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Smart cities okay but where are the smart citizens?

Last updated on: July 09, 2015 12:08 IST



Electronic fund transfers alone do not make a city smart; proper civic behaviour is also required to complement the effort, notes Barun Roy

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative to develop 100 urban areas in the country as smart cities is certainly a welcome move.

But smart cities cannot just be wished into existence.

Electronic fund transfers or payment systems alone do not make a city smart.

They require proper civic behaviour to complement the effort.

So, the real question we should be asking is, are our citizens smart enough as well?

Are they mindful of their responsibility?

Unfortunately, one cannot say that’s yet the case.

Indians have a strange notion that homes and public places are two separate things.

We like to keep our homes neat and tidy, but treat public places as dustbins.

How often do we see people lowering car windows and tossing paper cups, tissues, crumpled wrappers, orange peels, and other such things out on the road?

Or two drivers suddenly pulling up side by side and arguing about god knows what, giving two hoots to traffic?

Soon, there is a cacophony of loud, frantic honking.

Then there is a scramble of cars stalled behind trying to cut lanes and get going again, creating a traffic mess.

The answer to my questions has to be: All the time.

A city cannot be called smart unless its public places are free of litter, too -- personal litter like cigarette butts, sanitary napkins, wires, rubber bands, or municipal litter like stone chips and spilled garbage, unpicked for days, even months.

Its roads have to be easily passable, free of potholes and unnecessary obstructions.

But that’s still not true of most Indian cities.

There was one slogan I used to hear even as a young boy: ‘There’s no gain without pain.” I am now 78, but the pain still continues.

Law is one thing, enforcement on the ground is quite another. That’s the real change agent.

I found that out on my first visit to Singapore in 1970.

Five years earlier, the island had separated from Malaysia and declared its independence.

What is now Singapore’s central business district was still dotted with slum tenements.

The government was trying hard to develop it in a clean and green manner and enforcement of its laws was already noticeably in place.

My wife and I were visiting the island republic from Kuala Lumpur, where I was based as a working journalist on a two-year assignment.

Things were not so rigid in KL and minor lapses wouldn’t matter.

One day, we were out sightseeing and came across a peanut vendor on the side of a pavement.

We thought we would have some boiled peanuts, bought a pack, and started peeling the shells and dropping them on the pavement.

The vendor immediately asked us to pick them up, otherwise we’d be fined nothing less than 500 Singaporean dollars for the offence.

There was a similar fine, he said, for using a public toilet and leaving without flushing. I hurriedly picked up our litter without any argument.

There are certain basic points one should remember before a city can be called smart. First and foremost, it should have mobility.

In many Indian cities, there are no proper off-road parking facilities, forcing cars to be parked along kerbside.

This creates unwanted traffic jams.

Besides, roads are often potholed, unevenly repaired, or full of unnecessary speed breakers.

All this reduces a city’s mobility.

Secondly, cities should be more walk-friendly. Sidewalks should be reserved for pedestrians, not hawkers.

There are cities where almost entire sidewalks have been taken over by all kinds of peddlers, leaving only a slice in the middle for people to move along.

It’s not an easy passage. People have to jostle with one another to be able to move and are even forced to step on to roadways, braving reckless traffic, to pass by.

That’s not the criterion of a smart city.

Thirdly, cities should be hygienic.

There are still cities where people draw water, wash dishes, or fill up bottles from kerbside stand pipes or pipes in sunken pits while dirty water flows along gutters and garbage floats nearby.

It’s a sickening scene even to look at, absolutely unbecoming of a smart city.

In the end, it’s disciplined civilian behaviour that makes a city smart.

Nothing else will work, nothing at all.

The image is used for representational purpose only; Photograph: Reuters

Barun Roy
Source: source image