Event Reports

Can smart cities solve our urbanisation problems?

Are smart cities the panacea for the increasing urbanisation problems in India? Question asked the Modi government is speeding up its smart city mission.

Smart Cities,Smart City Mission,Urbanisation

Are smart cities the panacea for the increasing urbanisation problems in India? This question is being increasingly asked even as the Modi government is speeding up its smart city mission.

During a workshop on ‘Smart Cities’ in Kolkata, co-organised by Observer Research Foundation and the Heidelberg University, Germany, on August 9, 2016, scholars raised this question while some others emphasised on the need to use the new technologies, especialy IT, to find solutions to many issues.

Discussing the issue of inclusive cities in one of the sessions, scholars felt that though from a theoretical and historical point of view, the idea of smart cities appears as very promising, but in reality it is a utopian experiment. It was argued that smart cities may also lead to social polarisation which subsequently engenders social mistrust, violence and so on she explained. And it is because of these aspects that there are debates on the issue of inclusion of which a very neglected aspect is environmental inclusion. This primarily deals with urban rootedness interacting with the wider ecological interface. One of the most vital questions that one can therefore ask is how can history and political ecology make us conscious about theoretical approaches and frameworks? It is in this respect that urban environmental history assumes importance because it introduces concepts and heuristic devices to assess the urban ecological framework.

Attention was drawn to the fact that the idea of smart cities is basically a Western concept, meant for cities driven by information technology and whether they were suitable for India needs to be considered. It was observed that being ‘smart’ and ‘inclusive’ requires intervention at four levels — policy and legislative levels, at the state and city level, in participatory processes and finally in capacity building, Housing was emphasised as an important sector in the smart cities concept,  since it is  a unique private good with immense social, economic and environmental impact. However, the quantum of housing provided by the public sector is low. Housing shortage is highest among the urban poor constituting about 95 percent. Hence, being inclusive in this regard would necessitate inclusion spatially, economically and socially.

The speakers included Dr. Jenia Mukherjee, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur Dr. Mahalaya Chatterjee, Professor and Director, Centre for Urban Economic Studies, Department of Economics, University of Calcutta, and Ms. Anindita Mukherjee and Mr. Naveen Potti, GIZ, Delhi. This session was moderated by Prof. Ranabir Samaddar, Distinguished Chair in Migration and Forced Migration Studies, Calcutta Research.

The discussions in the session were diverse, varying from theoretical and historical point of view to the idea of smart cities to urbanisation leading to disparities of different types, and, finally, the kinds of interventions required for making cities smart and inclusive. Elaborating on the statement of different types of disparities which can be classified into regional, interstate and intrastate, the characteristics of such disparities were examined in the state of West Bengal.

The session ended by underscoring eight aspects of the New Urban Agenda in India which comprise the promotion of inclusive urban growth, strengthening of local governance, boosting the information and knowledge management systems, cooperative federalism, social justice and gender equality, harmonising agglomeration economies, providing finance for housing and infrastructure and finally, the complexities of the rural urban continuum.

Earlier, the workshop was kicked off by Mr. Ashok Dhar, Director, ORF Kolkata, while the inaugural address was delivered by Mr. Olaf Iverson, Consul General of the German Mission, and the keynote address by Mr. Debashis Sen, Additional Chief Secretary, Urban Development Department, Govt. Of West Bengal, and Chairman, Office of the New Town Kolkata Development Authority.

Setting the background for the sessions ahead, the  deliberations in the inaugural session centered out on:

  • Conceptualisation  the phrase ‘Smart Cities’ and its key components,
  • Green Cities Mission of the state of West Bengal and its attributes,
  • Concept of Smart City Plus, an approach adopted in the state of West Bengal
  • The lacunae in following area based approach as mentioned in the Smart Cities mission of the Government of India, which was felt to be limited in its scope and reach
  • The importance of networks in sharing experiences of the potentially smart cities around the world, and
  • The role of leadership in creating a vision  which catches the imagination of all the stakeholders in a city and brings them together; a vision that encompasses economic, social and environmental values.

Taking the broader ideas of inaugural session ahead, the first interactive session on smart transportation emphasised on strengthening people, public participation (PPP) for achieving the goals of ‘Smart City Mission’ of the Government of India.  The session speakers were Dr. Jiban Chakraborty, former Additional Secretary, Transport Department, Government of West Bengal and current Secretary, West Bengal Electricity Regulatory Commission, Prof. Arunava Dasgupta, Head, Department of Urban Design, School of Planning and Architecture, Delhi, and Mr. Dipankar Bhattacharjee, Research Scholar, University of Calcutta. The session was chaired by Dr. Nilanjan Ghosh, Senior Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata. It was recognised during the course of the discussions that the initiatives to develop smart transportation in cities can be implemented through PPP. It was argued that the improvements in public transportation will not only increase public mobility but would also help in decongesting city roads, and, possibly, reduce the frequency of fatal road accidents. However, these targets necessitate behavioural changes as well, which would require, among other things, sensitising people, especially, the future generation about road safety and value of human life. Modernisation of,  and, an addition to the existing infrastructure in the form of  transport hubs, central bus terminals, utilisation of tramways, creation of unobstructed footpaths for walking and cycling are some of the initiatives that can improve mobility of the residents. The role of technology in providing efficient solutions to the problems of lack of access and availability were also reviewed. Through the discussions, advancements in technology were even viewed to find solutions to a city’s solid waste management which can prove to be both time-efficient and cost-effective. Reference was made of the Global Positioning System (GPS) as one of such technological innovations which can help in improving solid waste management in a city. For instance, smart bins combined with GPS can boost collection of data, performance analysis, plan collection, etc. To substantiate the argument, reference was made of the four Indian states (Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Rajasthan and Tamil Nadu) that are now using geospatial technology for good governance and efficient management. Furthermore, a case was made for installing GPS in public transport that would not only increase economic efficiency but will make real time tracking of buses easier, facilitate vehicle health monitoring system, intelligent road asset management, and traffic mapping, thus paving  way for a smart city.

