Saving Lokhandwala Lake

2019-20 brings me to to the 20th anniversary of my first big environmental intervention when I got active to challenge and then successfully prevent the illegal reclamation of the 8 acre Lokhandwala Lake between 1999-2000. I saved the lake then and also named it so.

Set among the mangroves behind Lokhandwala Complex in Andheri (W), Mumbai the lake is an artificial lake formed due to the reclamation’s carried out in the 1970s or earlier to create the Versova Sewage Treatment Lagoon and the large electricity substation. A large area between the two divergent approach roads for these infrastructure projects saw access to the adjacent estuary being cut of and as a result of which the mangroves died and the depression became filled with monsoon water and became a lake.

On 7th August, 1999 I was about a month away from the 24th birthday and preparing reluctantly and with some drag for management entrance exams due in December 1999. I was then staying in the first lane of Lokhandwala Complex since five years and would intermittently visit the back road, which is now unrecognizable from what it was then. It was the before everything era. Before mobile phones, before internet as we see it now, before an explosion of cars, before a lot of the real estate, which now define its new identity. Before a time when I could take any photos of the situation and efforts then.

Unrecognizable today, the back road was very popular with morning and evening walkers even then. If anything the walking experience was better. The two roads leading to the electrical substation and the Versova Sewage Lagoon broke out in divergent Y forks from the back road and provided continuous long walking lengths completely free from any motorised transport, having the mangroves on one side and the lake – sandwiched in between – on the other. It was quiet like cannot be imagined now and with copious amounts of clean air, with greenery and a large selection of birds at hand to hear and enjoy for the bird brained.

The road leading towards the (then not operational) sewage lagoon was the hands down favourite. At times during the ‘peak hours’ it could look very much like the present highways during peak hour. In the preceding decade and a half Lokhandwala Complex had exploded in population and had somewhat become a poster boy for the unplanned urbanization in post independence Mumbai and also a metaphor for a concrete jungle. People escaped to this natural oasis juxtaposed next to the concrete jungle. Since the sewage lagoon was under construction there was no functional gate or restriction and people could walk right up to the lagoons and beyond touch the creek. Though a majority stuck till the gate.

The road leading to the Sewage lagoon now.
The road leading to the sewage lagoon. This picture is from January, 2017. The road is now being concretised. All the vegetation on the left is what came up on the reclaimed portion. The lake used to touch the road edge where the low mounds of mud can be seen. It is difficult to imagine now that used to be choc a block fill with walkers before 2002.

In September 2001 the municipal corporation opened a transit garbage collection facility adjacent to the Sewage Lagoon and since then the road has been overtaken by a continuous stream of garbage compactors coming and going. All through the 1990’s this road would be crowded with a stream of morning and evening walkers and day time picnickers and couples.

On 7th August, 1999 in the evening when I visited the Lake, there was no one walking on the road leading to the sewage lagoon – the popular option. Everybody had take to the sub-station road. The road leading to the sewage lagoon was unrecognizable. I was not a regular walker and so much have come after a month or so.

The road had become almost double the size, the vegetation which lined the lake was all gone and replaced by a filling of fresh earth and garbage. The junction had a stench of garbage which became stronger as one walked towards the road to the lagoon. Garbage trucks were dumping their fill on the edge of the lake and pushing it inside. That’s why people had completely stopped using that section.

I was left furious seeing the sight and walked straight towards the trucks which were emptying the garbage. I confronted a young man who must have been only a few years elder to me and questioned him. He was a friendly person and introduced himself as Deepak and was a mukadam with the municipal corporation.

I don’t remember the details of the conversation now but he was clear that the dumping could not stop since he had instructions from his seniors to cover up the lake. There was no way I was listening to all this and so began the efforts which would last over the next six months to ensure that the dumping was completely stopped and did not resume. We could not excavate what was already dumped and had to contend with a new edge for the lake.

Among the first things I did was to go back to my newly bought computer and design A3 size posters with messages to save the lake and invite the walkers to join in the efforts. I would carry it on a floppy disk to Krishna Communication on the main road, take a printout which would be stuck on a card board with which I then stood at the corner between the two roads.

