On ‘Smart City’: Is traditionally smart passé?


By Nidhi Batra
What is a city? Or what is urban? – This is usually one of the first questions that I ask my students in the introductory classes for the Masters in Urban Design programme in New Delhi. Every time I reflect on the definition of what is urban and what the census of India has defined it for us – I debate it in my mind, just the way Mumford would have. Is urban really defined by numbers and density or rather should it be defined by a certain ‘way of life’? Mumford writes that the city, is “a theater of social action,” and everything else – art, politics, education, commerce – only serve to make “the social drama richly significant, as a stage-set, well-designed, intensifies and underlies the gestures of the actors and the action of the play.” According to Census of India 2011, the definition of urban area is as follows: All places with a municipality, corporation, cantonment board or notified town area committee, etc. All other places which satisfied the following criteria: – A minimum population of 5,000 – At least 75% of the male main working population engaged in non-agricultural pursuits; and – A density of population of at least 400 persons per sq. km.

Inherent in this definition is the ‘path’ of urbanisation – which was massive ‘Industrialisation’ post world-war and globalization and technology in the post-Fordist societies. As a result city has been something which either houses massive industries or global swanky offices. The resultant of this laid out path of development is that everything that doesn’t lie on its linear graph is called either rural or ‘coping’ to be urban. And here comes our second and third ‘tier’ cities which till now have no such ‘job avenues’ in place and still rely on more domestic and localised economy.

There are various programmes, initiatives and schemes to help these ‘stuck’ areas to finally ‘urbanise’ themselves. And that kind of urbanisation, that is imagined can only happen through external stimuli of industry or technology to be provided in the city. These urban-like areas lie in the realm of ‘historic cities or precincts, slums and small and medium towns’ and therefore so do our development schemes in this country. Huge stress is being laid on making cities ‘smart’, in working on ‘renewal programmes’, in working on ‘slum redevelopment’ etc. But there isn’t enough stress being given on realising and reading the path of development that these areas want to take.

Various news items and propaganda from the government describes smart cities as: It’s a city which uses technology to run itself and manage resources efficiently. Everything from a smart city’s governance to its public transport network, water distribution and waste-disposal systems would use technology to provide better services to residents and make efficient use of resources. Funnily, ‘smart planning’ doesn’t figure in this definition.

Smart cities are being rolled out in such crunched timelines by the GOI, that one even wonders what such ‘quick fix’ solutions can really do for cities. With hardly any baseline studies and understanding of the context, most cities would apply the common pool of solutions of new techno aided infrastructure to combat multitude of issues. Enough time and focus is not being given to understand what the local traditional needs and knowledge resource exists in those cities that could further be structured and scaled-up to give rooted solutions.

There are umpteen examples of where modern planning has failed in many cities. Look at the city of Delhi, history tells us that all the earlier cities of Delhi including Shahjahanbad never used Yamuna as a source of drinking water. Sewage was carefully managed through on-site septage techniques and never was any waste disposed into the Yamuna. It was only when the Britishers laid out a new sewerage system for the city of Delhi and disposed the waste water directly into the Yamuna is what marked the advent of demise of this living river of Delhi. In a lecture given by renowned historian Sohail Hashmi, he pointed out that the three Delhis, all built on the bank of the Yamuna, to see if proximity to the river had in any major way altered their patterns of water consumption. The fact that none of the three cities Firozabad or Kotla Firozeshah (1350s-1388), Quila-e-Kuhna (1533-1556) and Shahjahanabad (1642-1857) were open to the river gives us some idea of their relationship with the river.

All of them were fortress cities, enclosed within a retaining wall and like their predecessors, had their own sources of water that included wells, step wells water tanks etc to meet the daily needs of the residents.

The Kotla of Firozeshah has a huge Baoli and the baoli has so much water even today that it is used to irrigate all the lush green lawns and flower beds of the fort, there could have been other wells, step wells and reservoirs that supplemented this baoli.

The Qila-e-Kuhna or Puraana Qila was located atop a hillock and taking water from the river, that flowed next to the eastern wall, would not have been feasible, not at least to meet all the requirements of the fort despite a small gate on the eastern wall that provided access to the river. The Purana Quila Baoli and the large well located next to the Hamam, both of which have water even now, could very well have been the major sources of water for the fort.

There was plenty of water inside the Red fort in the ornamental channels, waterfalls and fountains and there was plenty of water in the city as well, flowing through the canals that criss-crossed the streets, gardens and Havelis of Shahjahanabad. Surprisingly none of this was drawn from the Yamuna next door, but instead from the Jamna at Hansi, 120 miles upstream of Shahjahanabad and brought to Delhi through the engineering skills of Ali Mardan Khan. Aside from the canals there were baolis and wells that were in use till not too long ago, for instance Chhah Rehmat in Paiwalan that supplied water to Jama Masjid, Chhah Indara behind the erstwhile Majestic Cinema near the Fountain at Chandni Chowk. A few are in use even today like the Sarai More well, now outside the Delhi junction and the well inside Katra Shahanshahi in Chandni Chowk and others in many old Havelis and Katras etc.

