Choking While Trying To Be 'Smart'

Solar City Plan is a step towards creating energy-efficient cities. However, will smart cities be smart enough to be liveable under the dread of rising air pollution?

Before we make ambitious targets of smart cities, we need to look at our policies and try to work towards the ‘liveable cities mission’. Having kicked off very specific plans to build 100 smart cities across the country, the Indian government will need to make sure any smart improvements address a critical issue in its urban environment: Pollution. With national capital region grappling with heavy smog, authorities strongly pitched for keeping environmental aspects in mind while framing smart city plans.

While Delhi has managed to shrug-off the tag of the most polluted city in the latest WHO ranking on pollution levels, 34 Indian cities figured in the list of the 100 most polluted ones, and 22 Indian cities found their names among the top 50 most polluted in the world.
Interestingly, out of the 100 cities that have been shortlisted to be built as smart cities, 17 of them figure in the 100 most polluted cities in the world. Though upgrading city amenities, improving infrastructure and transportation and introducing top notch technology, smart parking will be part of the smart city initiative for India, government officials ought to make these cities less dreadful from the fear of basic ‘right to breath’.

A city is liveable when it directly offers favourable living environment to its citizen and indirectly benefits as well as attracts the visitors. Here, the favourable environment includes various measurable factors such as, strong infrastructure setup, presence of quality education and health institutions, safety of its citizenry, proficient governance, jobs and most crucial of them all today a sustainable environment and air quality.
To begin with, there is no standard definition of a smart city, so India will have to evolve its own as the planners seem to have ignored the same. The recent smog highlights how it is high time, Indian policy makers start planning for better air quality rather than announce slew of emergency measures every time Diwali comes.
“We need an independent body with teeth to clamp down on offending actors across states. And unless we start now and find ways to address air pollution in the long term, we will be unsuccessful in having any meaningful impact in the coming years. Real policy is not short term emergency measures that are defensive in nature. We need a proactive policy spanning multiple years, and we need to act fast, local and through multiple agencies across multiple political parties to take the long view on air pollution”, says Sarath Guttikonda, director of the independent research organisation urban emissions.

Policy point of view: Smart cities and pollution
Everyone subscribes to the smart city mission, but in order to be smart, you need be healthy as well, advocated very strongly by Isher Judge Ahluwalia, Chairman, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER),“When we look at cities, they have to be human centric and with easier mobility, designed to give us green spaces, spaces to breath and live a sustainable life”.
“In Delhi itself, we don’t not know safe it is to breathe outdoors; or how often to have air purifiers. That is the state we have created due to our negligence, our planning for transport”, says Isher.
The concept of liveable cities has lately been getting acceptance in other nations especially Europe as the city planners and the citizens work together. The concept is linked to physical forms like parks and green spaces.
An important policy judgement raised by Isher is the need for smart governance. Smart cities require smart infrastructure, but more than that they require smart governance and for that we require decentralisation. We need to take what is good in the already existing cities and look forth kind of live hood and infrastructure they need and then connect them with the surrounding areas.
“Urban local governance neither has the capacity to plan nor the finance or autonomy to charge for better services they deliver”, says Issar.
Policy experts also need to figure out how to cut emissions of global warming gases (GHGs) due to increasing urbanisation whilst handling the smart city mission.
A study led by Purnamita Dasgupta, from the Institute of Economic Growth, University of Delhi shows a positive link between per capita income in India’s class 1 cities, their population and the amount of solid municipal waste generated. The waste sector adds to GHG emissions, mainly through decomposition and methane formation in landfills, it says.
What would make an intelligent city is engagement of analyst in the region. Transport is a major contributor to air pollution and carbon emissions and city planners need to solve the transport chaos first. Citing Enrique Penalosa, a former mayor of Bogota who said, “Trying to solve traffic jams by building more roads is like trying to put out a fire with gasoline.” Hence the design of these cities will play a very crucial role in developing a holistic structure for tackling the problem of pollution.
To begin to work with we could learn from our peers. Developing countries have a transit-oriented evelopment,especially ‘bus rapid transit system’ (BRT) which “combines the best features of rail with the flexibility and cost benefits of road transit system; and dedicated bus lanes that increase the bus speed, making them competitive with car travel.
“We first pollute and then we clean up. We cannot first invest in expensive capital and then try to provide for all. We cannot first invest in cleaning for some and then clean for many. We need a change in the methods of our sustainability”, says Sunita Narian, Director, CSE who has been making a very strong case in terms of urban planning and pollution, voicing for creation of liveable smart cities. Sunita cites the example car-centric policies that marginalised public transport such as buses, bicycling and walking, Narain says, “We need to reinvent our mobility and city planning.”

Will technology serve the purpose in the smart cities mission?

The main focus during JNNURM mission and now smart cities approach is introducing new technologies as the argument is that it will solve the traffic chaos and will serve the high-density demands expected on a few corridors in the city but Indian cities have highdensity developments in the form of urban slums. This is one of the reasons why a good integrated system is more in demand. But most of the cities which have developed metro systems have really not looked into a holistic approach of planning which fails the system in a city and thus pushing people to depend on private transport.
Every urban plan will need to have a long-term view only then will economic growth happen otherwise such missions are a big failure and create monstrous disasters in the form not just high health risk due to pollution but also of flyovers and high investment mass transit projects with no proper feeder services, high accident rates etc.
No city can be called “smart” if its air is choking its citizens and making them sick, and if India is to realise the value of its much-prized demographic dividend, we need to take concerted action now, lest we lament the cost of inaction later.
The smart cities programme needs to recreate its entire urban planning process even if only for the reason that it’s incorrect to assume creating assets makes a city smart. Its air needs to be breathable, roads walkable, and it should be built anticipating disasters that happen once a century. The programme needs to avoid repeating the mistakes of current city planners.

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