of their homes and facilitate grabbing of prime land by the rich and influential.

The protests forced the project to move to TT Nagar which also has a substantial green cover and is considered one of the city’s lungs. But no one has any count of the number of trees that have been cut so far. “This project will provide a life of luxury for a few people who can afford it, but it will make life more miserable for the poor,” said Ajit Sinha, an accountant who has been living in the TT Nagar area for many years. Sinha is also worried that “the administration is doing nothing to save Bhopal’s deteriorating environment. The summers have become unbearably hot in Bhopal, due to destruction of greenery”.

The Smart City Authority, the nodal agency implementing the project, claimed that the tree census is not complete so they don’t have the exact number of trees to be cut. But another official claimed that there are around 4500 trees in the area but added that not all of them will be cut down. Most of these trees, of different varieties like mango, neem and plum, are 50-60 years old.

A green and blue master plan has been prepared for the project, they say, under which a value for each tree cut by the authority will be fixed by the Municipal Corporation and four times that amount will be paid to the Municipal Corporation by the Smart City Authority. Also, for each tree cut, four trees will be planted by the corporation elsewhere.

The green master plan relates to environment, integrated urban planning and environment management that will enhance social and environmental sustainability of urban infrastructure and services. The blue master plan looks at water bodies and includes basic services such as water supply and sewerage.

Residents however are not convinced. “No one is worried about the environment, that is why a majority of the world’s most polluted cities are in India,” said TT Nagar resident Anupama Khare, a housewife in her early 30s. “Bhopal’s environment was much better until a few years back. But then came the Smart City project and with it the bulldozing of the city’s greenery started which is going on unabated even today”.

Pawan Shukla, a retired police officer who lives in Arera Colony locality near TT Nagar said the authority should have first developed areas in Old Bhopal that lack basic amenities like clean drinking water. “They are instead telling people to leave their homes to develop TT Nagar and cutting down trees. Who will benefit from all this?”

Local MLA PC Sharma, a minister in the current Kamal Nath-led Congress government defended the smart city projects and said that the government is monitoring the work closely. “We will not let builders and contractors decide about the project,” said Sharma. “We will also not allow destruction of the environment.”

Urban Expert Rakesh Singh is of the view that the Smart city project is being implemented without any concrete masterplan for the city as a whole. Also, the absence of strident citizen voices of protest against this removal of green cover is making the Smart City Authority’s job easier. Vocal protests, like that of Amitabh Pandey, who has been living in the area for over 25 years, are rare. “They are bringing down trees in order to make way for a bigger concrete jungle in the heart of the city,” said Pandey. “Contractors and builders who are assigned work under the Smart City project have little concern about the environment”.

Another environmentalist and Bhopal gas tragedy activist Abdul Jabbar also rues the fact that government employees and middle class people are not much concerned about the environment. “They feel that they may get into trouble if they go against the government,” he said.

Smart city projects in progress

Meanwhile, the Smart City authority is happy with its progress. It claims many projects have been completed since work was started on June 25, 2017. All work is being monitored in real time by the Integrated Command and Control Centre (ICCC) built at a cost of Rs 299 crore last year.

The efficacy of various smart city amenities is being checked via sensors attached to them; for example, the smart electricity poles and intelligent street lights, a first of its kind project in Bhopal costing Rs 640 crore. So far 150 smart electric poles with intelligent lights have been installed out of the planned 400. These electric poles will improve energy efficiency and will have remotely controlled LED streetlights. They are also being used to mount surveillance cameras to detect road safety and parking violations. Apart from that, environmental sensors are installed in these poles to monitor air quality, temperature and humidity. People are also getting Wi-Fi hotspot services through these poles.

Another major component of the projects under SCM is an intelligent traffic management system costing Rs 17 crore. It involves smart tech-enabled surveillance cameras to detect traffic violations such as over-speeding, running red lights and lack of helmet use among other road safety issues.

This system in particular has brought much-needed relief for the traffic police. Earlier, whenever a violator was caught, he used to call influential people of the city and often had to be let off without any fine. But now with e-challan, traffic violators are forced to pay the fines.

What will also become smarter are the area’s sensor-embedded garbage bins, 150 of which have been installed till date. The GPS-enabled sensors will notify officials at the waste

control monitoring room when it is full and needs to be emptied. Along with road sweeping machines and seven garbage transfer stations, this is budgeted at Rs 130 crore. Other completed components include public bike sharing, heritage conservation and a smart park, which will have a food court and rain water harvesting systems plus Wi-Fi hotspots.

On the heritage front, the historic Sadar Manzil, which was the darbar for last Nawab Begum of Bhopal Sultan Jahan Begum will be restored. The first phase of restoration has already been completed at an estimated cost of Rs 7 crore.

“Bhopal has been a pioneer among other smart cities project in the country,” said Chief Executive Officer of Bhopal Smart City Development Corporation Limited, India, Sanjay Kumar.  “We have rolled out many unique projects and are working on many other new things. We have already completed 45 percent of the work under the project.”

But the irony that there is no place for the poor in the smart city seems to be lost on its proponents. For instance, “a Boulevard Street is being built under the project,” pointed out David John, who runs a grocery shop in the area. “But for the construction of this smart street, the shanties of poor people were bulldozed and they were forced to stay in a transit house. They are yet to be properly rehabilitated. All one sees is bulldozers. No wonder people are angry and worried.”

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