The un-smart city

India Seminar, 16 January 2015

There is a rich city in our country that turns one of our major rivers into a sewage canal, but uses less than two-thirds of the sewerage treatment capacity it has installed.1 It sucks in water from distant hills, but still cannot provide water to even its planned settlements which, in any case, are home to less than one-fourth of its population.2 More is spent on connecting this city than on the national highway network that connects the five other major cities of the country – yet, the city cannot find depot space for its public bus service. While Mumbai spent its Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) money largely on water and sanitation, this city used it to build flyovers.

This city can demolish inhabited dwellings ‘illegally occupying’ land, but its car owners can prevent vehicles that occupy land in a similarly illegal manner – indeed, even more land than the dwellings in question – from being towed away.3 It can afford not to worry about economic activity, and relocate not just people, but also industries to the periphery. Not surprisingly, over 2001 to 2011, population growth fell dramatically from over 4% per year to below 2% annually, but growth in the neighbouring districts rose as noticeably.

It is this city that serves as an aspiration for many Indians and other cities. Flyovers proliferate and other large cities, especially state capitals, taking cue, have been laying claim to their own metro rail systems, each kilometre of which could fund a thousand buses. This city has cunningly exploited its position as the national capital to appropriate a disproportionate share of national resources. But, do we want all our cities to be like Delhi? Is this a smart thing to do?