The second Urban Age conference in India took place in Delhi on November 14-15 and its theme was “Governing Urban Futures”.  Although it was a global conference, with experts from all over the world, the focus was the city where it was held, like the very first Urban Age meet which took place in Mumbai in 2007.  This is an initiative of the London School of Economics with the Deutsche Bank and it annually awards organisations in the city of its location, a total of $100,000 for their contributions to improving the quality of life. (The Mumbai Waterfronts Centre, of which this writer is a trustee, shared the 2007 award.)

Delhi’s current city population is 16.6 million, slightly more than that of Mumbai, while its larger metropolitan area has 23.3 million people. Urban Age’s researchers have estimated that between 2012 and 2030, the percentage increase – not in absolute terms – in income of Delhi’s residents will be among the highest of the nine global cities that it has surveyed since 2005.

However, its population will only increase by 2 per cent per annum, as against Lagos growing at 6.4 per cent per year. This could presumably mean that the capital is somewhat saturated, with declining employment opportunities. What is more, Delhi will have a young population, with four out of every ten residents below 20 years old.

The researchers have found a high degree of inequality, but a relatively low level of violent crime, measured by the murder rate – homicides per 100,000 people – in Delhi compared with Bogota. Even New York has over double the murder rate of India’s capital.

A bazaar in the heart of old Delhi. Pic: Wikimedia

Governance, the conference’s theme, means different things to different people. One index that Delhi can be proud of is a much higher turnout of voters.  As many as two out of every three voters cast their ballot at the last state elections, as against only 39 per cent in London and a low 24 per cent in New York.  Istanbul leads the contest with 89 per cent.

Appearances can be deceptive. While Delhi has a relatively low-rise urban landscape, in sharp contrast to Mumbai, it has a very high density of built-up area – 19,698 people per sq km, twice that of New York metropolitan area as well as Tokyo. As a consequence, and despite the profusion of parks and tree-lined avenues, each resident only has 2 sq m of green space, though even this is twice what a Mumbaikar has. By comparison, lower-density London and Berlin, with pocket-sized front and back gardens and many parks, have 36 sq m and 39 sq m respectively.

As one may expect, far fewer people in Delhi use public transport – only 42 per cent of daily trips, as against twice that proportion in Mumbai. The ownership of cars, viewed globally, is not all that much lower in Delhi. It has 131 cars per thousand residents, as against 307 in London and 334 in Berlin. As is well known, Delhi has more cars than the three other major Indian metros put together.

Urban Age notes that China and India will have the largest number of mega cities – with more than 10 million people each – by 2030. Today, Tokyo is the world’s largest city, with 38 million in its agglomeration, followed by Delhi, Shanghai and Mumbai. However, while Tokyo’s population will shrink in 16 years, that of the “runners-up” will continue to rise. By some estimates, the metropolitan region of Mumbai is set to top the list, though this comparison obviously depends on how one measures the footprint of any city.

How smart is a ‘smart city’?

It is against this background that the conference examined how, among many other factors, governance was more important than government. It was inevitable, given the allocation in the last budget of Rs 7,060 crores for 100 smart cities, that participants delved into what one meant by “smart”. In the conference “newspaper”, Jagan Shah, director of the National Institute of Urban Affairs, raised several questions about such governance.

He pointed out that while India’s cities are touted as generating two-thirds of the country’s GDP, the actual wealth was not so widely spread, “with a distinct big-city bias in the consumption and government spending that are key factors”. Four years ago, the McKinsey Global Institute reported that in order to sustain the country’s growth, India required to build a city of the size of Chicago every year, which is by any reckoning a tall order.

Basically, a city turns smart when it employs integrated communication technology (ICT) to improve city services. McKinsey has worked on 400 cities worldwide, including “Vision Mumbai” at the instance of Mumbai First, the corporate think-tank. It believes that a smart city envisages the deployment of integrated technologies in a complex urban area in order to provide effective basic services, increase economic productivity and activate and benefit the citizens of the city within a stable society and a sustainable environment.

Shah points to the anomaly that the poverty-ridden north-east district of Delhi has the highest population density in the country – more than 800 times the global average density, nearly 100 times the national average and over 16 times the average stipulated in the Master Plan for Delhi. Mumbai, on the other hand, has around 55 per cent of its population living in slums, by far the most of any mega city in the world.

How does a smart city cope with such massive deficits in governance? It might well only accentuate the rift, given the lack of education in the underclass and the digital divide. Not to forget, as Shah reminds us, that migration to cities has largely emanated from the rain-fed regions that comprise 60 per cent of the country’s cultivated area and are home to 200 million of the rural poor. One in four Indians cannot even access electricity, while the lack of drinking water and sanitation are universally recognised.

The UPA government had planned seven new smart cities, each home to at least two million people, which will rise up between Delhi and Mumbai as part of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC), launched in 2007. These include Dadri-Noida-Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh, Manesar-Bawal in Haryana, Khushkhera-Bhiwadi-Neemrana in Rajasthan, Ahmedabad-Dholera in Gujarat, Pithampur-Dhar-Mhow in MP and Dighi in Maharashtra. Such smart cities were visualized as greenfield industrial cities providing IBM-developed ICT.  

This has the danger of carving out an urban industrial belt as a curving scythe in the north and west of the country, leaving the central and eastern regions untouched. If by smart cities one also means that they should be just and humane, such development will not qualify. On the contrary, there may well be a massive diversion of financial and physical resources to bolster such unequal development, only worsening existing disparities between urban and rural. While cities contribute the bulk of the country’s GDP, they only comprise a third of the population today.

Why not ‘smarter’ cities?

The last session of the Urban Age conference asked whether we could contemplate building “smarter” cities. Harsh Mander raised the prospect of converting schools into shelters for street children in the 18 hours a day when they were not in use, which would require only modest funding for such conversion.  He estimated that this would benefit some 50,000 children in the national capital.

One can add hundreds of examples. When it comes to city mobility, mobile apps which track the movement of buses or the fares on auto rickshaws would help inform people using public transport. Indeed, a smart city would ensure that no major scheme for transport – such as the multi-crore coastal road now being planned for Mumbai – should be given the go-ahead unless half the beneficiaries are using buses or trains.

In Sao Paulo in 2008, this writer interviewed Jamie Lerner, the visionary who began the Bus Rapid Transit system in his town, Curitiba in Brazil. As Mayor, he introduced a system whereby rag-pickers were paid with bus tickets for every bag of waste they delivered to the authorities: a win-win, if ever there was one.

Urban Age itself has made its preference clear by choosing two Delhi NGOs to share its annual $100,000 award. The first is Goonj which recycles goods like clothes, toys, utensils and stationery which are donated to it. However, instead of handing these out as charity, it uses a “cloth-for-work” method where people working in grassroots organisations in rural areas are provided these goods in exchange for their labour.

The second winner is Chintan, which separates organic and recyclable waste. It is particularly active at the city’s long-distance railway stations, where passengers leave mounds of waste, including plastic bottles. The activity is often run by former rag-pickers, who handle as much as 3-4 tonnes every day, each earning Rs 8,500 a month. This informal processing of waste, which would otherwise land up in a rubbish dump, saves the railways Rs 10 lakh a month.

Can one think of smarter ways to run our cities, which do not conform to western formal concepts of ICT urban systems? Unfortunately, the present government, despite lip-service to ushering in cleanliness and smartness, does not recognise alternative ways of achieving such goals. The previous regime didn’t fare much better either.