Simultaneously I called up Mr. P K Patel who then stayed in the second lane in Guru Kripa building (now sold his flat and moved out of Mumbai). We were new friends. He must have been about double my age then and we had bonded well over a bird watching trip organised by BNHS in the first week of November 1998. The wader watch would be a popular program of BNHS then in the mudflat of Malad Creek. In that particular walk we had entered into a dense patch of mangroves opposite Millat Nagar which is adjacent to Lokhandwala Complex. That visit is a very long separate story of what would two years later become a highlight of my activism career.

Mr. Patel is a nature lover but not inclined towards activism. He was an RSS Pracharak in his primary public leaning and one of the more active ones in Lokhandwala Complex. Over the coming decade he would become a willing accomplice and partner in all my efforts to save the lake as well as the large swathes of mangroves. Among the first suggestions from him was to approach the actor Mr. Parikshit Sahni who was a regular walker on the back road. Mr. Patel had some acquaintance with him and was of the opinion that he would join the efforts. Much as he had mentioned Mr. Sahni (Parikshitji since then) would take a keen interest. He was a regular walker and he too had changed his direction. I remember we first met him in the morning just a few meters before the sub-station gate.

In those first few weeks, I had stood before the trucks, invited others to join, made life a bit difficult for the dumpers, which slowed down but did not cease. Simultaneously I made my first visit to a ward office in Mumbai; this was the K(W) ward office under which Andheri (West) was one of the areas. The administrative head for the ward would then be called the Ward Officer (now Assistant Municipal Commissioner) and it was Mr. Amar Dubey then.

Mr. Dubey was not much cooperative and I was left with the feeling that this was being coordinated from within the municipal office itself. I realised we will have only increase the agitation on the site.

I now don’t have a day by day and week breakup of the events but in the next few weeks sometime we visited Amar Dubey as a bigger delegation and asked Mr. Sahni to join us. And that of course had a big effect. Mr. Dubey was a changed person and willing to more easily accommodate Mr. Sahni and humour him and give assurances. The administration does love when somebody from the entertainment world drops by into their very worldly existence.

Not everything that Mr. Dubey would assure was followed through on the ground. Over the course it became my and Mr. Patel’s routine to maintain a hawks eye on the situation. I took the lead and making sure that there was a continuous visible presence (and deterrence to the dumpers) from our side on the ground.

I think it was during this period of action is also that Mr. Patel introduced me to the late Mr. S P Gupta, who was also a resident of second lane in Montana building. He was a fire brand senior citizen, a born activist with communist leanings(I think a card carrying member of CPI), who had retired from very senior positions in the Income Tax departments. He was originally a Delhi resident but maybe due to his last posting in Mumbai or the estranged relationship with his family or both he was settled in Mumbai.

A highly sensitive person with public welfare and good governance at heart he had been closely following, commenting and more importantly acting on all the irregularities around the Development Plan and DCRs in Lokhandwala Complex. At least in the second and much bigger innings from 2001-02 and there on I remember very close interaction with him and my first learning of all the intricacies of making changes to land use in the Development Plan, the actors in this collusion, how massive profits are reaped or inducements provided for the same and how the public interest at large gets harmed through the deficiencies in essential public services required to serve a certain density of population.

I could write separately at length on his work and its a general tragedy of Indian existence that there is no interest or audience or support for recording history. Its a timeless nation and society, which has its own wisdom maybe and understands something more than I do – everything goes into the dustbin of history, whose contents have no value for those in the ‘present’.

In a longer separate note for a book, which has not come through till now I have shared in detail my angst and disgust about the upper middle class and elite that come to dominate the Lokhandwala Complex (and it could be the same for pan city or country) and their sheer selfishness and refusal to be involved with public matters.

These are the people who had the luxury of regular walks in the evening or mornings because they were fully supported through their wealth to be able to do so. When their main walking route started seeing reclamation, they effortlessly shifted their walking to another route – no reaction, no stress. I was not even a regular walker and yet when I landed there for a walk after a good many weeks I was devastated enough to move into action immediately. I wont even get into writing here the terrible times we were going through as a family then.

