By Mukta Naik
The Stein Auditorium at India Habitat Centre is half empty and it’s the hour in which conference goers are eager for lunch to be served. We are attending the CONNECTKaro 2015, an annual and global event on sustainable transport and urban development organised by EMBARQ and WRI India. An esteemed Brazilian politician is speaking about his city’s sustainable transport strategies. The audience is politely bored. He finishes and there is some scattered applause and he leaves the stage.
At that moment, something changes in the air. The hall is full in a matter of minutes, lunch is forgotten and Amit Bhatt from EMBARQ is introducing Delhi’s Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia to speak on his vision for Delhi. Mr Sisodia addresses the audience in Hindi, picking up issues important for urban development (a portfolio he currently holds, among many) and specifically for transportation which is the theme of the event. But before he does that, he spends some time talking about the idea of the smart city and what it means for Delhi. He presents a scenario in which an employed citizen is able to access amenities and live a dignified life. “Can we call a city smart if it does not provide safety and decent and affordable education and healthcare?”, he quips.
This critique of the smart city, of being overly focused on technology at the cost of inclusion, has been widely expressed by a number of experts. But by positioning the smart city discussion within the context of connections and connectivity, Mr Sisodia succeeds in putting the spotlight on the one aspect that will make or mar AAP’s performance in Delhi’s governance saga. AAP has taken the bull by its horns by focusing on the issue of inter-agency cooperation that has plagued the city for decades. Specifically, Mr Sisodia points to the coordination challenges between the AAP Delhi government, Delhi Development authority (DDA), which comes under the Union government, and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, which is controlled by the opposite political camp. Further, he went on to call Delhi an unplanned city and one that can never be planned unless the authorities work in tandem. “Consumer, citizen or human being? How do government agencies see people?,” he asks even as he accuses the DDA of having a developer’s mentality.!
Mr Sisodia’s enunciation of Delhi’s transportation woes and AAP’s proposed solutions, which include a freshly designed BRT system, a revamped public bus system, CCTV cameras and trained security marshals on buses for women’s safety and the licensing and streamlining of intermediate public transport like e-rickshaws, came under a fair amount of questioning and introspection the the Q&A session. Many experts objected to their scrapping of the existing BRT corridor, others pointed to the need for human and not merely technological solutions to issues like women’s safety, rash driving, improper parking, etc. There was a suggestion regarding the restoration of existing cycling lanes in the city, and several suggestions with regards to sustainable transport solutions from people around the world.
But the question that Mr Sisodia did not really answer was the one raised by an elderly gentleman who appeared genuine concerned: “It doesn’t seem from your statement, Mr Dy Chief Minister, that you are working towards making Delhi into a smart city? Will our aspiration to be a smart city remain just another dream?” Clearly, even without any clarity on what a smart city is, the unending possibilities unleashed by the aspirations of smartness and technological competence, are now deeply lodged in people’s minds. The smart city may well be a difficult promise to keep for the Modi-led government; for Delhi, it seems that priorities lie elsewhere and bijli, paani and women’s safety will be the mantras by which the governance game will be played for the months to come.