Each time there is a mention of Smart Cities in India, I get concerned about the safety of women because there is a surfeit of news stemming from the vulnerability of women in our cities. A few incidents that shook India recently, include:
* A police officer attacks an allegedly errant scooter-riding woman with a brick in India's capital.
* A 13-year-old girl pushed off a moving bus in Moga in Punjab along with her mother after they resisted molestation attempts.
* A young girl walking back home in Ludhiana is raped on International Women's Day, March 8.
These incidents paint the picture of cities unsafe for women and children on foot, in own vehicles or while using public transport.
From unsafe to unhealthy cities, India attracts attention. A recent UN study noted that the highest concentration of PM (particulate matter) 2.5 is in Indian cities. These tiny airborne particulates can increase the risk of heart disease and respiratory ailments. The PM 2.5 levels in the national capital New Delhi are so high that breathing the air for only a few hours can have an irreversible health impact.
These upsetting reports bring out the need for safer and more habitable cities before India builds 100 Smart Cities. Even though proponents of Smart Cities may argue that the choice is not between safe and habitable versus Smart Cities, the government clearly needs to take demonstrative action to instill confidence among women in India to restore a sense of safety.
India clearly needs to morph its Smart Cities plan into one that lays equal emphasis on making our cities most habitable and safe. While Smart Cities are necessary, the liveability aspect needs to get top priority. The recent, albeit temporarily halted, move by the National Green Tribunal to ban all over 10-year-old diesel vehicles from plying on Delhi roads is commendable. That perhaps is the only way to show to the rest of the country what needs to be done to make the country more habitable. One only hopes that its implementation does not lead to dilution.
At the same time, we urgently need a road infrastructure that does not hold up non-polluting vehicles on road a minute longer than is necessary. Once among most green Indian cities, Pune and Bangalore are now home to glass and concrete structures. Despite a salubrious climate and green spaces, these high-tech cities ranked 145th (Pune) and 146th (Bangalore) in the 2015 most liveable cities ranking by global consulting firm Mercer. Singapore, known for its standards of cleanliness, discipline and safety, at No.25 is the highest-ranking Asian city in the same listing.
Ranked the most liveable city for six consecutive years by Mercer, Vienna also won global recognition for being a Smart City by climate strategist Boyd Cohen. Vienna may offer a good benchmark for the most habitable city. In addition to being green and clean, the city is also Safe.
After its inauguration 150 years ago, Vienna remains the most well-planned and architected city. Unlike Indian cities, it follows a zero tolerance policy towards departure from sanctioned building plans - an area that needs stricter conformance in India.
The Austrian capital is a pedestrian-friendly, cycle-friendly city where lane discipline is observed almost like a religion. The differently-abled, wheel-chair borne and the most careless walker can traverse through pothole-free levelled roads.
Safe, Efficient and Reliable Public Transport
The next important element is an efficient transport system ensures that every part of the city is well connected. By deploying smart travel cards, it affords safe and convenient travel for women, those with children and elderly people by various modes, at any time of the day.
For safe, habitable and smart cities, India's public transport system needs to be scaled up to create options where most citizens prefer public transport to their private vehicles. The dependence on personal vehicles for work has to reduce. Movement on India's inadequate road infrastructure will become even tougher and unsustainable as it adds nearly two million vehicles a month.
Very few Indian cities can boast of roads that offer a safe journey to its inhabitants. Even though the recent budget allocation to the sector gives one the confidence that the road infrastructure will get created, it needs to be backed by an infrastructure that is safe, takes into account the future traffic needs and ensures that sidewalks are not dysfunctional.
Climate strategist Boyd Cohen says Smart City has to be much more than just a buzzword: it is the way of the future. A Smart City needs measures to radically reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions and further optimize the public transportation network to deliver an even higher quality of life for many years to come.