By the time I reacted the lake had been pushed in by 15 feet with no reaction from the regular walkers. I can imagine that 100s of trucks of debris and garbage must have been dumped right in front of their eyes. I think if I had not intervened then the whole lake would have been covered setting a good foundation for illegal slums and commercial establishments like garages etc.

If anything the Maslow’s pyramid, which I would see so celebrated and dished out through the 90’s (as the answer for when environmental issues will finally get addressed) should have set in? This was then, in 1999, now is different but now is not necessarily any better, just more pretense and posturing and great digital marketing tools at hand.

This episode also laid the foundation for my idea to create a local NGO called Lokhandwala Complex Environmental Action Group, which would get functional in the next big involvement in 2001 and then registered by 2004. All of these involvements and more would define my work over the coming decade and create a prominent public image on Mumbai’s then environmental leadership and action landscape. I brought together a lot of like minded people during that decade, convened regular meetings at the back road or in the gardens and created a lot of engagement with local police and other authorities.

There was a time in the first decade when I would be an eager guide (beside one of the watchmen) to all and sundry, happily taking them for a tour of the lake and showing its various features, how and where the dumping started and how we prevented and saved the lake.Before I progressively withdrew post 2012 and then 2015-16 and feel unrecognizable from what I was 20 years ago.

I hardly visit the lake once in a year now and cannot get myself to be involved as effortlessly as I once would. There are others who have joined now but none so keenly and with the same spirit in my opinion.

I had thought of organising a talk or function on 2nd February, 2020 on occasion of World Wetlands Day but these just remain thoughts.

My life, your life

12.04.2020

I presume the lock down in Mumbai/India is because we as a people care for life and would not like to see people dying or incapacitated. Logically speaking, shouldn’t that concern extend to many other areas of the city’s day to day functioning where thousands of lives are lost annually? But is that so?

The lock down perplexes me as someone who has spent a lifetime being involved with numerous environmental, civic and governance issues. At the heart of those efforts have been arguments, which invite concern and need for urgent action towards the life and well being of the citizens of Mumbai. Resolving any of those issues would not require anything as severe as the lock down and many more lives would be saved on an ongoing basis.

What explains this imbalance in approach? I will take one such issue to elaborate on. There could easily be a dozen such case studies, from housing conditions, to quality of air, safety in transport, flooding, tuberculosis and more.

In any given year in the past three decades a minimum of 2000 people have died every year in what is called as the lifeline of Mumbai – the Mumbai Suburban Railway System (MSRS) – that is 2000 people dead every year for 30 years. The total comes to 60,000 people dead. A jaw dropping number by any scale of comparison – a genocide as some would describe. Then there are those who have been grievously injured but not died, and from that subset there must be people who would be better off dead than living.

A significant number die because they just happen to fall off from trains which are packed beyond imagination during peak hour. One moment they are holding on to the grab pole or any other part of the train which they can lay their hand on, next moment they have fallen off from a speeding train resulting in immediate death or grievous injury. In some cases, someone’s head has smashed against the signal poles because they are part of the dangerous bulge out. Others died because in the Mumbai that has grown post-independence the Indian administrators for long did not bother to provide adequate infrastructure for the crossing of railway tracks.

I took up an investigation into those deaths in a detailed manner exactly a decade back as Research Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, Mumbai. That concluded in co-authoring the report Killer Tracks with Dhaval Desai and Deepa Dinesh.

The lock down happened in a matter of a week or ten days of calculation and the concern arising during that duration. And it is seen as the absolutely right thing to do if we are to avoid thousands of deaths. We have done what has never ever happened before in the history of the city, not during World War II, not during the Spanish flu and not even post the Babri Masjid riots though we are close. We have locked down the city for 21 days and may extend it for a few more weeks, all in the interest of saving lives. A city which is the hub of economic activity, the business hub of the country, overnight seeing its functioning being pulverised.

