How smart are our Smart City projects?

Chennai needs effective, workable and lasting solutions to water management, property encroachment, traffic violation, public transport, local area planning, river cleanups and other issues that the city grapples with, but are the proposed Smart City projects really in sync with ground realities?

It is now around five years since the Central Government announced its Smart City project, under the auspices of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. The mission, aimed at 100 cities of India, was meant to make them function better under various heads such as Mobility, Energy, Water, Technology and Environment. It was expected that these initiatives would improve the quality of life, get people to participate in governance, bring about transparency in the functioning of those in authority and promote public consultation. It is a moot point as to whether any of this has been achieved.

The Short and Snappy column in MM, (June 1st (The Isthmus of T’Nagar) featured a write up on the inordinate expansion of footpaths at the expense of carriageway at Sir Theagaroya Road. The subsequent week, a prominent business daily of the city carried a photograph of the same thoroughfare that showed cars parked on the broad sidewalk. The caption below asked if Chennai was really ready for such smart city solutions. The implied message was that it was not. We would readily agree with that sentiment.

A year back, we had the much-publicised launch of a bike-sharing initiative, promoted by a worldwide company. Chennai was one of seven Indian cities where this was taken up. The operations were wound up within six months. It was rumoured that continued theft of bicycles hit the company hard. This year the Corporation of Chennai has reintroduced the same scheme, under its auspices, thereby becoming the first civic body in the country to promote cycling in a big way. It is still early days to comment on how the plan has fared but we need to only look at our roads to wonder if cycling safely is at all feasible.

The announcement of the Smart City initiative has seen many consultants descend on Indian cities and Chennai is no exception. It is rumoured that there are as many as ten different organisations simultaneously working on the scheme, all of them claiming to be in collaboration with the Corporation. It is quite likely that none of them is working with the others and therefore most of them may be at cross-purposes. Have we not had the same problem and suffered enough with Government agencies negating each other’s work for decades?

Most of these consultants and the NGOs they have spawned appear to be working hard at bringing in international solutions that have no truck with ground reality. Take for instance the footpath widening scheme at T Nagar – is it at all likely that vehicles would be parked on them in a western capital or for that matter even in a neighbouring country like Sri Lanka? And yet people in Chennai do it. Would it not have been better to first influence people in following the law before embarking on such solutions?

The same applies to creating artistic and recreational spaces beneath flyovers. Given the weather conditions and the chaotic traffic, who in their right senses wants to relax under a flyover? And given the level of poverty and homelessness, will the less privileged people not make a beeline to these spaces?

It would be far better to focus on certain basic factors than on such eye candy schemes that gather immediate publicity and are then forgotten or misused or worse, cause harm. Can there be smart solutions to water management, property encroachment, traffic violation, public transport, coordination between Government departments, local area planning, river cleanups and social welfare schemes? If these are managed by smart city solutions we would have a great city, one that can justify its listing a few years ago among the 52 most liveable metros the world. Everything else we are sorry to say, is mere eyewash.

[This article was first published on the author’s blog and has been republished here with permission.]

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