It is good to hear that Imphal is listed among the first lot of Indian cities to be made smart, and that plans are already afoot to begin work on this onerous transformation. As residents of Imphal, we do hope the city, now suffocating in its own filth and mismanagement does become smart when the project gets done. But the uneasy question on the mind of many right now is, what is it for a city to become smart? Since the matter has been pursued quietly out of public view, a majority of us not directly associated with the project know little about it. And this is not only bad on the part of the government, but also uncomfortable for us ordinary citizens, knowing very well how hopelessly wrong the government and its officials can get. We also know how the corrupt culture of an unholy nexus between politicians-bureaucrat-technocrats-contractors can ruin any project, even the best conceived ones. It is difficult not to ask at this stage, how can the government so insistently undermine the intelligence of the ordinary citizens so much and presume they would not know what they want or is best for them? It is not too late yet, and the government must predicate and premise the final draft of the smart city plan with a wide public consultation. No argument about it that the government should not have to incorporate every suggestion made, but at least it must listen to all exhaust all possible suggested options first before deciding on what to incorporate and what not to.
Perhaps the plans already have it, but no harm in a reminder or two on what many of us as individual citizens think is important. It has been evident for long that our city planners are obsessed with the image of a modern city as essentially a concrete jungle with cars everywhere. It will be recalled that even the southern fringe of the Kangla as well as that of the Mapal Kangjeibung were once marked shop plots and sold off. Thankfully, interventions by the civil society made the then government retract these steps and left these spaces open, and we now sigh with relief at the blessings these small changes have come to to. The population of the Imphal municipal area, which is to form the core of the smart city, is less than 3 lakhs, though greater Imphal area holds close to 8 lakhs, so there is no reason why just a little better management will not improve the quality of life in the city considerably. Now that there is a Government of India project to actually improve the city, the opportunity must not be allowed to go under-utilised or wasted. The worst fears are, unimaginative implementation of the plan may actually end up making the city a monstrosity and in the long run, unliveable.
First of our suggestions is, as an earthquake prone region, high rises should be avoided to the extent possible. In consultation with structural engineers, the government should fix a limit on the height of buildings in the city. Second, let Imphal not be car centric. As it is, not only the bicycles that Imphal was once famous for but also the habit of walking, is disappearing. Many would have heard complaints of shopkeepers in the busy Thangal Bazar and Paona Bazar, against the government’s recent move to ban parking on these streets, for this has depleted their customers. The truth is, nobody wants to park their vehicles even a few score meters away from these shopping centres and walk to them to shop. Once upon a time, it was nothing unnatural for people to cycle or else walk to their offices, if they are not too far away, but thanks to unimaginative city planning in the past few decades, that culture today has virtually disappeared. Everybody wants to do the distance in cars, or else at least a two wheeler motor vehicles, even if the distance does not actually demand it. The ramifications too are much more than just congestions on the roads, but also quite unnoticed, on the health of the population. The rise in diseases associated with sedentary lifestyles, such as diabetes and hypertension, it would be quite natural for even lay persons like us to presume, is one of these adverse consequences of bad city planning. For a start, let the smart city that Imphal is to become be made pedestrians and cyclists friendly. Let it be a priority to introduce pedestrian pavements and cycle tracks on all our major roads so that the old culture of walking and cycling can return. We are sure our authorities are aware this is also the trend in all smart cities in Europe, America and the rest of the so called developed world.