Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Smart Cities need Community Involvement


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By Sanjoy Hazarika

Above Lumsohphoh is a fine forest that stretches for kilometers, one of Shillong’s green lungs. Opposite the Accountant General’s quarters at one entrance to the forest where I walk many days, is an informal rubbish dump of plastic, discarded clothes, bottles and even footwear. As you go along for the first few hundred meters you see chips and biscuit wrappers and empty bottles. Then it becomes near pristine.
I believe that communities (whether through the local garbage disposal groups or the NGOs and clubs or the Shongs) need to be active to protect one of Shillong’s greatest assets and treasures.
The forest paths and other walking areas (e.g. above Lumsophoh) can have occasional signages with icons and names of birds, insects/flora to be found there with a little explanation and a website description (as in Europe – Black Forest in Germany; the famous Jacob’s Weg or the Way of St James. The latter is a network of pilgrim paths leading to the shrine of the apostle Saint James the Great in the cathedral of Santiago de Compostela in Galicia in northwestern Spain. I’ve done parts of this and en-route you meet many people cycling and walking too as you travel by streams, windmills, meadows with horses and cattle, through forests and over hills
In Shillong, local trek guides can be encouraged and trained and trekking maps can be developed. Keep enough garbage bins for recyclable and non-recyclable trash. Visitors may be encouraged to carry their own trash out. The idea is to build a repository of knowledge that can be accessible worldwide; these treks can be marked on the scale of their physical challenge. Thus, travelers who wish to come this way, can design their own programmes for treks, travel and enjoyment not just book their accommodation.
These to me are illustrations of priorities. We are all familiar with the Post pandemic situation when governments sought ways to bring people safely out into public spaces. We can recall those difficult, desperate times when there were challenges in getting food and health access to vulnerable communities or lakhs of people were trying to get home across hundreds of kilometers.
But in India, what is regarded as a placemaking movement is still at a nascent stage with the approach still very centralised, with governments exerting control over who has access to and uses public spaces
Yet, streams, forests and these hills called home are natural harbours for public recreation and social as well as personal interaction and reflection. Nature created the original habitat. We have to protect it.
Let’s look at a few government initiatives and some suggestions for citizen-friendly ones.
In India, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA) has been spearheading a top-down process of placemaking initiatives through challenges (like Streets for People, Cycle for Change) delivered under the umbrella of the Smart Cities Mission.
Placemaking projects (as part of Smart City initiatives) are implemented in a fragmented manner, often with hidden social and economic costs, with minimum efforts to integrate the small-scaled placemaking projects with the broader city network).
Institutions that seek to help through the provision of programmes and services have been criticized for providing supports that are often regarded as:
1. Done to citizens: coercive, educative/directive, seeks to fix/cure, or
2. Done for citizens: less coercive; moving towards deeper involvement, but where the professionals nevertheless remain in control.
In recent years there has been a shift in institutional practices and policy discourse, for example in Ireland, towards:
3. Doing with citizens: this approach, sometimes referred to as a partnership or co-production approach/ co-design, co-decision-making, aims to transcend “doing to and doing for”, by promoting more equal and reciprocal relationships. Place-improvement can happen at all levels and is most effective and impactful when the smaller-scale quick wins and major strategic initiatives work together to help create great places.
The effort needs to start with what residents (inhabitants) can do themselves as an association of citizens, without any outside help. (Done by)
• Then looking at what they can do with a little outside help. (Done with)
• Finally, once these local assets have been fully connected and mobilized, citizens decide collectively on what they want outside actors to do for them. (Done for).
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals 2030 were set by the United Nations and endorsed by all countries; through a common plan of action, they seek to address interdependent challenges before three dimensions – economic, social and environmental — to meet current and future needs.
Although all the goals seamlessly connect to each other, states like Meghalaya and other parts of the region need to look at four cross-cutting subthemes: SDG 10 Reduced Inequalities, SDG 11 Sustainable Cities and Infrastructure SDG 12 Responsible consumption and production as well as SDG 13: Climate action.
At the heart is the definition of the word sustainability: ‘development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs’.
What I’ve described so far are part of the tangibles and intangibles that make up a living heritage, energetic spaces, an amalgam of all the microcosms of all its communities, cultures, living conditions and spaces. Where do we start? I gave one suggestion right at the beginning.
As climate change impacts everyone, both in rural and urban spaces, one practical way of conserving water is by insisting on water harvesting systems in all houses, apartments, whether old or new. The district administrations should mandate the local dorbars/doloi/nokma to implement this.
Various groups are making yeoman efforts to clean the city especially its highly polluted water bodies. Instead of depending on any one group or business or government agency, perhaps the improvement of the immediate environment in areas with high footfalls such as Police Bazar (PB), Laitumkhrah, Polo Grounds etc., may be best tackled by residents and communities of the area itself. Such areas are common spaces which are used by tourists and local residents, families and professionals, taxis, shops, eateries, chemists and businesses (large and small).
At the end of a busy evening, Police Point in PB is a shambles, littered with plastic and food refuse, with winds blowing trash everywhere, impacting conditions. It is unhygienic, unattractive and unfriendly to local communities and visitors. There are no traffic wardens to help pedestrians cross the road; the latter have to depend on the goodwill of drivers to cross safely. Indeed, there is a segment of the Smart Shillong plan which talks about traffic awareness. But where’s the training, the knowledge, the common sense and how and where have the funds been used?
There are few hygienic public toilets for men and women. That is surely a marker of a ‘smart city’.
Involving neighbourhood communities in such simple efforts could help foster a sense of common ownership. It could be a small start but one that could be replicated in other towns such as Jowai and Tura. For one, specific points with high footfalls can have large size rubbish bins, separate toilets for men and women, regular cleaning staff and monitors.
Other steps could be to have clear good visual signages on roads indicating distances to various points or places of public/tourist interest.
The suggestion is start small, start local but plan incrementally. Bring in communities and knowledge holders, open up shared spaces, create opportunities.
We are located in a larger region that is called the North-east – the question arises, east of what and north of where. It is often forgotten that the coinage grew from colonial times but with a specific geographical location. It was north-east of Rongpur, now in Bangladesh, then Bengal, and a premier trading and administrative post in times past.
Today as I walk up and down the Fire Brigade slope, there are trails of plastic everywhere. The footpath to Laitumkhrah bazar looks new but isn’t much broader so you have to twist and turn to avoid bumping into people. That’s not the indignity with which residents should be moving about. Perhaps Chief Minister Conrad Sangma may like to take a stroll there in the afternoon to see how people manage.
We must exercise our right to know by asking questions through social media and RTI, for this is for the public good, for sustainable spaces which are public spaces and need to be safe. Ultimately a city is that of the citizens. And if we have citizen-journalists then why not a new group –citizen-academics? Citizen-academics are equipped with technical tools and skills, undergirded by theory, and are uniquely placed to bring research to bear on policy and practitioners.
At the end of the day, we’re storytellers. We share stories, through these we share life experiences. We share spaces.
(Sanjoy Hazarika is an author, columnist, film maker and activist. This is part of his address to the ICSSR national seminar in Shillong on Placemaking and City-scaping of Shillong through Narrative and Cultural Representations)


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