The Prime Minister and many Chief Ministers and bureaucrats are being lauded as guardians of the health and life of citizens. What explains the differences in concern shown by these guardians? Why such a swift response in case of one danger to life and why no resolution even 30 years into the ‘genocide’ on the railway system and many other such issues of concern?

The same offices of Prime Minister and Chief Ministers and bureaucrats and institutions oversee both the issues and have so for decades. In many cases it is the same individuals who have also held influence and only grown in power – the current Maharashtra Chief Minister being only one such example.

I believe it is the democratic nature of the virus – that the virus goes after the most entitled and the most marginalised equally – which has got India worried and locked up and not a value system which has concern for life at its foundation. The ruling elite in India rarely face the consequences that India suffers as a result of their villainy, ineptitude and selfishness. Invocations and stories about karma and justice populate Indian daily discourse and imagination but none of which sees proof in real life just like the case with most Indian laws.

In a rare occasion the ruling elite are faced with no small threat and have acted swiftly. And again, to their considerable advantage while transferring the disadvantage and hardship to the marginalised or those who may be elite but not ruling. Without the lock down the virus could well be taking a toll of the ruling elite. That elite does not face threat by falling off trains or dying in the corridors of public hospitals for want of ICU beds or from tuberculosis as a result of living in inhuman dwellings or as pedestrians crossing roads or railway tracks. Now they have built a new moat for themselves.

Had the virus been something which would have spared them and left only the vulnerable sections affected and dealing with the overwhelmed public health system chances are we would not have been locked down. There would have been hue and cry and a lot of posturing and politics but no lock down. Life would have continued in the corridors of power and elsewhere while televisions showed heart rendering footage and the usual howling and shouting. It is because we the people can suddenly become transmitters of this virus, which can then hurt them that Covid 19 has become a problem worth attending to.

In case of the MSRS deaths there has been 30 years to plan the cities land use and transportation systems in a way that the train system does not see such dangerous crowding levels; people may be inconvenienced and face crowds but will not die while undertaking a daily commute critical to earn their livelihood. All of the knowledge is available and ready for use. That same elite has given grandiose illusions of making the city into a Singapore first and then a Shanghai.

30 years is a long period of time. It is also a period of time from teenage onwards when I have had my deep engagement with numerous civic and environmental issues of the city of Mumbai, which has been the only city I have stayed in, all my adult life. I have seen the evolution of new institutions and policy instruments, partnerships and budgets and five Chief Ministers of Maharashtra pass by during the duration. I have through various permutations and combinations, been part of numerous advocacy efforts to save those lives.

To be correct the system has seen an order of magnitude of improvements during this decade. It is almost unrecognizable from what it was in the last century. And yet the deaths continue. I will not even touch upon the stress levels and the usual user experience benchmarks.

Rapid economic growth through the 90s and 00s and consequent dynamic and rapid changes in housing along a number of new and existing nodes has meant that as capacity increases it has mostly helped ease legacy pressure but has then faced additional pressure from new commuters being added. The same government framework, which has successfully locked down the city is also the one, which decides on this dynamic nature of the city; where additional housing should develop, how it can be affordable, where offices should develop, transport policy, how much people should commute and whether to show concern and compassion for life in taking these decisions or not.

The ruling elite have in this case chosen to enrich themselves in the past three decades at the cost of the welfare of the citizens whose votes and taxes provide them with the power and heft. Instead of judiciously using the land stock in the city the same has become a playground for the most brazen of desperadoes who have carved out and leveraged that land for unimaginable bounties. The 10th century attacks on Indian temples from Central Asian horse mounted raiders has a very evocative touch and feel relatability to any Indian and I can invoke that as an example. This same political and business class has behaved in no less brutal and violent a manner in looting the citizens of Mumbai from what was rightfully theirs and left death, bloodshed, misery in trail with an added insult of intimidation for any protest or efforts to counter their butchery.

And this is the same ruling elite, which over the same past three decades has supported and liberally funded the Ram Mandir campaign. A ruling elite, which cannot provide the right kind of governance will plunder one city and go build a temple in another city, which is nowhere even close on the aspiration list of the same elite for their leisure and business and partying trips and translocation if need be.