The water from the Yamuna at Delhi was used only to fill the Moat that ran around the fort and the moat that encircled the city running along the Fasil-e-Sheher or the enclosing wall around the city.

Hashmi has highlighted how all our ‘cities’ of Delhi, were self-sufficient in the need of water supply and interestingly how none of the cities were dependent on river Yamuna for their water supply – a stark contrast to our present urban way of life. The ancient cities had their own methods and systems of reservoirs, kunds, lakes, baolis, and maybe even an old water supply pipeline from Yamuna at Hansi and not from Yamuna at Delhi for the city of Shahjahanabad! For all the seven cities of Delhi, Yamuna was never a lifeline and therefore never even a ‘waste line’. Hashmi raises a pertinent question i.e. that ‘despite more than a thousand years of urbanisation in this region, it is only in the last 200 years or so that we have begun to draw on the resources of the river and this time has been enough to kill the river’. And now, in our bid to save the Yamuna, we are seeking international assistance. Smart move isn’t it?

Now going back to the definition of urban by census – where it states 75% of male working population is to be involved in non-agricultural activities and the underlying moves of our government to push ‘Make in India’ campaign where stress is being laid on ‘industrializing’ our cities – how rooted and ‘smart’ are such moves?!

In many developing countries like India, cities often have agricultural fields in and around. In fact in West Africa, they are pretty much inside the city – almost like the next plot and the cities are encouraging such moves of urban agriculture! We all know how Cuba restored its economy with the tool of urban agriculture. Urban agriculture in Cuba developed under unique circumstances of economic hardship and isolation. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1990, Cuban imports and exports collapsed, leaving the country to fend for itself and make use of all available domestic resources for food production. Without access to oil, tractors, fertilizers, pesticides or other inputs, Cubans adopted organic agriculture to grow the food necessary to feed their families. Today, over 26,000 gardens cover 2,439 hectares in Havana and produce 25,000 tons of food annually. 40% of households are involved in urban agriculture in Havana. Organic urban agriculture evolved from a survival mechanism to a popular means of supplementing income, diversifying diets, and achieving independence and self-sufficiency in a city setting. Isn’t it time that we look for such indigenous methods of smartness rather than adopting a universal global image of what could be considered smart?

And what about historic old parts of our cities? Most often people complain that they are stuck in time and are not repealing the benefits of urbanisation. But shouldn’t which urban solutions are applied for such historic cities be different from solutions that would be given for a new Greenfield site? Historic sites such as Haus Khas or Mehrauli which had traditional methods of rain water harvesting and water supply could probably go back to such methods and water drains could be revived from their current state of a ‘ganda nala’ and decentralisation of services could actually be implemented to its truest definition by going back to what traditionally smart strategy was for those areas. Entire city of Delhi does not require a pan-all solution of piped water supply or a network of sewer lines, instead traditional and sustainable methods could be explored that are rooted in local knowledge and are also community managed. The Global North or the West is attempting to decentralise services. Housing colonies are trying to set their own sewage treatment plant – most residential units are going ‘off’ the grid. However, we in our new attire of smartness, are going back towards an over connected – over vigilant grid. The paradox is twofold – one we do not even have any services and planning in place to make the running of that infrastructure smooth through technology and second we are turning a blind eye once again to indigenous technologies and practices.

Delhi is planning to install 15 lakh CCTV cameras all across the city in a fatal attempt to be safe and secure. However, cities and spaces that are celebrated are not necessarily those with CCTV cameras. Instead it might be time to look back into the works of Jane Jacobs who had laid stress on ‘Eyes on the sidewalk’, as a prerequisite for a safe, livable city. The eyes here are not of those sitting in a control room and watching through cameras, instead of citizens in the public realm, interacting and participating in the ‘theatre’ that Mumford told us about.

Cities are not a business and a management strategy. However our plans of Smart cities being developed by prominent consultancy and management firms are limiting the cities to an economic role, nurturing only the contribution of the cities to the GDP. Such isolation through the present methods of planning and management of our urban realm will only create a dumber version of our growing dumb cities.

(The writer is an architect and urban designer by training. She is a consultant with the World Bank and Participatory Research in Asia. She is also a visiting faculty for Masters in Architecture course in various architecture schools, also an alumnus of Urban Action School, Hyderabad)


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here