Of new worlds and old: Thoughts from Jaipur

While most people agree that abject pessimism is neither warranted nor deserved, getting excited about this journey toward smartness must be tempered with just a dash of realism about where we stand today

Rajpal Singh Shekhawat - Enabling Smart Cities Jaipur

I spent all of the past week in Jaipur – building support and seeking time from those either tasked with or passionate about urban development and policing while looking for ideas that could inform a discussion on smart cities - for our first state-level 'Enabling Smart Cities' conference. Correction: “Smart-er” cities, as I was repeatedly reminded. After all, how can we become perfectly "smart" – over a mere 4-5 years, as envisaged, when there is so much we still lack in terms of inclusive access to basic infrastructure and services? While most people I met agreed that abject pessimism was neither warranted nor deserved, getting excited about this journey toward smartness must be tempered with just a dash of realism about where we stand today. At the conference itself Rajasthan’s Minister for Urban Development and Housing, Rajpal Singh Shekhawat, struck a positive note in his Inaugural Address with its emphasis on citizen-centricity and the need to remember that a lot of what we treat as urban is essentially rooted in the rural making it crucial to nurture the roots as we set out to chase the dream, just like he did when he moved to Jaipur for a better education. We’ll do a detailed report on the conference in our upcoming print edition, and we’ll be posting some more details on what was presented, said and shared by the speakers in the week ahead. Here is a quick wrap of some of the ideas and thoughts from the discussion and the week that preceded it. Conference day itself dawned grey and soaking wet; pouring rain accompanied by the threat of an imminent “chakka jaam” planned for the next day - by groups upset over temple demolitions - looming large over the city. Without commenting about the merits of the argument on either side, the daily coverage of the issue in the city pages of local newspaper editions seemed to epitomise the essential pulls and pressures that continue to define the intricate balance between creation and preservation; between the past and present; between development and sentiment; between modernity and tradition; between old and new worlds that don’t always have to be pitted against each other in a zero-sum game. This last part was also something that came up during the day’s discussions, and I have to admit I don’t envy the job of those who often have to walk the tightrope to preserve this fine balance. Talk of the trust deficit in governance, on both sides of the government-citizen divide, during the discussion on smarter policing and safer cities reiterated, in some sense, a closely-related sentiment about seeing things in black and white, while adjudging the roles and responsibilities of the government and citizens alike. Security and smartness – each reliant on the other – are often the unwitting victims of a system that goes round in circles where distrust begets even more distrust, ultimately benefiting no one. A lot of participants echoed sentiments that seem to cut across state and city lines. For example, most people seemed to agree with the statement by one of the speakers that the term ‘smart city’ has a different meaning for different people or for the cities they live in, and it is neither fair nor possible to cage them in an all-encompassing definition. A way to do this, someone suggested, could be to determine the basic requirements of a city, while setting parameters and benchmarking for various heads under the vision for smart cities. Intuitive public service delivery – in line with the prime minister’s definition of a smart city as “one that keeps at least two steps ahead of citizens’ expectations” – found varying resonance in the day’s deliberations. An enabling, purely basic infrastructure seemed to be a concern for many of the participants, and not just the brick and mortar kind. Concern about the open-mindedness and receptiveness of the bureaucracy in charge of making the smallest of differences in the lives of the people they serve seemed to mirror an equally important concern: that of smarter citizens responsible enough to appreciate the difference and the move toward a smarter city. Many interventions also centered on the slips between ideas and execution, and the subsequent fragmentation of this execution itself. Often, the simplest of plans get split between a plethora of departments, each left to the mercy of a series of signatures on files that take an eternity to make the journey between a plan and its realisation. Knowing and, thus, clearly defining the entire chain of services, and corresponding responsibilities for each area of intervention, was suggested as a way forward when it comes to smart cities. How do governments get the attention of citizens? Elaborate plans and grandiose missions will not whip up the desired enthusiasm unless people – right down to the bottom of the pyramid –clearly know the potential of such programmes to change their lives. Also, there were a series of ideas on adapting to the Indian context, right from a different approach to a city-tailored plan for urban mobility, cheaper housing, jail reforms, citizen engagement and a universal public grievance logging and response system. The day ended with an Open House on Smart Cities, with everyone free to share ideas, ask questions or comment on absolutely anything to do with these "smart-er" cities. Those who stayed with us till the end did not disappoint, and I thank everyone I met or spoke to in Jaipur, and especially those who made the time to join us, for helping us kickstart our 'Enabling Smart Cities' series of state-level conferences. Thanks for flagging us off as we now take the discussion to Gujarat. We'll be seeing you again very soon!