Why Apps Are Not A Fix-All For India's Urban Mess

21/02/2016 9:10 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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In the recent aftermath of the Deonar dumping ground fire in Mumbai and the stink over the growing piles of garbage in Delhi due to a union strike, it's a good time to try and bring the conversation on urban environmental governance to the limelight (before it disappears in the face of more important news, like a celebrity scandal).

India is distinctly urban nowadays, with a constellation of townships around the metropolitan city creating an urban agglomeration -- case in point being the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority auspices and the National Capital Region.

A glut of e-commerce unicorns alone won't make a better India.

The cities are simply revenue generating centres with the real political capital emanating in the hinterland. Western Maharashtra vis-a-vis Mumbai and Noida versus the districts of western Uttar Pradesh. Indian cities do not possess the 'real' political architecture for contemporary governance. The Mayor of Mumbai, for example, is still subordinate to regional authorities sitting in Mantralaya. New York and its Michael Bloomberg or Bill de Blasio may represent a dream for the well heeled crowd in Bandra or Malabar Hill. But, does the South Bombay boy vote on polling day or does he zip off to the cooler climes of Lonavala?

With the on-the-anvil Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor cities of Dholera, GIFT City and Shendra Bidkin touted as Smart Cities being built as India's answers to Shenzhen and Pudong Delta, urban planners have resorted to the technocratic cookie cutter approach rather ground up community centred governance such as 'mohalla sabhas' or community forums, which the AAP Government in Delhi is pioneering through the Delhi Dialogue Commission (though the garbage crisis and the recent dengue outbreak in Delhi are not exactly inspiring confidence).

Smart Cities may have the waste management facilities and recreation spaces figured out, but how will the political governance flesh itself out?

The technocratic model of building a smart phone application for all developmental ends seems like a band aid fix. The data needs to be acted upon, and big data needs thick data for the questions to make sense. Geographic information systems and information platforms may enable good decision-making, but will they tackle the landfill cartel in Mumbai? Will they simplify land acquisition for the next Metro Project expansion?

Not every problem has a big data fix... solutions need to be drawn from London, Singapore and New York in terms of decentralization of power at the mayoral level.

Start Up India is well and good with all the sops, but where is the 24×7 power and data grid for such an initiative? The entrepreneurs need to be politically savvy to hack the bureaucracy. Are the start-up kids developing a killer app to enable smoother traffic in our cities? A glut of e-commerce unicorns alone won't make a better India.

The development agenda is a political animal. Voters in Mumbai and other metros (apart from Delhi) have voted for the status quo, such as the Shiv Sena which been part of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation ruling alliance for the last 25 years. Urban Development needs a multiplicity of actors working in sync to execute a level of liveability which is aspirational. Sadly, not every problem has a big data fix. South Asia is the hotbed of mega cities, and a few solutions need to be drawn from London, Singapore and New York in terms of decentralization of power at the mayoral level.

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