This framework – the ruling elite – has in its power to shape the public health system (in Mumbai or elsewhere) which currently is a metaphor for the word third class. It is the lack of such a public health system, which has been a big deciding factor in the lock down checklist. The ruling elite does not have to suffer the consequences of this broken-down public health system.

Now for the irony. Those killed in the Mumbai Suburban Railway System are all in the prime of their age, the demographic dividend of which we (again “we”? Or is it the Indian elite propaganda machinery?) are proud as a brahmastra in the race for global dominion and economic opportunities. They are earning members of their families, are consumers, paying EMIs or repatriating funds to dependents in their villages. In comparison those most vulnerable to the COVID 2019 virus are the elderly and those with weak immune systems or severe comorbidity – existing patients suffering from diabetes, heart disease or cancer. Not exactly the most productive elements of the society. And while we should show compassion for the elderly and the ailing but then why is our balance of favour so skewed?

I could speak at length about many other issues which I have been involved with where sanctity of life is central to the arguments and where we have only been losing to this kleptocracy and brutal ruling elite. I could flag two issues – the brutal relocation of the poor and marginalized through government rehabilitation schemes in Mankhurd and Mahul. Living hells which have introduced the residents to life threatening exposure to tuberculosis and chemical pollution.

In Mumbai, at the least the lock down should help save the number of lives that are lost to the MSRS annually, at best it would be equal to the decadal number of 20,000. 20,000 lives saved after pulverising other aspects of life. People will argue that if there was no lock down then the casualty would be too large to explain for. Maybe one lakh people dead, maybe two lakhs. We do not have that many hospital beds or ventilators to handle the backlash. I would say please wake up. Please direct that energy towards making your MPs and institutions accountable.

[Co-author of the report Killer Tracks by ORF Mumbai 2015, Member of Committee formed the same year by then Minister of Railways Mr. Suresh Prabhu.
Long association with transport and governance improvements in Mumbai as an activist and campaigner.
Founder and Director of Mumbai Sustainability Center]

Air quality on day of Janta Curfew

The biggest impact of the Janta Curfew in my opinion may be in demonstrating to the average Mumbaikar and policy makers and media the efficacy of forcibly shutting down the city (read cars on roads) on days of severe air pollution.

In a television debate a month back on ET Now, which was in response to an exceptionally bad AQI over a few days in Mumbai I had raised a number of important points along with the other panelists. One of the most important was at the end asking for a Graded Response Action Plan being rolled out ASAP to counter such events.

At 12:20 I comment on the terrible coast road project.

17:15 onwards on whether Metro will solve the problem and about Climate Change

What is GRAP? It is a series of decisions to be taken based on the severity of the AQI. Read this article from Delhi where this measure has been first initiated.

In context of Mumbai the first such response would be a radical curtailment of vehicles on the roads on days of bad AQI, thus effectively calling for a partial or total shutdown. This would not hurt the economy as much as it would be made out to be and would not halt the movement of trains and buses. The bottom of the pyramid which has been most impacted during the corona crisis would be least affected in this case since they anyways do not use cars. Those affected would be individuals who only travel by cars and that segment can sit home and relax as they are doing now. And not be impacted financially in anyways.

Why should it require a virus to understand such a point?

Janta curfew adds to the evidence that the economy and the people are so much better off with severe curbs on private vehicles, which are a few peoples convenience and everyone’s (including those few) inconvenience.

Bad AQI in Mumbai is invariably the result of atmospheric conditions. The sum total of emissions spewed out by the 2.5 million odd vehicles on Mumbai’s roads remains a constant on any given day. Whether the emissions will result in bad AQI is a function of temperature, wind, humidity and other such factors.

Beyond the complex details, there are days when the atmospheric conditions support the flushing out of these toxic emissions and there are other days when the atmospheric conditions do not support the flushing out and instead allow the emissions to accumulate over the city thus exposing the whole population to a very deadly cocktail of pollutants.

