Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE -

MANY YEARS ago, when Delhi’s air pol­lu­tion was as high as it is to­day, my col­league Anil Agar­wal and I had gone to meet a high-rank­ing, re­spon­si­ble govern­ment of­fi­cial. This was in the mid-1990s, when air was black be­cause we did not even have the most rudi­men­tary fuel qual­ity and emis­sion con­trols. The of­fi­cial was gen­uinely stumped by our de­mand that govern­ment should take steps to con­trol run­away pol­lu­tion. He kept ask­ing, “But is Delhi re­ally pol­luted?” I was equally flum­moxed; air was foul and black. How could he miss it?

Then I re­alised that his world was not mine to see. He trav­elled from his home, lo­cated in lux­u­ri­antly green Lu­tyens’ Delhi—also known as the New Delhi Mu­nic­i­pal Coun­cil ( ndmc), where govern­ment re­sides—to his of­fice, also in the same ver­dant sur­round­ings. Nowhere did he see any dirt; nowhere did he smell the air. And as it was not seen, it could not ex­ist, so noth­ing needed to be done.

This in­ci­dent came to my mind when I read that the Govern­ment of In­dia had de­cided to se­lect New Delhi—Lu­tyens’ Delhi—for the smart city makeover. Un­der this scheme, 20 cities have been se­lected based on “rig­or­ous” cri­te­ria to im­prove ur­ban liv­ing. The Govern­ment of In­dia will now pro­vide funds and ex­per­tise to make the city “smart”—de­fined as in­no­va­tive ap­proaches to im­prove­ment in ur­ban ser­vices. This means that the govern­ment will spend on fa­cil­i­ties to make its own liv­ing area even bet­ter and more re­moved from the squalor, poverty and pol­lu­tion of the rest of In­dia.

The an­nounce­ment declar­ing New Delhi Mu­nic­i­pal Coun­cil a win­ner of the smart city chal­lenge came when the rest of Delhi was drown­ing in ur­ban waste. Mu­nic­i­pal work­ers had de­clared a strike al­leg­ing non-pay­ment of their dues. The con­trast be­tween where the govern­ment lives and where the rest of the cit­i­zens live could not have been more ev­i­dent and strik­ing. The fact that the govern­ment was now in­vest­ing even more to make its own world bet­ter is a damn­ing in­dict­ment of its non-in­clu­sive ap­proach to ur­ban In­dia.

Just think. This is In­dia’s gated com­mu­nity of elite ac­cess. Of the to­tal land area of Delhi, Lu­tyens’ city—named af­ter the Bri­tish ur­ban plan­ner and con­structed to re­flect the grandeur of the colo­nial state—is only three per cent. The Govern­ment of In­dia owns over 80 per cent of the land, in­clud­ing the build­ings in the Lu­tyens zone. No democ­racy is at work here. The ndmc is a coun­cil and not a cor­po­ra­tion, so it is headed not by an elected rep­re­sen­ta­tive but by a bu­reau­crat.

It is also a par­a­site of a city; it has the high­est wa­ter foot­print as com­pared to any other part of In­dia. Its daily per capita wa­ter sup­ply is 462 litres, while in other parts of the same city peo­ple get below 30 litres. Even as per govern­ment’s own norms, which spec­ify high­est wa­ter sup­ply as 150 litres per capita per day, this is ex­ces­sive, in­deed glut­tonous and waste­ful. This wa­ter in­equity is shame­ful and should have, in fact, dis­qual­i­fied Lu­tyens’ Delhi from any smart city chal­lenge in my view.

It is also highly land-ex­trav­a­gant. While the city of Delhi has been im­plod­ing with a decadal growth rate of al­most 50 per cent, the ndmc area is so priv­i­leged that it has a neg­a­tive decadal growth rate of 2 per cent, ac­cord­ing to its own sub-zonal plan. In other words, peo­ple are not wel­come in this gated city. In this city of In­dia, over 30 per cent of the land is un­der recre­ational pur­poses. This is so out of sync with the rest of the city and in­deed the rest of In­dia that is fight­ing for its inches of green spa­ces. But even with all this land, the gated city of ndmc does not man­age its own waste. This is sent to the rest of Delhi’s land­fills. Its land is too pre­cious for its waste. It does a lot of “cute” stuff like seg­re­ga­tion of waste and even in­volves rag pick­ers in col­lect­ing waste from house­holds. But the bulk of its waste goes to Okhla, where the compost plant is dys­func­tional, and the rest to Delhi’s over­flow­ing Ghazipur land­fill. This is when it has no short­age of funds as govern­ment spends on it­self with­out any ques­tions. New Delhi is not a smart city for all th­ese rea­sons. It is cer­tainly not a city that can be repli­cated in the rest of In­dia. It is re­source-in­ef­fi­cient, highly in­iq­ui­tous and highly en­vi­ron­men­tally un­prin­ci­pled. This is not what smart cities should stand for.

For­mer New York mayor and bil­lion­aire Michael Bloomberg’s foun­da­tion, Bloomberg Phi­lan­thropies, is govern­ment’s knowl­edge part­ner for the Smart Cities Ini­tia­tive. This ini­tia­tive will de­fine what smart cities will mean for In­dia and what we must as­pire to. It is im­por­tant for this rea­son alone that they must choose wisely. The sym­bols of In­dia’s ur­ban re­newal can­not be cities for the elite and by the elite. This is not smart—not by a long shot.



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