The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government’s Smart City and Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) with a total project cost of Rs 98,000 crore has the objective of transforming the crumbling Indian cities into shining urban centres. Under the mission, 100 Smart Cities and 500 Amrut Cities will be developed to plug infrastructure gap, boost business and investment climate in order to benefit the poor. How to protect the urban centres from further deterioration is the biggest challenge before the country.
Over decades, Indian urban centres have become the black holes to suck in all kinds of development funds under different kinds of missions. Lakhs of crores of rupees of tax payers’ money was plundered in the name of urban development. This could be the biggest scam ever undetected in the past decades. Beautiful roads were dug three times in a year to lay cable and to repair sewerage line with the intention to feed ghost beneficiaries. Thousands of hectares of open space and water bodies have been converted into building blocks and shopping complexes in cities. In the last five decades, Chennai had lost 3,000 water bodies which had created a man-made water crisis in the city. Many ponds which were showing in revenue records 50 years back have been converted into cinema halls and building blocks in the ancient Cuttack city of Odisha. Many important temples and places of historical and archaeological importance have been destroyed, distorted and sold out for real estate development across the country in the past decades. Pune was known as the retired people’s paradise up to the 80s. Today the city has become a torture chamber for the retired people. The tree canopy over Pune roads has been destroyed. Its Mula and Mutha rivers are heavily polluted. The Ram Nadi has disappeared from the city. The Bus Rapid Transit System (BRTS) which has spoiled the once beautiful Satara Road connecting Dhankaudi to Swargate bus stand. The Marathi Manoos’ rich culture and heritage were ignored while developing infrastructure in the city. The city’s magnificent wooden houses have (the wadas) given ways to the so-called modern plastic, glass and concrete structures.
Like Pune the majority of the Indian cities were under the grip of the real estate agents who in connivance with politicians used to decide what infrastructures are required for the cities. Local residents were never asked whether they want school or a shopping mall; whether they want a playground or a multiplex. Residents in European cities are always consulted what infrastructure they need in the city. In India unwanted infrastructure projects were thrust upon people. More than one hundred malls have been closed in Pune in the last ten years.
Chittoor is a small city in Andhra Pradesh bordering Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. The city is still beautiful as it is encircled with hills and forest. But over decades people dug thousands of bore-wells to grab subsidy and pushed the water table far below. Today the residents face acute water shortage and are compelled to buy water. A crisis was created by people and the politicians together. Cuttack city which was the ancient capital of Odisha had withstood outside invasion for 600 years. William Hunter, the British historian has written that the city looked like a painting on a drawing board with straight wide roads, beautiful bungalow type houses and natural beauty. The remnants of the famous nine storied Barabati Fort and the rich handicraft traditions namely the silver filigree, horn craft and clay work are still found in the city. Today the city has become unliveable due to mosquito bites, over population and open drains. The temperature of Bhubaneswar City seldom crossed 34 degree until 1980. Now it crosses 46 degree in summer months. The famous Kalinga War was fought here. The bloody war had almost destroyed both Kalinga and the Magadha army. As per rock edict, one lakh Kalinga soldiers and equal number of Magadha soldiers were killed in the one of bloodiest wars in the history of mankind. Samrat Ashoka’s mind was changed and he adopted Buddhism in the war field on the bank of the River Daya. Unfortunately, an aggressive realty sector growth has wiped out the places associated with the Kalinga War. Similarly, a rowdy realty sector and the infrastructure growth in Hyderabad has destroyed the city’s once beautiful natural springs, tree lairs, grape vines, mango orchards, pedestrian paths, lakes built by the famous Kakatiya kings and the Nizams and the heritage sites which date back to the Mauryan era in the 3rd century BC.
The way Indians have destroyed their social capital it would take long time for them to believe that they belonged to the world’s one of the richest civilisations. Western and European nations meticulously preserve their forts, palaces, even a stone, a sword, a home, a cap, a pair of shoe or robe associated with their great kings and warriors which inspire the younger generation to achieve greater things for the country.
In European countries the cities are made into zones: heritage zones, commercial zones, zone for multi-storeyed buildings, zones for bungalow type houses, zones for office buildings and for recreation, etc. The zone criterion is strictly followed. Most of the cities in West and European nations have developed cycle track to save fossil fuel and to improve health and environment. The pedestrian paths are well maintained which always give joy to people. India is the third largest consumer of fossil fuel and natural gas in the world. India has to follow the best practices of the developed nations and discard those which are bad and expensive.
It is very much essential to conduct a dedicated urban potential survey to know the city’s potential economic sectors namely manufacturing, trade, services, handicraft, handloom, pilgrim, tourism, eatables, indigenous skill, yog sector and unorganised small economic sectors etc. Once a scientific potential survey is made, the economic activities can be linked for revenue generation. Both domestic and foreign investment can flow into those sectors in a scientific manner. Unfortunately there is no credible agency in the country which can do the urban survey with meticulous details. The BJP Government has to form a dedicated agency comprising of honest, dedicated and capable people who can survey urban potential for future investment and credit linkage. Every urban centre has something unique to showcase which could be a local dish, handicraft or a tourist attraction associated with history, myths and mysteries. While making the final urban development draft plan, the views of the local residents, students, intellectuals, entrepreneurs and common man should be taken into account. Smart and Amrut cities should inspire trade, culture, academic pursuit, sports and entrepreneurship.
Sudhansu R Das
(The writer is a Hyderabad based freelance journalist)