Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Simple steps not extravagance make a smart city


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By Sanjoy Hazarika

Whenever I walk down the Fire Brigade steps in Shillong, most days, I mentally brace myself for the ordeal ahead as I head to Laitumkhrah. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy the walks, despite the traffic, despite the crowding on sidewalks (which means that at times you have to get off the pavement and walk on the main road to avoid bumping into fellow pedestrians).
What is truly stressful, not just for me, but for I think everyone else, is getting across the roads. It means dodging the traffic at several points including the place where four roads meet near the Seventh Day Adventist Church, with one rushing up from Nongrim and the Bethany Hospital side, another one-way past the Fire Bridge field, yet another coming after a merger ‘s side and the main road from Laitumkhrah. of the road from Jowai and one from St Edmunds.
There are zebra crossings marked at different points of roads in Shillong but few where pedestrians need to cross safely. Few people use the zebra crossings anyway because either they have never used them and don’t have the habit or they’re just in the wrong place. In most other cities such as Delhi, zebra crossings are often at traffic signals, enabling reasonably easy and accessible crossings, or at gaps in the road divider. Most roads in Shillong are too narrow for road dividers and there are no traffic lights anywhere.
Of course, busy roads are easier to cross on Sundays when many citizens go with their families to church and traffic is light – at least through the day and walking is comfortable. It’s also a day when most shops, barring restaurants and hotels, and markets are closed and hence lighter footfalls. People do their weekly shopping for vegetables, meats, groceries and essentials on Fridays and Saturdays.
But come Monday, it’s back to traffic as usual. I’m not getting into the why and wherefores of traffic management in Shillong. That’s entirely different and needs much more detailed discussion. The High Court here and various specialists including the Indian Institute of Management have developed proposals and plans for making things better. I am unaware of the details and those in the know need to put those plans in a public domain so that individuals and communities can respond.
It’s difficult to resist specific comments, however, in a few sectors. I made them after a review of a Smart City Proposal which is accessible on the Shillong Municipal Board’s website.
The proposal was developed by an organization called LEA Associates South Asia Pvt. Ltd. India. In February 2017, its name appeared on the draft proposal in association with (as Sub-Consultant) Crux Consultants Pvt. Ltd., India and VBSOFT India Ltd., India. A check of its website says that its main office is on Mathura Road, New Delhi and has been around since 1993. The Urban Affairs Department (UAD) of the Government of Meghalaya is the government department which made the proposal for the Smart City Mission. The results for the NER, not just for Shillong, are abysmal: here are the rankings according to NEZine, in descending order: Guwahati is ranked 96, Imphal-97, Gangtok-95, Aizawl-94, Shillong-93, Itangar-92, Agartala-89, Pasighat-86.
Shillong had the fewest projects (17) but ranked No. 4 in the size of the budget! Even Guwahati, the biggest city in the region with perhaps the greatest urban challenges, had more projects but asked for less money. The original budget presented in 2017 sought Rs 1,289 Crores and so was obviously slashed.
In a stinging review by a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Housing and Urban Affairs, “Smart Cities Mission: An Evaluation”. “Overall, the performance of the scheme in North-Eastern States appears to be dismal despite an altered funding pattern,” observed the parliamentary committee.
The Ministry apprised the committee that none of smart cities in the northeast region has the capacity to execute projects involving cost Rs 1000 crore due to which the Ministry had decided to allocate Rs 500 crores and asked the state governments to contribute Rs 50 crore each matching the funding pattern of 90:10.
The parliamentary committee presented its report to both the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha on February 8, 2024.
The Smart City project for Shillong came down from Rs 1,279 crore to Rs 825 crore but since the Centre would not release more than Rs 500 crore to each project across the country, the balance of Rs 325 crore (including Rs 50 crore for non-capital expenses such as salaries) would have to come from the state government. End June is when the project is supposed to close and till that, a senior official in the project told me, the state government has released Rs 80 crore. There is no indication if it will meet the rest of the balance which is expected from it.
Details of social media outreach were given in one presentation accessible on the web. These made sorry reading: There were 392 FB likes, 32 from Instagram while there were 27 and blogs (essay competitions). Anyone familiar with social media would say that this underlined how citizen-unfriendly and distant the project seemed to ordinary people.
A detailed review of the Shillong Smart City Project and its effectiveness is needed. It should be conducted by an independent group of subject specialists and community leaders.
It should be pointed out that urbanization grows every day here and in other towns and cities. In 2011, the population of Greater Shillong was pegged at 4.16 lakh. It is probably more than five lakh these days. Dozens of spanking new vehicles (large and small) surge across the city, making traffic denser and crossing roads more hazardous.
One would suggest simple initiatives on a few issues to see visible, measurable impact. These may be small for policy makers but major for ordinary people. Thus, the idea of decongesting Shillong looks at traffic control. It does not consider making the city friendly for pedestrians who have an equal right to urban spaces.
There are police personnel including what appear to be volunteers to conduct traffic. But not one of them is looking out for pedestrians who have to struggle, dodge and weave their way through high density traffic. Most vehicles are courteous enough to let them pass. But why can’t the Shillong Police institute the position of traffic wardens, which will enable not just school children but all people in need of help in crossing roads? One understands there are already arrangements with local educational institutions to involve students in traffic management. But their role needs to be expanded to enable pedestrians to move to safety. Involve the local Dorbars, the churches and even ask for volunteers from retired persons to give their time between 8 am to 11 am and 2 pm to 5 pm when the traffic is at its peak.
Will a new capital complex (not just a new Assembly) with homesteads, markets and communities reduce the pressure on Shillong? However, the homes and offices left behind won’t be left unoccupied! So, shifting the capital doesn’t actually resolve the challenge.
Another issue relates to garbage disposal: there need to be enough garbage bins on street corners and outside parks (including at the start and end of hiking trails as the Malki forest). A familiar sight in Shillong and other NE cities is of people simply flicking a piece of plastic (could be a cigarette carton, juice or chips pack) without a second thought onto the pavement or road.
Large funds, fancy PPTs and consultants, high promises and bright ideas don’t make for a smart city. Taking care of basic needs such as safety for pedestrians and improving public conduct about garbage could represent small steps in the right direction.


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