Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE -

SMART IS AS smart does.The nda gov­ern­ment’s pro­posal to build 100 “smart” cities will work only if it can rein­vent the very idea of ur­ban growth in a coun­try like In­dia. Smart think­ing will re­quire the gov­ern­ment to not only copy the model cities of the al­ready de­vel­oped Western world, but also find a new mea­sure of live­abil­ity that will work for In­dian sit­u­a­tion, where the cost of growth is un­af­ford­able for most.

The ad­van­tage is that there is no agreed def­i­ni­tion of smart city. Very loosely it is seen as a set­tle­ment where tech­nol­ogy is used to bring about ef­fi­ciency in re­source use and im­prove­ment in the level of ser­vices. All this is needed.But be­fore we can bring in smart tech­nol­ogy, we need to know what to do with it.How do we build new cities and re­pair groan­ing ur­ban set­tle­ments to pro­vide clean wa­ter to all, to man­age the grow­ing moun­tains of garbage, to treat sewage be­fore we de­stroy our rivers and to do some­thing as ba­sic as breath­ing with­out in­hal­ing tox­ins?

It can be done. But only if we have our own dream of a mod­ern In­dian city. We can­not turn Ghazi­abad, Ra­jkot, Sho­la­pur, Tumkur or even Gur­gaon into Shang­hai or Sin­ga­pore. But we can turn th­ese cities into live­able mod­els for oth­ers to em­u­late.

Take wa­ter, sewage, mo­bil­ity or air pol­lu­tion.The cur­rent model of re­source man­age­ment, de­vel­oped in rich Western cities, is costly.It can­not be af­forded by all. Even th­ese cities can­not re­build the para­pher­na­lia for pro­vid­ing ser­vices to their peo­ple.This sys­tem was built years ago, when the city had funds and grew grad­u­ally with re­cur­ring, high in­vest­ment. Even if we were to build green­field cities, we can­not wish for such in­vest­ment.We need a new ap­proach to hu­mane ur­ban growth.

The first prin­ci­ple in this is to ac­cept that we have to re­new what al­ready ex­ists. Take wa­ter, for ex­am­ple. Our cities have been built to op­ti­mise on the avail­able re­sources. They were smart in build­ing lakes and ponds to har­vest ev­ery drop of rain. This en­sured that the city recharged its wa­ter ta­ble and did not face floods ev­ery time it rained.We need to re­vive that sys­tem.It may not be ad­e­quate to meet the grow­ing needs of the city, but will cut costs by re­duc­ing the length of the pipe­line and bring down dis­tri­bu­tion losses. Once we do this, we should add the smartest tech­nol­ogy for mea­sur­ing sup­ply and for re­duc­ing de­mand. Flush toi­lets are an­ti­quated.We need smart ap­pli­ances to con­serve wa­ter and smart ways to re­cy­cle it.

This then is the next agenda. We know our cities do not have un­der­ground sew­er­age to speak of. A very un­smart thing to do would be to fall into the trap of civil en­gi­neers to build sew­er­age net­work. Delhi, which has the high­est net­work of sew­er­age lines (some 5,000 km), needs to build an­other 10,000 km to meet the need of its cur­rent pop­u­la­tion. Now, know­ing that the ex­ist­ing net­work, built over a cen­tury, is al­ready clogged and bro­ken, the task is im­pos­si­ble.

We know our cities used sep­tic tanks or open drains for sewage man­age­ment. So in­stead of bury­ing th­ese drains, the aim should be to treat sewage in th­ese chan­nels and to re­use the re­cy­cled wa­ter. Use the tra­jec­tory of the mo­bile phone; build future solutions by skip­ping the land­line.

We can do this in the case of en­ergy as well. To­day, our cities are pam­pered by sub­sidy be­cause en­ergy cost is high and sup­ply is squeezed.Why can’t we build a new grid for the city based on so­lar rooftop gen­er­a­tion and su­per en­ergy-ef­fi­cient ap­pli­ances?

This should also be the ap­proach for de­sign­ing mo­bil­ity. Our cities have been built to be car-free. We are now des­per­ately shov­ing, push­ing and park­ing ve­hi­cles down the nar­row lanes. Think smart. Change the idea of mo­bil­ity it­self—build for walk­ing, cy­cling, bus and metro.

So we can only build smart cities if we are smart. Re­ally smart.

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