What the hell is a smart city anyway?

  • Manu Joseph
  • Updated: May 04, 2015 10:15 IST

We the people of Gurgaon heard great laughter fill its haze. The sounds were coming from all directions, and from men, women and camels. It was probably desert delirium that made us hear these sounds, but our enquiries revealed there was indeed an occurrence that could cause such behaviour: A cabinet minister had stated, “Gurgaon will become a smart city in the next one year.”

It was only recently that we had understood the meaning of ‘millennium city’, which is the official honorific of a town that some people call ‘Builder’s Shit’ or ‘DLF PhasePalm’.

The meaning of ‘millennium city’ had revealed itself when a clever girl pointed out to the morons who live here that AD 1000, too, is technically a millennium. Now we have to nervously but swiftly ascertain the meaning of ‘smart city’. We know it only as the prime minister’s “vision”.

We are, of course, acquainted with Wikipedia but it did not help. The minister also said, “We have chosen Gurgaon city as a pilot project to develop the smart city. We have directed the concerned officials to come up with a blue print in the next 15 days.”

The laughter rose from the motorists who were driving on the right (it is legal; driving on the left, too, is legal) on the National Highway 8 from Manesar towards Rajiv Chowk.

The school bus driver who was about to run over a pilot on Sohna Road, too, laughed. The pilot who was returning from a gym and had been trying to cross the road safely, too, let out a final laugh. The ophthalmologist laughed but turned serious as she told her child patient that dry eyes, like respiratory ailments, were normal in Gurgaon because of “suspended particles in the air”. Labourers who were digging a ditch near Cyber City laughed though they usually laugh only when asked why they were digging.

Truck drivers who were mugging a recreational cyclist on the Faridabad highway and relieving him of his Garmin watch; and the whole village of almost beautiful prostitutes in the shrubs shook with laughter.

So did the former farmers in paramilitary uniform who work as guards even though they are malnourished. The cops who run a police station whose two holding cells contain human excrement that have gathered over months, laughed the most. One woman laughed but that was because someone had asked her, “Does Gurgaon have a sewage system?”

A terrifying fact then that Gurgaon is among the better cities of India.

The chief reason why the government believes that it can convert Gurgaon into a smart city in a year is that it plans to put in place a power grid that would supply unfaltering electric supply to most of the city. Such a grid would be called ‘Smart Grid’.

Is that all it takes to build a smart city? Gurgaon is among 100 cities that would be deemed potential smart cities.

The Centre would provide Rs 100 crore to develop every chosen city, a small fraction of the actual cost of bringing meaningful change to any Indian city, a cost that would be largely borne, to an unknown extent, by private enterprise.

There have been statements made by government officials that give the impression that the future of Indian cities is in the hands of rustics. In January, the urban development minister, Venkaiah Naidu, said that Delhi would be developed into a “global city”, and, of course, a “smart city”, and that the government wanted “to have world-class entertainment venues like Disneyland or Universal Studios here”.

He also announced that a “lake city” would be developed near Sanjay Lake in East Delhi. “The lake city and the smart city should be a place where tourists can go…”

It is a mystery why so much nonsense has to be uttered to describe what is essentially an important and a humane idea, which is that India must modernise its urban planning. Indians are fleeing their villages in large numbers, and all cities and towns are beginning to collapse. In the coming decades population that would fit into republics would live in several Indian cities.

Contrary to the image that the government has portrayed in its boyish small-town enthusiasm through the branding of ‘smart cities’, an image that is dominated by the cheap brochure art of gleaming buildings as though the government wishes nothing more than carving out business districts for a minority, the actual goal of this government’s urban project is exemplary. India is planning for an urban future. Narendra Modi does not have to make this story sexy.

There is a feeling among Indians that no matter what the quality of infrastructure, Indian cities will be in absolute disorder because of the fundamental nature of Indians, who are, at a civic level, the freest humans that ever lived. We can do things that people in most nations cannot imagine, and an interaction between extreme freedoms is always chaos. What disproves the hypothesis that disorder is the natural state of Indians is the Delhi Metro, which deserves the Nobel Peace Prize for the way it has transformed lives and inspired several metro systems across India.

In the Delhi Metro system, commuters do not spit or urinate in the trains or on the platforms. They even stand in queues. They behave differently within and outside the metro system. There are three chief reasons for this. The Delhi Metro is impressive; it provides adequate facilities for all reasonable human needs; and finally it threatens to penalise, a threat that is taken seriously by commuters because of the first reason — the metro is efficient, hence it must also be efficient in carrying out its threats. That is what a city must ideally do: Impress, provide and punish. To that end, Delhi Metro is a smart city in transit.

If you say that in Gurgaon, we won’t laugh.

Manu Joseph is a journalist and the author of the novel, The Illicit Happiness of Other People
Twitter: @manujosephsan
The views expressed by the author are personal

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