It is for days like this that a Graded Response Action Plan needs to roll out as per a pre-decided drill which is known to every citizen and agreed upon. The foremost of these measures would be a radical curb on private motorized transport, the number one cause of emissions in the city. What is my data source for this claim? How do I validate? A day like Janta Curfew helps make the point without having to be burdened with counter arguments asking one to validate claims. The same city that sees unsatisfactory to poor range most times saw crisp air quality. The only difference was no vehicles on the roads. I can pull in a lot of data from existing studies but the idea is to keep it simple and common sense.

AQI on 22.03.2020, day of Janta curfew

Atmospheric scientists know with a fair deal of accuracy in advance about days when the conditions will not be viable for a flushing out. It is the role of the policy makers lead by the Mayor and the Municipal Commissioner, which needs to make advance announcement of days when there would be severe curbs on movement of cars on the roads.

https://www.windy.com/-Embed-widget-on-page/widgets?19.119,72.924,11

If impact on the economy is a fear then those days which coincide with a Sunday or close about can easily be considered. There are easily 10 days during the winter when the severity is enough to classify the impact as a severe health risk. A GRAP determined forced shutdown would make a radical difference on those 10 days and give enormous relief to vulnerable segments.

And we do not need much resources to control cars on the roads. Singapore and London have done it all with the considerable support from Indian IT companies. You need ERP gantries on all important junctions and every car which crossed those on the red listed days would be charged Rs. 1000 per crossing or something like that. There are enough in the city for whom that is loose change and instead of that loose change going to alcohol companies and lifestyle it will be made available for a dedicated transport fund which would invest in public transport and overcoming deficits.

How serious is the problem of air pollution for Mumbai?

That question should not need an answer. Other panelists Bhagwan Kesbhat and Vivek Chattopadhyay very well explained but the answer has been available for more than two decades. I am reminded of the Vinay Mohan Lal Committee more than two decades back and the number of measures taken and suggested. Since then a huge growth in vehicles, increased size of the city and an enormous increase in the number of kilometers traveled per day has wiped out and over ridden any gains.

Poor air quality impacts everybody and is a clear and present danger at all times unlike corona situation which is a once in a while passing storm. I have been calling the panic around corona a tamasha. If public health really was of concern then the public and the authorities acting on their behalf would have been doing so much more on real issues which matter. The mortality from poor air quality or more importantly DALY is far more serious an issue.

But GRAP is not enough.

The overall thinking and planning carried out by the government institutions which govern the city makes a difference. MMRDA and MCGM are the two cash rich city bodies which do two things, make policy and spend money. In both these aspects they have taken the worst kind of decisions over the past two decades. Decisions which have only lead to more motorised transport and result in poor AQI, which in turn necessitates GRAP. These are issues which have been discussed threadbare by numerous planners, policy makers and activists over the years. Everyone of them has warned of the consequences of the misdirected thinking of those who govern. Whether the decline of support to the public bus service or investments in projects like the coastal road or absence of UMTA and parking policy and much more.

At moments like the corona virus the Municipal Commissioner is seen and portrayed as a hero by the media. Any questioning at such a point would be (and would be seen as) inappropriate. But I don’t see any such discussions in non-crisis which holds decision makers accountable. Who will analyse the decisions taken over the past two decades? Bureaucrats and Mayors are unapproachable and consider themselves above panelists who appear and contribute for discussions.

The public on its part is a herd by now with little knowledge and inclination. The average educated elite persons political discourse, its vocabulary and syllabus is so limited as to make it impossible to engage them on such issues. They can only bang utensils (or be critical of such measures) and clap for the services of those who address the symptoms and are clueless about those who go after the underlying malaise. And they hold their views with fervour and self-righteousness. The political and administrative class couldn’t be happier.

Essential services?

People only understand post facto measures as essential. Doctors and nurses attending to patients. I would argue that the work I and my limited ilk does is far more essential and important but it goes poorly appreciated and rewarded. A lung physician at a top hospital in the city will rake in crores as income dealing with the problem and have properties and investments but as an activist dealing with preventing the problem I can never be sure of being able to pay myself a stable salary or run my small NGO or salaries of staff, far less own multiple properties as investments.

