Even before an official announcement was made, a fight has already erupted between the contenders.
The recent announcement that a hundred “smart” cities will be created across the country has set the dovecotes aflutter. As political announcements without substance usually do.
The project has a high chance of success as nobody seems to have asked for it and nobody knows what it really means. The genius of the scheme can be judged from the mere fact that it did not promise to create seventy three “smart” cities. It also did not promise to create one hundred and sixteen “smart” cities. It has set out to create exactly one hundred “smart” cities. It is a clear sign that it is based neither on need, nor on any research or study.
The Medieval-era mystic, saint and poet Amir Khusro is said to have written about Kashmir, “Agar Firdaus bar rui zamin ast, u hamin ast, u hamin ast, u hamin ast” translated to, “If there be a Heaven on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this”. If he were alive today, he may well have waxed forth, “if there be a project destined to succeed on Earth, it is this, it is this, it is this”, in chaste Farsi (Persian) of course, the language he preferred for his verse.
It reinforces the courage of political leaders in taking the difficult decisions they have taken in the past, braving ridicule and protest. Of repeatedly permitting slums and shanties to mushroom in all major cities, right under their collective noses, as they looked the other way. Of permitting millions of people to live without basic amenities like water, electricity and sanitation while charging them taxes. Of regularising these colonies each time an election was around the corner, for the next unauthorised colony to start rising immediately thereafter. Had these difficult decisions not been taken, the dream of creating a hundred “smart” cities would have remained just that, a dream.
It reinforces the vibrancy of our democracy by sending out an unambiguous message to people to exercise their right to vote. If they don’t vote, how will they elect such governments that make such promises?
Political leadership of the country, cutting across party and ideology lines, stands together as one in telling people that they, the political leadership, have no time to waste on creating a fair and transparent environment where people get just reward for efforts; where there is rule of law that facilitates organic growth; and where cities develop in a manner desired and dreamt of by people who live in it. They will continue to bow to the demands placed on them by our democratic traditions, and reward the faithful by bestowing political largesse, drawn from them as taxes, back to them, periodically, in order that they can feel beholden.
As the criteria for selection has not been specified, there is rejoicing across the length and breadth of the country. There is even more rejoicing across the length and breadth of the country because what is meant by a “smart” city has also not been specified.
There is excited “chai pe charcha” (discussion over tea) all around on the subject. Will my “smart” city look like Bangalore? Can we really all but destroy a once pristine environment in one generation? Is it even possible to do it again? Or will my “smart” city be like Gurgaon? Can we really build another modern, planned city right from scratch in twenty years, and still ensure that the water table plunges, electricity is in short supply, parking cannot be found for love or money, and there are bars and restaurants at every nook and corner, as every “smart” city must have.
And there is still more rejoicing across the length and breadth of the country as people will now not have to take responsibility for the development of their cities. Apart from their municipal authorities, they will now also have the central government to blame. What more can citizens of “unsmart” cities ask for?
The deal has been made that much sweeter by the government insisting on replacing the current municipal officialdom with a professional municipal cadre.
Really? Could one ever have guessed that there was a professional municipal cadre, straining at the leash, waiting to be let loose on “smart” cities, to solve all their problems, that has been kept hidden away in the corridors of bureaucracy, while the current officialdom gnaws away at the bulwark of functional cities? A cadre, despite being drawn from the same source, trained in the same manner, and responsible to the same set of self-seeking superiors, that would behave in an entirely different manner. And, of course, this cadre can be let loose only on the “smart” cities.
Since ours is a rich culture which prohibits corrupting foreign influences, especially when it threatens us and our agendas, we have to invite Singapore, Toulouse and Tel Aviv to set-up these “smart” cities for us. In addition, an American organisation which has the word “Philanthropies” in its name has been roped in to identify the cities.
Major builders are salivating at the prospects the “smart” city project presents to their ilk. Efficient public transport, abundant power and water, clean environment, a technology backbone for all services may still be debated as to them being rightful constituents of “smart” cities, but the presence of grotesque looking glass and concrete buildings with inadequate parking and zero accessibility in a “smart” city, alongwith elevated and tunnelled roads to ease the traffic woes created by the lack of planning, no person in his right mind would question.
With this achievement, of the announcement, under their belt, the political leadership is already looking ahead to the next project. A senior leader, in a moment of weakness, revealed that to a close confidante. On seeing the quizzical look in the eyes of the listener, the leader clarified, “You see Delhi. It was expected that pollution levels will come down once metro is introduced. Also, transport woes will ease. But, has there been any change? What does one do now? One cannot rest on one’s laurels. That would be cheating the public who has reposed their trust in us and put us in this position. If we don’t keep showing them a brighter future that will never be attained, how will we ever repay our debt to them?”
“Hence, we are preparing to launch the ‘smarter’ city project soon”, he revealed.
The erstwhile “smart” cities, meanwhile, continue their inexorable march towards becoming “smarting” cities.
The fight between contenders continues to intensify. It is not clear if cities fighting for inclusion are “smarter” or the ones fighting for exclusion are.