Make the ‘Smart City’ picture crystal clear

So the Smart City resolution was passed in the BMC without much of a fuss. The Shiv Sena, which had raised objections, laid down some conditions and still want a few provisions about the composition of the management structure, but did not in the end stop the resolution from going through. Now planning will begin on it soon.

Do we need a Smart City in Mumbai (or in this case, a part of Mumbai)? Mumbai runs reasonably well compared to other cities but things could be much better. As every Mumbaikar knows, commuting daily can take a heavy toll and as the city expands further and further to the north and north-east and distances to place of work increase, the nightmare of travel increases proportionately. Add to that the high cost of living—rents, prices, lack of schools and hospitals— and one can imagine the plight of most citizens.

SENA has a point when it criticises the Smart City concept. It is not just that the city could be autonomously run, managed by a corporation, or at the very least a local government—it is also that corporates could begin to have a greater say in its running. The idea should be to improve things, not try out one more administrative organisation and certainly not in which the people have no say.

In such a scenario, any attempt by the government to improve conditions can only be welcome. The addition of more infrastructure and places of leisure, such as gardens and entertainment centers will only make life better for the Mumbaikar. The Central government’s Smart City concept is supposed to do just that. Under it, the government will initiate a series of measures and bring about significant changes — most of them involving technology — that will make improvement in the lives of ordinary citizens. Though in Mumbai these will concentrate only in the Lower Parel area, these could have a long lasting impact which could then be implemented elsewhere.

Yet, reservations have been expressed about smart cities by several activists and experts. They are too expensive, too impractical and even too elitist. Just an investment of 100 crores is not enough; why create new smart cities, why not just fix old ones are some other questions. Now the latest salvo has been fired by the Shiv Sena, which had come out with a strong editorial against making Bombay smart.

The Sena’s objections have a familiar ring to it. It fears that the Smart City will not just drive the poor out but also that the control of the city will pass from the municipal corporation into the hands of a new administrative unit. The special purpose vehicle that is proposed to run the smart city will eventually seize control and make the civic body redundant and in the future, Mumbai will become a Union Territory—that, claims the Sena, is the BJP’s plan. Despite the clearance of the resolution, the Sena is still asking for powers to corporators and also demanding that the Mayor head the decision making process.

On the face of it, the Sena is just reacting in this manner because it fears losing control of the city via the Municipal Corporation, which it has run for over 25 years. Mumbai has deteriorated considerably in these years, for which the Sena must shoulder a lot of the blame. Poor roads, waterlogging, lack of proper garbage management—on every front, the city has become worse and the BMC seems to have simply thrown up its hands.

But look deeper and one realises that the Sena has a point when it criticises the Smart City concept. It is not just that the city could be autonomously run, managed by a corporation, or at the very least a local government—it is also that corporates could begin to have a greater say in its running. Mumbai as a self-contained unit has long been a dream of the city’s corporates. They feel that it is too big and unwieldy to be managed by one elected civic body, where corruption and political pressures ensure that nothing really worthwhile gets done. This argument may have merit, but the idea should be to improve things, not try out one more administrative organisation and certainly not in which the people have no say.

As it is, there are several — some say up to 14 — different bodies running Mumbai and only one of them, the BMC is elected. MMRDA is a good example—it more or less manages BKC and has done a good job of it, but can this model be extended to the rest of the city? Local body elections are crucial in a democracy — the job of the people’s representatives is to provide oversight and guidance to officials to manage the city. That they have not done to optimum levels is regrettable.

The concern that a Smart City will only cater to the well off is not totally exaggerated. The poor and the middle class are being nudged out by high real estate prices; a Smart City will make things more expensive since someone will have to pay for all that rapid infrastructural development.

Let the government clarify what exactly it has in mind and how it will benefit the poorest of the poor, the ordinary office-goer, the small businessman and the middle class family. At the moment all we have is grand plans and slogans. The true nature of the special purpose vehicle that will be put in place needs to be clarified—will it be in the hands of a combination of bureaucrats, politicians and corporates? Will people at the top be elected or nominated? Does this mean Mumbai will become a Union territory? If so, where does that leave the citizen? These are questions that will be asked more loudly in the coming months.

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