Quest for a Smart City in an Unsmart Milieu  

Patricia Mukhim

Meghalaya’s Urban Affairs Minister is frustrated that Shillong has repeatedly failed to make it to the list of Smart Cities. To win the Smarty City project Meghalaya has to raise 50% of the project cost through external borrowings and investments which the State Government claims is beyond its capacity. Since 2016, states of the North East have been asking the Centre to relax the funding pattern and resort to the 90:10 mode of funding but the Ministry has been adamant. And rightly so! For too long the seven states have got away with poor implementation of projects funded by an indulgent Centre. On their part the states have been lax in book keeping; often unable to account for money spent. When such financial misconducts are pointed out by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) the Government takes its own time to fix the leaks by cooking the books.

The Modi Government has got wise to this wastrel nature of the states and the fact that those who run the Government (politicians, bureaucrats and technocrats) have actually been the biggest beneficiaries of central dole.  We can begin by counting the mansions in and around Shillong, Tura, Jowai etc, for starters!  A smart prime minister is unlikely to allow unsmart models of governance to continue. Let’s also not forget that the unique selling point (USP) of the NDA Government is to reach the target beneficiaries who have been excluded by economic models of the past. We may crib all we want about Prime Minister Modi, but today the hoi-polloi knows that it is getting a share of the economic benefits by way of subsidies that come directly to their bank accounts. This is something previous governments have not attempted for obvious reasons. Hence a big chunk of subsidies actually reached the pockets of those in the government.

Coming to the Smart City project, the prime requirement for such a Project is an engaged, active citizenry which not only identifies problems but gets its act together to try and solve them. In Shillong the citizenry is in fact the problem. It is the citizen who dumps garbage everywhere, including hurling them out of passing vehicles. Garbage dumps sprout out everywhere.

In developed countries, civic engagement is part of the ethos of higher education. Here higher education is completely disengaged from the legions of problem that beset the city.  Active citizenship implies a scholarship that is linked to service and not an education system whose beneficiaries (scholarship takers) are only interested in degrees and self-promotion. Do we ever hear of university students interning with the Shillong Municipal Board to help understand its key problems and advocate viable solutions? Isn’t that what universities are meant to engage with?  What practical skills do the students passing out of universities actually have, except for the thesis they produce to get their Master’s degree? Often the thesis is hardly of any use in the real world.

It would be pertinent to find out why Shillong has consistently lost the race for the Smart City Project. Firstly, the project envisages external resource mobilization which means approaching international lending agencies and investments by the private sector in providing basic services such as water supply and sanitation, urban transport and housing. The Union Government is pumping in Rs one lakh crore for Smart City projects across the country but that funding as stated earlier covers only 50% of the project cost. States must mobilize the other half. The objective of the Smart Cities Mission is to provide core infrastructure and give citizens a decent quality of life and a clean and sustainable environment through the application of ‘Smart’ Solutions.

The core infrastructure elements in a smart city include ten key points: (1) adequate water supply (ii) assured electricity supply (iii) sanitation, including solid waste management (iv) efficient urban mobility and public transport (v) affordable housing, especially for the poor (vi) robust IT connectivity and digitalization (vii) good governance, especially e-Governance and citizen participation (viii) sustainable environment (ix) safety and security of citizens, particularly women, children and the elderly (x) health and education.

The idea of a Smart City is to connect the different resources of a city to each other by utilizing advanced Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) and Internet of Things (IoT). This means deployment of applications that monitor, manage, and control connected devices, remote data collection from connected devices and independent and secure connectivity between devices.

A Smart City also envisages a few SMART Essentials such as (a) Smart Energy which means an uninterrupted power supply and an insight into the over-all power consumption by different institutions and buildings to reduce energy consumption. This is done by integrating technology with energy to optimize power production, improve grid management and providing effective distribution of energy.

(b) Smart Transportation by using technology to reduce traffic jams and pollution and facilitate easy movement of goods and people and reducing road accidents.

© Smart Data which is collection and collating the massive data related to various amenities used by the population. That data is then quickly analyzed to provide useful customer insights. Such data is put on an online portal to be used to predict future patterns and direction in which the city is moving.

(d) Device Connectivity is the use of IoT devices. Sensors embedded into IoT devices collect useful data that can be analyzed to gain relevant insights. With the support of IoT, complex city systems can exchange and manage the information quickly in real-time. Integration of data analytics with the system enables minimization of unintended consequences and accidents.

(e) Smart Mobility means quick and easy movement and not raging inside a vehicle that refuses to move because of a traffic jam, which is what our lives are today. In a Smart City data should move seamlessly amongst several administrative and municipal systems. This free data movement raises levels of security, intellectual property, and privacy issues hence governments and enterprises would need to adopt revolutionary trends to plan out their legal technology needs and public policy. As of today we are at the bottom of the heap as far as connectivity is concerned. Shillong is too pathetic to be called Smart. And the recent  attack by RansomWare should alert us that SMART also means being one up on cyber crime which we are not at the moment.

 (f) Smart Infrastructure means using data analytics for better planning so as to prevent health issues due to water through real-time testing of lead content in the water supply. Citizens of Shillong are unsure of their water quality. A check might reveal what we fear the most – fecal matter in our water, apart from lead and other heavy metals.

(g) Smart parking as part of the package enables the city to earn higher profits by utilizing the same parking space frequently. The spaces can be utilized up to their fullest capacity to raise revenue.

(h) Smart Waste Management is an area we are zero at. Smart Cities are meant to implement smart waste management solutions to reduce costing by installing sensors inside the bins. This helps to monitor the level of trash in each bin. Bins are emptied only when they are full. So, there is no need to follow any standardized process to collect the waste from bins frequently. When the bins are full, the respective department is notified through the sensors. Waste collecting trucks can then empty the bins. This project reduces the number of waste collecting vehicles on the streets. It obviously reduces the traffic and fuel cost.

(i) Smart Lighting is intended to reduce electricity consumption using smart lighting technology. Intelligent lighting control can dim the lights on streets where traffic and pedestrian movement is low. Such smart lighting systems are equipped with central management software that tracks usage and leads to maintenance efficiency.

Smart Cities rely heavily on technology for their management. That is why Shillong fails to qualify on any of the parameters. Moreover we need an elected Municipal Board that can be held accountable on all fronts. By hanging on to traditional systems of governance and resisting elections we disqualify ourselves. On what arguments therefore is our Minister and his Department presenting to the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) in Delhi? Can we please have a look at the boxes that have been ticked in the presentation before the Ministry, so that we can live up to those tick marks?

Let’s not forget that two of our well known rivers are polluted beyond recognition and we haven’t been able to lift a finger to restore them. So let’s forget the SMART CITY quest for now. An unsmart citizenry is unfit for a Smart City.

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