Sustainability needs a people-centric approach; is smart city Chennai geared to that?

A city tackling climate change needs to think big and small and involve all stakeholders in the process -- policymakers, state and local governments, private entities and citizens. That should be one of the primary goals of the Chennai Smart City programme.

As with any large urban centre, Chennai contributes most towards the economy of Tamil Nadu. Economic activity is concentrated in and around Chennai; multiple factories and manufacturing units are located on the outskirts of the city and there is significant commercial and residential expansion as well. This means, the city also consumes more energy and resources and as a result generates more waste in many forms.

The effects of climate change cannot be ignored. Over the past few years, Chennai has witnessed extreme weather events — from historical flooding to more recently, acute water scarcity. As the city continues to grow and expand in myriad ways, how sustainable this expansion is will determine if the city can mitigate the effects of climate change. 

Chennai isn’t unique here and the size of a city and/or its available resources needn’t be a predictor in terms of being better prepared. But will its inclusion under the central Smart City Mission and the projects envisaged under the Chennai Smart City programme in particular make a difference?

Smart cities and climate change

India is the third largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world behind China and the United States. Indian cities are vulnerable to climate change due to improper land use, high population density in flood-prone areas and improper infrastructure and urban planning.

If a smart city needs to be livable and resilient, then it must balance growth with sustainability. To solve these, there might be specific solutions to specific problems. For example, monitoring emissions from factories and vehicles, better public transport with energy efficient vehicles. However, there needs to be an overarching framework for tackling climate change. The challenge is it shouldn’t be limited to schemes under the realm of the smart city mission, it should be applied across the spectrum.

Cities often lack the capacity to develop efficient measures to tackle and respond to the effects of climate change. This leaves residents, especially those at the bottom of the socio-economic scale, at the receiving end of the effects. Most recently, in Chennai, weeks of water scarcity primarily affected those who were poor. Karen Coelho, Associate Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, wrote on this very aspect in a column for Scroll, with respect to the recent water crisis in Chennai:

Informal settlements of the urban poor are often, though not always, located at the tail ends of the system. Thus, their pipes are among the first to run dry during droughts forcing them to line up on the streets for water from tankers”.

India’s water use per capita is expected to increase with economic development. This will percolate down to the major cities in the country, Chennai being one of them. This means, the city will depend on rainfall for its increasing water use. However, with increasing rainfall volatility, there’s no guarantee that water shortages won’t occur again. 

Mridula Ramesh, Founder, Sundaram Climate Institute, offers this assessment –

Some parts of peninsular India and a few districts in the dry northwest are predicted to have lower annual rainfall by 2021-2050, which requires rethinking of water sources of major cities such as Chennai and Bengaluru

Think people, not only ICT

The common method to achieve sustainability in any smart city is Information and Communication Technology (ICT). It’s the basis on which various policies and initiatives are formed for any smart city. However, adoption of ICT isn’t the end, it’s the means to enable a city to achieve its sustainability goals.

There is some economics at play, particularly demand and supply; though not in the traditional monetary/financial sense. The demand side in this case is the need for behavioural change in many areas of a growing metropolis. 

Take transit as an example. Chennai has a large public transport network – buses, suburban railway and a growing metro system. It also has a large number of private vehicles which contribute to air pollution. Part of making a smart city sustainable is to make public transport an attractive and viable option for its citizens. The goal to get there can be problematic, though. The construction of Phase 2 of the Chennai Metro is expected to cause a significant increase of pollutants.

On the supply side, the onus is on the private and public sector to develop and implement a range of technologies and policies that help make a smart city sustainable. The impact of this, however, will be contingent on how willing citizens are to adopt any new policies or methods. An example here is the Chennai Metro’s documented troubles with ridership expectations and reality. 

Urban design expert Uwe Brandes who was in India in July, called for a new approach to how cities can help tackle and mitigate the effects of climate change; its putting people first. He said,

The one thing urban planners around the world are learning is that we have falsely prioritised organising cities around cars and not people. Urban planners have to look more at integration of different systems like rails and buses. The response to climate change is creating low-carbon cities, and the response to that is to create cities that are more walkable.

In Chennai, a specific project under the Smart City Mission is the ‘pedestrian plaza’ in T Nagar. The mantra around this is to create a space for people to walk, shop and lounge while aiming to reduce traffic in an otherwise busy and dense part of the city. Being one of the earliest projects to get the green light, it has also undergone delays due to design changes. Expanding on the T Nagar project, recently, the Chennai corporation announced similar ones at three new locations – Anna Nagar, Tondiarpet and Velachery.

Thinking of a different, better future

Sustainability in a smart city is about preparing for the future as much as it is about the present. This entails many small and big steps taken by the government and local civic bodies. It could start from home in terms of waste disposal and collection, and be extended to larger initiatives like rain water harvesting or even bigger undertakings such as infrastructure projects that utilise solar power. For example, several metro stations in Chennai have installed solar power panels.

Coordination and inclusion

For a smart city to be sustainable, it has to reflect the aspirations of all people from various socio-economic backgrounds. Non-inclusive development and outcomes as a result of various technologies being used will not help a city achieve its desired sustainability goals. Sustainability and growth should go hand-in-hand in tackling climate change. It’s all-encompassing because all aspects of a city are involved. Everything from simple home-based solutions to large scale ‘green’ projects are necessary. 

The Tamil Nadu Climate Change Cell (TNCCC) lists a few projects including the Climate Change Adaptation in Rural Areas of India (CCARAI) Project; a joint effort with the German government. The German International Corporation (GIZ), one of the agencies involved, in a 2017 report stated the following –

The Chennai Corporation should assess the option of creating a dedicated Climate Change Cell. Subsequently, a climate change strategy needs to be developed for the city that identifies vulnerabilities and prioritises appropriate interventions”.

This, in essence, is the challenge that Chennai has in terms of sustainability. A city tackling climate change and feeling the effects of it, needs to think big and small. That means, policymakers, state and local government, private entities and citizens should all be stakeholders in the process. The cost of inaction, delays and bureaucracy, not uncommon in any Indian city can be high. For Chennai, coordination between departments and municipal agencies is needed if it is to move forward as a sustainable city for future generations.

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