Smart Cities Or Smart Infrastructure

Smart Cities Or Smart Infrastructure

by Sujeet Mishra - Monday, April 4, 2016 12:17 PM IST
Smart Cities Or Smart InfrastructureSwarajya Smart Cities Special
    • Rural-urban migration in India is happening at a humongous rate of more than 10 million every year.
    • Instead of only running after digital solutions, we should also think of how to create bigger urban clusters around the tier-II and tier-III cities to re-route the migration happening towards mega cities.
    • Meta-plan focusing on economic clusters covering many cities connected through smart transport solutions is the way forward.

Towards the climax of Jolly LLB, the protagonist-Arshad Warsi as Jagdish Tyagi from Meerut asks Saurabh Shukla, the judge that, who are these people who live under the flyovers and sleep on the streets?. In this question lies the challenge of urbanisation in India.

Another prescient observation on advanced urban infrastructure came in Jane Bhi Do Yaron (1983) one of the finest comedies which like Jolly LLB took a dig on the ‘system’, when the municipal commissioner played by young Satish Shah says on his return from ‘America’, ‘Kya baat hai America ki, udhar peeney ka pani alag our gutter ka pain alag, hum log bahut peechey hai, humein kuch karna chaihiye,’. This observation reveals reality in many of the towns in India and would be a challenge as we retrofit brownfield towns for better livability. Getting clean water.

The Municipal Commissioner while holding the ‘welcome gift’  on his return form the US , is explaining how the US is so advanced/Wikimedia
The Municipal Commissioner while holding the ‘welcome gift’  on his return form the US , is explaining how the US is so advanced/Wikimedia

to drink and clean air to breathe are fast emerging as the biggest challenges for Indian cities.

We complain at increasing congestion, pollution, poor sanitation etc in almost all cities. Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Bengaluru increasingly look like basket cases of urbanisation-and we haven’t yet put the spot light on utterly congested cities like Agra and Kanpur, where the traffic just refuses to move. How has it happened that in just past couple of decades many cities have slipped to almost unlivable status? 

As brought out here, there is massive rural-urban migration taking place which is steadily and inexorably straining our existing cities-with almost 10 million people leaving villages every year. No wonder, if you visit a city after a year, you find it dirtier, traffic slower and if you chance to be there in rainy season, you find increasing size of pools of water which can’t be drained.

Rural spaces are limited by the economic activity they can support-imperative is increased urban proportion in our demography on increasing population base. With 17% of humanity living in India, India faces an urbanisation challenge which is unprecedented on scale. 

Smartness in a Smart City

As much of the research on smart infrastructure occurs in first world, one finds that concept of smart city usually defined by digital solutions for services, utilities and governance. Unfortunately, this method sounds alien to the Kanpurs and the Agras of the country. Surely, service delivery can be done more effectively and governance standards can be improved multi-fold by de-materialisation enabled by digital infrastructure, but this doesn’t answer a certain Jagdish Tyagi. Urbanisation challenge for India is vastly different from that addressed in the first world.

Our smart urbanisation strategy must aim at:

  • Create possibilities to reduce strain on existing urban spaces,
  • Making existing urban spaces better to live in (comfort to governance)
  • Providing axes for guiding migration flows from rural to urban spaces
  • Creating population traps between rural and urban spaces
  • Arresting migration.

Redesignating the Need

The case for ‘Smart Infrastructure’ is much stronger instead of getting stuck in the trapinistry of Urban Development-MoUD), electric vehicles (Ministry of Heavy Industries-MH of definitions. We now are working on smart grids (Ministry of Power-MoP), Smart Cities (MI), National Fibre Optic Network/Bharat Net (Department of Telecom), Metro Rail (MoUD), sub-urban rail (Ministry of Railways-MoR)-all these are contributors to the total experience which we aspire as ‘smart living experience’.

Web of Ministries for Smart Infrastructure
Web of Ministries for Smart Infrastructure

However, they all are pursued under different administrative structures. There is clear and present need to have structures which can take common look at Smart Infrastructure-the administrative genius would be in creating mechanism sans turf wars.

The Indian Challenge

Challenge is to give better livability to a third of Indians who don’t live in villages. How can cities like Agra be re-planned, how can Firozabad, Shikohabad, Etawah and Mainpuri act as population trap in population flows towards NCR are the challenge to our planners.

As argued here, for the scale which we look at, we need to plan not for a city but for a cluster of them together. I proposed that we plan for an economic circle-a circle of 500 km radius with multiple cities in it. Say, we cast a circle about Lucknow-and we have Kanpur, Unnao, Firozabad, Etawah, Mainpuri, Tundla, Agra, Meerut, Ghaziabad, Allahabad, Varanasi, Barabanki, Gonda etc., just in Uttar Pradesh.

Meta plan must focus on connectivity with transport solutions drawing upon innovative rail based solutions which can substantially augment capacity of passenger linkages and hitherto unaddressed urban freight (discussed here and here). This solution would give axes where migration flows can be guided and give mechanism of generating interconnected economic opportunities, with least carbon imprint. With GST, such economic circles can span well over multiple states, serving to provide forward and backward linkages in value chains and logistics. These in turn would create effective traps in the migration flows.

As I argued here, our approach to smart electricity infrastructure has to answer unique Indian challenge of basic electricity access (including discretionary lighting), uninterrupted quality supply, cost realisation of the supplies made and progressive reduction in reliance on inverters and diesel generators-this is at fundamental variance from the way first world looks at smart electricity.

With smarter grids of transport, electricity, sewage, water, telecom, one can possibly address the question and concerns of Jagdish Tyagi.

Dr Sujeet Mishra is a railwayman and currently the OSD of the National Rail and Transportation Institute, which is in transition to become Gati Shakti Vishwavidyala, a central university.
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