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Mainstream, VOL LII, No 42, October 11, 2014

Bullet Train, Smart Cities and Development Priorities

Saturday 11 October 2014, by Bharat Dogra

Within the first 100 days of the Modi Government some symbols of development priorities have been publicised widely. If in urban development the creation of 100 smart cities is the biggest talking point, in railways it is the proposed introduction of bullet trains which is widely promoted. Following the Prime Minister’s Japan visit, it has been announced that Japanese help—financial and technical—will be readily available for these two schemes much favoured by our Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. So the shortage of funds may not be a constraint in the rapid implementation of these ideas favoured now at the highest level.

However, a question needs to be asked: whether such attractive-looking schemes are in keeping with the development priorities actually needed by our country. The concept of smart cities, no matter how smartly it is presented, will ultimately lead to heavy investment for the creation of even more expensive and exclusive enclaves for the elite. To a significant extent already there are separate colonies for the rich and poor in our cities, just as there are separate hospitals and separate schools. But the creation of 100 smart cities instead of trying to reduce inequalities and exclusions will promote this further.

Already the needs of the urban poor are being ignored to an unacceptable extent. The promotion of smart cities as the big priority favoured at the highest level will lead to further neglect of the needs of the poor which actually should get the highest priority.

The government may say that this will not happen, but the reality is that there are only limited resources and only limited spaces, and once a scheme for the elites gets top priority, the needs of the truly needy will suffer.

For example, consider the most crucial natural resource of water. Already most areas are experiencing water stress and water tables are going down. So we’ve to ask how the limited supplies of water will be used. In smart cities inevitably there’ll be more luxury houses, more lawns, more hotels, more swimming pools, more golf courses and once these have been created then their water needs will be met on a priority basis. Inevitably, given the overall scarcity of water this will be at the expense of meeting the water needs of people.

Actually, any honest and careful cost-benefit exercise will reveal that higher investment in improving the existing colonies of the poor and the lower middle class as well as creating new homes for the youth (from the weaker sections as well as middle class) will contribute much more to human welfare when compared to the investments in smart cities. This is true in terms of financial resources, of course, but in addition this is also true about the optimum use of scarce natural resources. We need to be careful about the use of natural resources if excessive pressure on environment is to be avoided. Only to a limited extent smart cities can avoid this pressure by emphasising water conservation/recharge and renewable energy. The basic problems will remain.

Similarly, in the context of railways, the real needs of improving safety and better services of passengers are being pushed to the margins while glamorous new ideas like bullet trains are promoted. Obtaining the highest possible speed and saving some time in the journey between two leading cities cannot be the top priority. In fact train services connecting several leading cities are already reasonably good, while passengers across other vast areas have to suffer a lot. Within cities, much can be done to improve the safety of Mumbai locals.

However, proper priorities can only be ensured by proper planning, and planning is exactly what the new government appears to be in a great hurry to discard. No planning, no priorities means there is even no need to obtain the green signal for bullet trains and smart cities.

Bharat Dogra is a free-lance journalist who has been involved with several social initiatives and movements.