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Modi's smart cities: Top urban planner wonders if one can have islands of prosperity amidst ocean of poverty

GIFT: A "replica" of smart city
By Our Representative
Veteran town-planning expert MN Buch has questioned Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s dream of building 100 smart cities across India, saying in spite of decades of knowledge in urban planning, he has failed to find any clarity on the subject. “I spoke to high officials in the Ministry of Urban Development and they told me that they too are not very clear about what is meant by smart city, even as they are trying to work out the parameters of such a city”, Buch, former vice-chairman of the National Commission on Urbanization, said.
In his commentary in Lilia Interactions, Buch, a 1957 batch IAS officer from Gujarat who received Padma Bhushan for his contribution in urban town planning, said, “I suppose one could call a city that is totally technology driven as a smart city, but technology has drawbacks, because human interaction eventually introduces so many elements of unpredictability. Therefore, at best the city re-mains smart only in part.” Currently, Buch is a senior administrator and urban planner at Bhopal.
Referring to Gujarat International Finance Tec-city (GIFT), Buch said, the very talk of a global financial city amuses him. “It follows the model of similar cities in Shanghai. In fact, it is not a new city but a sub-city that is self-contained, and with the entire infrastructure of a city providing financial ser-vices of a high order. Would La Défense in Paris be considered a smart city, or would it count as an ultra modern sub-city located in Paris? Are new towns such as Evry in the Loire Valley smart cities, or are they new towns like Milton Keynes in England?”, he wondered.
“Obviously, 100 new smart cities will be green-field ventures, separated from our existing settlements by a technology chasm. When Jawaharlal Nehru built steel plants in the middle of nowhere, whole new cities such as Bhilai, Durgapur and Rourkela came up almost overnight. An earlier example was that of the Tata-built city of Jamshedpur. I suppose in their own day and age they were smart cities. So, I presume, are new capitals such as Chandigarh, Islamabad and Brasilia”, he said.
Wondering if these cities have been left untouched by the rest of the country in which they are located, Buch asked, “Chandigarh, designed as the perfect planned city, has become like Lutyens’ New Delhi, with a green and almost imperial core – both are under heavy pressure from the rest of Delhi and the National Capital Region, and Mohali and Panch Kula, respectively. Ultimately, these new towns become oases of planned prosperity in the midst of a desert of poverty, so it is but natural that the poor drift towards the new cities in search of employment.”
Pointing out that nobody has thought about this, Buch said, “We thus have a planned city surrounded by a mass of unplanned settlements, resulting in a situation where a planned city and an unplanned city are in close juxtaposition. Can this be avoided in the 100 new smart cities? Till India achieves a level of equity and equality in income, job opportunities and lifestyles, the smart city will be the magnet, the people will be the iron filings attracted to the magnet and soon the magnet will wear an untidy beard of iron filings.”
Suggesting that smart cities are sought to be built citing movement of people from rural to urban areas, Buch said, this is just not happening in India at the required pace. He said, “Successive censuses have shown that the highest growth is taking place in the middle level towns. If we take the fifty-three metropolitan cities, they contain 19.24 per-cent of the total urban population of India, but as a proportion of the total population, they account for a little more than six per cent. This does not suggest the kind of mass movement from rural areas to urban settlements as has been experienced, for example, in China.”

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