Will Mumbai’s roads be free of potholes in the near future, will the agencies in charge figure out how to lay good roads with pavements, will the process of road laying ever be free of corrupt and sub-standard practices? These questions dominate public chatter and local media space this monsoon too, as they have unfailingly done the last few years. If newspapers and local television channels are a record of the society at a given time in history, future readers are likely to be puzzled at this dichotomy: Mumbai is billed as an international city but does not have the technology or will to construct good roads.
Chief ministers of Maharashtra, mayors, and other assorted people in high offices have often remarked that planning and building roads is not exactly rocket science, or words to that effect. The multiple agencies in charge of roads have been pulled up by the courts for bad roads that led to injury and death of commuters. Yet, they cannot get it right – except in a few exclusive zones. For example, the roads in Bandra Kurla Complex are so smooth and pothole-free that they would win an international competition for good roads.
Zooming down the wide, garbage-free and tree-lined BKC road brought home what it will mean to be in a Smart City, or in this case the smart zone of a chaotic, garbage-filled, potholed-road city. The BKC and more lately Lower Parel, the newer business district, are the chosen areas to be developed along the lines of the Smart Cities Mission. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation unveiled a plan for Lower Parel earlier this year to improve roads, railway stations connectivity, wifi network and make it a zero garbage area so that it too could be a Smart City zone.
This column has argued in the past that the much-touted Smart City Mission of central and state governments would result in selective area-centric upgradation of civic services resulting in further gentrification and unequal development within the city. The empirical evidence is in a deep dive study done by How India Lives, a repository that collates and organises public data, on its smart cities tracker and published by Mint recently.
Read more: Same old plotholes in Mumbai’s monsoon story
The data portal ran an analysis of 33 city proposals under the Prime minister’s Smart City Mission. The stark truth is that contrary to the government’s hard-sell that the Smart Cities Mission will result in fast all-round development of a city, a staggering 81% of the cities studied had plans for area-based development and only 19% for pan-city improvement or progress. In Chandigarh, Ranchi, Coimbatore, Jabalpur and a few others, more than 90% of the capital expenditure under the Mission was ear-marked for area-based plans instead of the entire city.
In terms of spending priorities, the maximum capital spend was on land (including housing) followed by mobility or transport. But seven out of the top ten cities with highest budgets for land and housing in their area-based plans were spending more on commercial development and business districts than on housing. The researchers at How India Lives observed that urban development under the Smart Cities Mission will end up being the preserve of a chosen locality, not the entire city. Ergo: More well-endowed BKCs and Lower Parels in a stinking, chaotic, potholed-road city.
As the Smart Cities Mission juggernaut rolls on, the questions may longer be about why some roads always develop potholes, why some areas are garbage dumps, and why we cannot get these basic urban services right. They will instead be who owns the cities and how they are shaped or designed to largely service the needs of capital. That is not a smart way of building cities. And yes, smart cities as understood in the international context do not have potholed roads.