Friday, February 5, 2016

Bhopal Notes - 21 :: Unsmart moves for smart city

Artist's impression of smart Bhubaneshwar
Bhopal figured last in the list of 20 cities picked up by the Central Government for upgrade as a smart city. The MP government had recommended the areas of Shivaji Nagar and Tulsi Nagar of Bhopal for building a smart city.  A very dependable newspaper reported that availability of land tipped the scale in its favour or otherwise it might not have figured in the list. Apparently, what was conveyed to the Centre was that these two localities have about 500 acres of land as required under the scheme for building the local smart city – a fact that has not been borne out by later developments.

The residents of these two areas protested soon after the decision of the Central Government was announced. It seems, the state government, on the recommendation of the Municipal Corporation, had conveyed to the Centre thinking that the low rise houses would be demolished and the vacated land would be made use of for building the smart city. It, unfortunately, saw only the land and not the houses in which people have been living for more than thirty years. Surprisingly, it never occurred to them that those who were already resident in their houses would need to be moved from their hearths and homes and provided alternative comparable  land/accommodation before the smart city could come up.

The protests are, naturally, gathering strength and some organizations have added their voices. The municipality’s counter is that largest number of people voted for Shivaji and Tulsi Nagar areas and hence that is what was recommended. No communication, apparently, was received by it against the proposal and now, since, the project has been approved it would be difficult to revise the proposal. If the municipality and the government take such a stiff stand it would be a human tragedy of pretty large scale. People of the areas may have voted in large numbers imagining benefits that would accrue to them from the smart city but they probably never imagined that it is they who would actually be pushed out of their houses to make way for it. They might have been asked to vote but were they ever told that in the event of selection of their localities they would have to vacate their houses and lands? Probably not. Had they been aware of this eventuality surely they would not have voted like they did.

Shattering their dreams, a population of a few thousand families – reported to be thirty-odd thousand – will have to be moved – but where? Nobody knows. So far nothing has been reported in the news papers about their rehabilitation and no piece of land seems to have been identified. Can a government send such a half-baked proposal to the Centre? I doubt it, but one can never tell. The proposal of building smart cities was rushed through because of the given deadline and numerous vital matters may not have been considered. The municipal corporation was most keen to get Bhopal selected by the Centre forgetting that its performance over the years has left an enormous lot to be desired and it just did not have the capability to run a smart city.

One can see a turmoil approaching as the resentment is building up. Both sides are keeping quiet but I am sure below the surface things surely are moving. There is, however, another very vital aspect which also could derail the project and that is regarding the city’s greenery. Reports have appeared of an estimated 30000 trees will have to be felled in the two localities to accommodate the smart city. These areas are perhaps one of the greenest ones in Bhopal and present a beautiful and soothing ambiance. To root out this greenery and uproot the residents of the area for what seems to be a mirage will be a double whammy for the people and their city.

Bhopal has always got the wrong end of the stick in so far protection of its tree cover is concerned. The Gammon’ CBD Project required felling more than a thousand trees. The undertaking given by Gammon India of planting as many trees in place of those which were eliminated from the site has not been honoured. Neither the municipality nor the government seems to have insisted on Gammon India to do the compensatory planting as promised.

Likewise, for the BRTS project again some 3000 to 5000 trees were felled. Some of them were massive, very old trees that provided roadside greenery and shady patches to all those who would walk on these roads as also rookeries for birds and other arboreal creatures. Now if one looks at the route one finds only harsh and stark metal of the road with nothing green in sight. No wonder the mercury around the New Market registers a temperature that is a degree or two more than in the rest of the city or even higher. Once the Gammon India project gets up-and-running as a full-fledged business district things are likely to become much worse.

Felling of 30,000 or more trees for the “smart city’ project will be a massive blow to the city’s equable micro-climate – or whatever is left of it. And this will be done, curiously, in these days of escalating global warming, the resultant climate change because of which is already upon us. But nothing better could be expected from the unconcerned officialdom of this state which neither is bothered about the environment nor about the people living in the city. If many large complexes are under construction on the out skirts of the town why the smart city couldn’t be accommodated likewise as a greenfield project? That would have caused minimum of adverse effect on the people of the city or its environment.

In fact, this is the basic mistake that the government and the municipality have made that of proposing what is essentially a “greenfield” project for location in an area which is already in use. They planned for conversion of Shivajinagar and Tulsinagar into a proverbial shiny new smart city with its modern infrastructure extensively using IT evacuating those who have developed deep roots in the area. They forgot that all this could be achieved where there are no constrains on availability of land or like the ones that have cropped up now.

A day or two earlier a report appeared about the planning that is being undertaken for smartening up the entire city. One does not know whether it was a deliberate leak to work as a sop for those who feel deprived. Actually speaking, it is exactly what is necessary. Instead of creating a new concrete jungle the smartening of the entire city should be attempted by retrofitting. The condition of the city is such that it needs to be lifted up from its boot straps. Without being divisive, this would prevent structural division of the city in two hierarchies - “Smart” and “Un-smart”, “modern” and “primitive” – and would satisfy the entire population of the city. What seems to be necessary is to go the way of Amsterdam where the city is being smartened up with a bottom-up approach. As many as 30-odd projects have commenced to ensure the city’s smart functioning. These include a “climate street” which aims to reduce the energy use of an entire shopping street with a new superfast fibreoptic network , installing smart metres to the electricity grid so that ships do not have to burn diesel in generators when berthed in the city’s port and suchlike.

Such innovative projects could be planned to make the entire city smart by retrofitting with use of special purpose vehicles. All areas of civic functions could be covered with the necessary inputs from experts for execution through special purpose vehicles for each project. Issues like introducing the concepts of energy efficiency, greening of public buildings, equitable water-supply to all, disposal of solid wastes and their conversion into energy and recycling of waste water, etc all could be handled and executed by special purpose vehicles. With judicious deadlines given to SPVs the city could get really smart in not too distant future.

*Photo from internet
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