In less than a month, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ambitious Smart City Mission will complete two years. The release of the Swach Survekshan 2017 report, ranking India’s cleanest cities, is perhaps the precursor to a flurry of “achievements” under the Mission which will undoubtedly follow. If nothing else, the Smart City programme has certainly improved monitoring of certain basic civic parameters. The release of clean city rankings also serves to generate some healthy competition among civic bodies to aspire to a better quality of life for the citizens they serve. Perhaps, the biggest takeaway from the Survey is that smaller cities are smarter than the large metros in the matter of cleanliness and management of urban waste. Of the top ten cleanest cities, eight, including the top five, are so-called Tier-2 cities with the New Delhi Municipal Corporation area and Navi Mumbai being the only exceptions. Granted that it is easier to manage a smaller town than a major urban sprawl, but when one looks at the state of our metros it is clear that what they lack is a holistic approach to development and that includes cleanliness as much as urban amenities and infrastructure. For many of our civic planners, the idea of urban development appears to be limited to creating showpiece infrastructure such as metros and malls, with little focus on actually improving the liveability quotient of our cities.
The Smart City Mission is a laudable programme, but it has some shortcomings. Perhaps, the biggest is the narrow focus on infrastructure. While civic infrastructure, even in the largest of our cities definitely requires major improvement, merely creating infrastructure is not enough to make our cities ‘smart’ or more liveable. Delhi’s world-class metro system, for instance, has neither solved the city’s mobility problems nor put a dent in its traffic and pollution levels. That’s because the concomitant steps which ought to have been taken to leverage its benefits fully — efficient and affordable last-mile connectivity from and to the network, adequate park-and-ride facilities and even behavioural change initiatives to alter the average Delhiite’s notion that public transport is infra dig — simply did not happen.
This might be an opportune moment for the Centre to pause and reset the focus of the Mission. Improving urban waste management, or building bicycle tracks or pushing e-governance are all laudable goals. But a piecemeal approach will not lead to sustainble solutions. Given the forces which drive urbanisation in India — poverty and a desire for a better quality of life — no city, smart or otherwise, can thrive if the poor and the marginalised are excluded.