Session three on ‘urban infrastructure planning’ started with deliberations on the concept plan for smart cities. A city model, which is not claimed to be technologically advanced, but can be superimposed on an existing city layout without demanding additional land, which is always in short supply, was presented. The model envisioned a better quality of life by strengthening neighbourhoods and spending quality time with friends and family. A model that claims to  reduce: car movement, crowding of public vehicles, time to travel to work and back with offices at the periphery that allows for flexible time,  offices to be connected to head quarters  through internet, etc. Less dependence on public and private transport that also helps in reducing traffic congestion and pollution, easy access to public utilities, access to information, payment of bills online, receipts of permissions and approvals. The presentations in this session were made by Mr. Partha Ranjan Das, architect, Partha Das and Associates, Prof. Subhasis Neogi, Director, School of Energy Studies, Jadavpur University, Mr. Joy Karmakar, Research Scholar, University of Calcutta. The session was chaired by Mr. Radu Carciumar, Resident representative, Heidelberg Centre South Asia, German House for Research and Innovation. The session highlights were, discussions on:

  • The main objectives of a smart city,
  • The strategic components of area-based development in the Smart Cities Mission of Government of India
  • Defining energy efficient buildings and why do we need them, and
  • A review of challenges that a  smart city poses in terms of its component parts referring to Durgapur and Haldia towns of West Bengal which are proposed to be included in the current Smart Cities mission of the state of West Bengal.

The observations in the fourth session on ‘social infrastructure’ focused on the need to develop education and health as integral components of smart cities. The session speakers were Mr. Debashis Bose, Additional Secretary, Health and Family Welfare Department, Government of West Bengal, and Managing Director, West Bengal Medical Services Corporation Ltd, Dr. Sudeshna Basu Mukherjee, Associate Professor, Department of Sociology, University of Calcutta, and Prof. Kajri Misra, Dean, Xavier School of Rural Management (XSRM), Coordinator, Urban Management and Governance programmes, Xavier University Bhubaneswar (XUB), chaired by Dr. Dhrubajyoti Ghosh, Regional Chair for South Asia, Commission on Ecosystem Management, International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Features and benefits of various ICT interventions in health possibilities in smart cities were presented by giving examples of five such ICT applications introduced in some of the hospitals in West Bengal since 2014. Further, innovations that have been introduced in the realm of education in the past two decades that included amenities such as photocopying, online library, online availability of term papers, dissertations and research papers, online coaching with YouTube lectures, etc., were reminded to the audience. In discussing the limitations of smart healthcare, emphasis was laid on the need to evolve specific measures for elderly people with high disease susceptibility and suffering from hearing and visual impairments. The session discussed limitations of the smart city agenda arising mainly due to possible human problems that a smart city could aggravate. In this context, the issue of social and economic inequalities that came about as a result of who has access to communication technology and how they use it was outlined, and, finally, inefficiency of the legal framework to ensure protection of rights of the citizens who have their data collected and stored by private sector was also mentioned. In crux, the rationale of developing smart cities was also challenged. An urgent need for greater participation of the citizens in city planning apart from the involvement of other key actors such as city planners, architects, policy analysts and city managers was felt. Concerted action from the people with relevant understanding, sensibilities and skills was called for.

The concluding session revisited the concept and scope of a smart city. The phrase ‘Smart City’ is an interdisciplinary and a multifaceted concept. It encompasses a variety of projects. Realising the diversity of cultures, ethnicity, economic classes in a city, the speakers in this session deliberated on the underlying challenges that planners and implementing agencies have to cope up with in achieving the goals of equity and sustainability. The speakers in the concluding session were the session chairs from each respective session. While there was a unanimous view on the importance of the ‘Smart City Mission’ of the government of India, development of hinterlands was realised as one of the key strategies for taking the Smart City initiative forward. Strengthening of village economy through market networks was realised as one of the steps towards reducing urban population pressure. Realising the benefits of creating right market linkages between urban and rural areas through the use of Information Technology (IT) mechanisms, the speakers duly acknowledged the role that IT sector can play in developing hinterlands, and  reducing the role of intermediaries that distort prices.

The workshop ended on a hope that initiatives like the present workshop would facilitate exchange of ideas, modalities on to how to overcome the challenges that accompany the notion of a smart city. Dr. Preeti Kapuria, Associate Fellow, ORF Kolkata   delivered the vote of thanks. The overarching goal of the workshop was to understand how contemporary and future challenges can be addressed efficiently or smartly so that goals of sustainability and quality are achieved in a desirable manner and that there is a holistic improvement in the quality of life of different sections of the society. We need to critically assess the challenges and improve our policies and projects from time-to-time so that we make better informed policy recommendations and decisions.

This report is prepared by Dr. Preeti Kapuria, Associate Fellow, ORF Kolkata.