Somewhere in the midst of reading about the governments plans to dispense Rs 100 crore per year per city to build a constellation of smart cities, I realised that I had no idea what a smart city was. Looking out of my office offered no clues. Where there used to be frangipani trees 18 months ago, there is for now a defunct exit to a long-delayed metro station. The construction area for the past several months has been such a chaotic mess of rusting steel rods and bulwarks dumped hither and thither that I began to imagine that gigantic demons inhabited the place by night and turned the place into a battleground while we were asleep at home.
The site had very little by way of a protective wall or scaffolding that you see even in other ancient civilisations in a hurry to be modern such as China or tiny Cambodia to protect pedestrians from assorted shrapnel, welding sparks and dust; instead, broken sheets of tin and torn jute curtains suggested more the boundaries of a slum than a metro in the making. When the road rollers near the site were used at such high speeds that our editorial meetings were disrupted by the ground shaking beneath our feet, I protested. A polite engineer from Larsen & Toubro assured me that no structural damage to the building had occurred.
Now, all is calm sort of. Two weird eight-foot lamps that you might associate with a photo studio stand outside my window near a filthy floor-polishing machine. Piles of unused granite tiles lie around and there is rubble and dust everywhere. There is no sign of a train, however, because inexplicably Delhi Metro built only a single track to the station the norm is at least two for safety reasons and has been denied permission to start operations.
After this dispiriting experience, I am unsure I can spell the word smart, so I searched on Google for words that mean the opposite. Look up antonyms.com and the offerings include slovenly, shabby and dunderheaded all of which, especially dunderheaded, are better descriptions of the Indian city, circa 2015, than smart. If we are to change this country and no government has seized this challenge more energetically if occasionally alarmingly than the current one we need to get the language right. Obsessing about rising from our pitiful position of 142nd? 145th? 171st? on the ease of doing business rankings is fine. But, given the haze of permissions required to, say, open a new restaurant and the umpteen clarifications needed on double taxation avoidance agreements, what we should be saying is that India is seeking to reduce the misery of running a business here.
As for smart cities, last week, I was in Ahmedabad, which ahead of last years election I imagined to be a Singapore on the Sabarmati. Its a fascinating, energetic place but it could benefit hugely from the widespread introduction of traffic lights. On Thursday night, I very nearly missed a flight because I was stuck at a huge intersection at Lal Darwaja near Cama Motors, where the right of way is settled by shoving your car in front of oncoming traffic and blocking it because there are no traffic lights. The Sabarmati, meanwhile, had a giant Ferris wheel beside it, but the light illuminated algae colonising the stagnant water. The swank looking bus rapid transit system is characterised by mostly empty buses. The city also has more than its share of litter although from Bengaluru to New Delhi itself, this country faces a mounting garbage crisis because most of us will not even separate our trash, expecting someone else to do it for us.
Come to think of it, there is only one model city and that is the 26 sq km of Lutyens Delhi, where our bureaucrats and politicians reside. It ought to be declared a World Heritage site because it so ably preserves the manner in which colonial rulers lived. The roads are like boulevards in another country. Road dividers are repainted so regularly that they exude a smug, semi-permanent glow. The Delhi Gymkhana Club sits on countless acres of subsidised land. While attending the election of the president last September (with observer status, as I am not a member) in which a senior civil servant retained his position after a spirited battle with a former Indian Police official, I ate more than my share of delicate chicken sandwiches and mini shammi kebabs while waiting for the results.
Lutyens Delhi is a kind of Neverland. Regardless of which party is in power, its imperial privileges neither become politically unfashionable nor grow old. Even the saintly Arvind Kejriwal chose to extend his stay in official accommodation there for longer than his first 49-day government had lasted because his daughter had exams. While citizens elsewhere must invest in mini power generators and endure power cuts for hours, in Lutyens Delhi the lights go out so rarely that a torch is unnecessary. The water travels miles, but the supply is completely reliable. Elsewhere in Delhi, women in slums endure health care standards worse than those in parts of Africa, according to a new report. Not even in Beijing do the rulers live a life so removed from the rest of the population. If you have the good fortune to walk on its spotless sidewalks, every so often liveried sentries will order you to step aside as they push open a gate. A preening front lawn of an acre or two will be visible, and you will conclude that Lutyens Delhi is the smartest city of all.
Source: Business Standard
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14 August 2017
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