First smarten our cities, then build smart ones

India’s cities are a shameful mess: the big, older ones, the small ones and even the fledgling new ones. Far from being anywhere near smart, our cities are rather dumb. The future could be bleaker, writes HT editor-in-chief Sanjoy Narayan.

columns Updated: Aug 27, 2014 01:39 IST
Indian cities,Delhi,NCR

I would love to live in a smart Indian city and I bet you would too. If that’s not going to be possible, I could settle for a city that is just a little bit smarter than the one I live in now and I bet that is what you could too. The problem is our cities are only as smart as their planners are and, unfortunately, that’s not very smart.

Having lived for over five decades in three of India’s largest cities and experienced firsthand their unerring descent into decrepitude, when someone declares that not one or two or a dozen but 100 smart Indian cities will be built, it’s hard not to be sceptical.

Mumbai Metro (HT Photo/Kalpak Pathak)

India’s cities are a shameful mess: the big, older ones, the small ones and even the fledgling new ones. Mumbai may be the financial nerve of India but it is no more than a rapidly degenerating slum; fast-expanding s and its spread, now known as the NCR, is a perfect example of how not to anticipate that growth; as for Kolkata, it always miraculously manages to breach your belief that nothing could be worse.

Over the years, instead of improving, the quality of life in each of these three cities — ones that I have grown up and worked in — has declined to grievous levels.

Read:Indian cities to get smarter, efficient

In smaller cities, things are worse. In 2011, the urban development ministry surveyed 1,405 cities in 12 Indian states and found that more than half of them do not have access to either piped water supply or sewage systems; that 80% of the households there get water for less than five hours a day; and, more gravely, more than 70% do not have access to toilets. Between 2001 and 2011, India’s urban population grew from 27% to 31% but urban infrastructure hopelessly lagged behind. Far from being anywhere near smart, our cities are rather dumb.

The future could be bleaker. A year before the government survey, a McKinsey Global Institute report estimated that the number of Indians living in cities would grow from 340 million in 2008 to 590 million in 2030.

Thirteen cities would have more than four million residents and half the population in five states would be urbanised. To keep pace with that, India would have to spend $1.2 trillion or nearly 70% of last year’s GDP on cities.

Noida Expressway (HT Photo/Sunil Ghosh)

The government wants to build 100 new smart cities that would rely on technology to create world-class urban infrastructure and — on paper — that could seem great. The idea, say urban development officials, is to use information technology as a tool to provide efficient-energy systems, clean drinking water and sewage disposal.

Read:IIT Bombay and IIT Roorkee to help the government build smart cities

Infotech certainly is a tool. In Delhi, the municipal corporation has an online system to disburse death and birth certificates and enable people to pay their bills and property taxes; in Bangalore, infotech is used to relay real time information on bus timings, congested routes and so on; and, even in a smaller city such as Indore, the traffic police have installed infrared devices to nab rule violators.

Pretty smart stuff, all of that. But the real challenges that India’s cities, burdened by a relentless surge of migration and population growth, face is about resources. In 2007, the supply of water available to cities was 56 billion litres a day compared to a demand for 83 billion litres; by 2030, demand may soar to 189 billion litres but supply will still be around 95 billion litres.

Similar burgeoning gaps are predicted for sewage disposal, availability of mass transportation, electricity, housing and roads. Infotech, however smart, cannot sort those shortfalls out.

In the quest to build smart cities, you’ll likely see government officials, planners and their ilk make frequent sorties across the world to study cases — in China, Singapore and elsewhere — that have managed to balance high urban demand with adequate infrastructure, but the fear is if India doesn’t fix the dystopian nightmare its existing cities face, building 100 new smart ones could remain a utopian dream.

First Published: Jul 19, 2014 23:43 IST