When smart cities are not smart enough

  • Darryl D’Monte, Hindustan Times
  • Updated: Jan 26, 2015 15:42 IST

By coincidence, on the eve of the Urban Age global conference on governing cities in Delhi recently, this newspaper reported how the railways minister, Suresh Prabhu, plans to build the world's second-longest high-speed rail track. Running at 300 km an hour, it will cover the distance between Delhi and Chennai in six hours, part of the prime minister's "diamond quadrilateral" project which will similarly link the four major metros. It is a progression of the golden quadrilateral highway project championed by former PM AB Vajpayee.

At the conference, sparks flew when Amitabh Kant, chairman of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) Development Corporation, took exception to the criticism levelled by the audience who referred to protests against this gargantuan industrial belt, the biggest infrastructure project in India's history. He also dismissed questions raised by foreign fellow panelists as being characteristic of prejudice on the part of westerners who could not stomach India going it on its own. It escaped everybody's attention that Japan has partly provided funds and know-how for this project.

The corridor, which traverses nearly 1,500 km and will cost $90 billion, was the brainchild of the UPA, which set it in motion in 2007 but has been enthusiastically adopted by the NDA. It begins with Tughlakabad and Dadri on the outskirts of Delhi and ends at the Jawaharlal Nehru Port at Mumbai. It covers four other states, while 77% of the total length falls in Rajasthan and Gujarat. It envisages setting up some nine new industrial clusters along the route, extending 150-200 km on either side of the dedicated freight corridor.

As in many instances of huge industrial projects throughout the country, the biggest concern is the land that will be earmarked for this unprecedented scheme. Last March, the Centre signed an agreement with the Maharashtra government for developing an 84 sq km industrial complex project in Aurangabad district in the backward Marathwada region as part of DMIC. By way of equity, Maharashtra has contributed land, having acquired 3,200 acres at a high cost of Rs 23 lakh per acre. Similarly, the Gujarat government has leased 800 acres for Re 1 a year to the promoters of the Gujarat International Finance Tec-city or GIFT.

The Aurangabad region is in the arid rain shadow area of the state and prone to perennial droughts. Special care needs to be taken to ensure that those land-owning families are also trained to find jobs in the new townships that will emerge. Since most engaged in dryland agriculture will be illiterate, the authorities must take steps to provide vocational training so that they do not end up as displaced families, however highly they have been compensated. Otherwise, one will witness DMIC being responsible for mass joblessness, with trained workers from elsewhere migrating to such townships to find employment.

The curved swathe from Delhi to Mumbai also raises the fear of lopsided development in the country. This belt is already where many of the country's biggest industrial complexes are based, as for example in Vadodara. DMIC includes the port town of Dholera in Ahmedabad district, where development is planned to cover six times the area of Shanghai and twice the area of Delhi. DMIC also incorporates Faridabad-Palwal industrial area in Haryana as an engineering and manufacturing hub and Jaipur-Dausa in Rajasthan for marble, textiles and leather.

The DMIC will connect with the Mumbai-Bangalore economic corridor, which is being developed with British support. It is expected to generate an investment of over $2.5 billion. In this manner, the nation's capital will link with the commercial capital and onwards to the IT and manufacturing hubs of Bangalore and Chennai. With such a huge proportion of physical and financial resources, government and private, pouring into this gigantic infrastructure, there is reason to fear that this swathe, from north to west and across the peninsula southwards to Chennai, will witness probably the biggest urbanisation in the world. However, it will exclude large regions of central and eastern India, which are already starved of development. It does not augur well for the containment of Naxalite rebellions in these regions, which are rich in natural resources, but whose people are hopelessly poor.

At the conference, it was inevitable that talk would revolve around smart cities, for a hundred of which Rs 7,060 crore have been budgeted. The concluding session was titled, provocatively, "Are cities getting smarter?" Dholera is being planned as one, as will many others. In theory, no one would complain about smart cities, if information and communication technologies are employed to improve city governance and delivery of services. As we have seen in states like Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, the digitisation of land records and online services like in education and health make a world of difference.

However, making a city smart is not an end in itself but a means to an end. The end is to make cities liveable and inclusive for all citizens. It is problematic to refer to western concepts of smartness in a country with a deep digital divide, where one in four Indians do not even have electricity. The double burden of losing one's land and finding out that one is not employable in the new industries and services that are contemplated in smart cities along DMIC will be difficult to bear.

In the concluding session, Harsh Mander cited another instance of smart thinking when he proposed that schools in any city could be converted into street children's homes during the 18 hours when they are not in use. This is in sharp contrast to the "edifice complex" manifested particularly by the present government, with its preoccupation with building physical infrastructure, ignoring the human dilemmas facing the country.

Darryl D’Monte is chairperson, Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (FEJI)

The views expressed by the author are personal

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