In 2015 I had written a blog called Equal Budgets for Equal Streets, which was then carried as an article in Times of India, Mumbai Edition. The article was in the context of the Equal Streets event (for which I was one of the early contributor and organiser)

Article in Time of India, December 2014

Urban transport policy has been an integral part of my efforts as an activist over the same past two decades. But that is not the only area of involvement intricately linked with air quality. My successful efforts at saving large tracts of mangrove forests beginning from my immediate neighborhood in the beginning of the last decade was pivoted on the argument of better air quality and flood mitigation.

Then there is the issue of solid waste management. The city has been following a ruinous model of pick and dump soaked in corruption and malpractices. The garbage burns on the dumps and millions of litres of diesel is burnt annually to transport all that waste. Again enormous contributions by some of us but the same Municipal Commissioners (office not individual) who are seen as heroes in such crises take all the wrong decisions and insidiously and invisibly cause slow damage over a decade.

Now on cars

Cars are drawing away the essential vitality of our urban areas. Any arguments to curb their use are seen as anti-development and Luddite in India. All while the world is moving ahead. Instead of designing a next generation of cities we are neither here nor there. Cars are private goods whose profits go to a few while the negative effects are borne by everyone. Those negative effects need to be priced just like one would fine spitting or urinating in public. Road space is a public space owned by everyone and anyone who uses more of it should more for it. Parking policy is scoffed at but people cannot be taking up public space without paying for it. Similarly cars in motion are causing congestion and air pollution and need to be fined for it. In the past few days BEST – the public bus service has seen a rapid improvement in its turnaround time because there is less traffic. If a bus can turn around in 30 mins rather than 60 mins it can do two rounds and transport twice the number of people. We need more people transported per hour not cars.

Cars and air pollution are bigger dangers than corona virus. Hope the Prime Minister and the Chief Minister will be looking into this post the corona storm.

Ganpati Bappa Morya and Mumbai monsoon mayhem – points further to television debates today

I was not inclined to join the ET Now debate at 9pm but eventually did. Below is the link

Some points I can now elaborate on, which is not possible in a 30 minute slot.

Point 1

Sujay Kantawala’s, suggestion that citizen experts and community workers be on various government panels is way too long overdue. I would say that to supplement that, what we need more importantly is for citizens to participate in their local politics, their elected representatives need to be petitioned, the ward annual budgets and works need to be supervised and taken interest in. None of that happens. For decades now I have been left holding to alone and applying one of my favourite words “Eternal vigilance is the price we pay for freedom” No such fascination among peers and fellow citizens. This requires wisdom on which I have elaborated in Point 2.

All of this was well piloted since the time AGNI came into existence 20 years ago but with the advent of social media and the digital age, face to face connect has disappeared or taken a backseat compared to what people do on Facebook.

Another point to add is that some of us who have been at this city improvement path for a very long time have been let down by the very citizens and society in whose interest we speak. By now there should have been support from the public for me and so many others to be in politics and have some leverage in the decision making process rather than just spout wisdom on television debates.

I entered politics a decade back contesting the Lok Sabha 2009 election but left it at that seeing the amount of energy and effort and the inability to raise financial resources to support this endeavour through honest means. Other city residents could have stepped in to provide necessary support for an office, staff, travel and the usual. But nothing. You cannot have the kind of ridiculous bad quality elected representatives that we have and expect to “deserve” anything better.

Point 2

For this point I will be unpopular but has to be said. The city does not show a fraction of the enthusiasm for civic affairs and those who champion for them that it shows for the Ganesh Utsav. It is an insight which really sustains the current state of affairs.

People will purchase a new lifeless idol every year and fall in love with it and get cute and cuddly and prayer to it but will not have an iota of interest in a living city and some of us living beings who are working at keeping and improving life in that city. It got tiring long back, now I feel exhausted. A prisoner of my own device.

Over 20 years of my close involvement with Mumbai issues I have seen people pray to that lifeless idol and get rewarded with Green Cards and lifestyle and move to enjoy more well managed and aesthetic cities and I have spent the better years of my life and still do (though much less now) on its issues. Essential India to understand. #beinghindu

If there was indeed wisdom spouting from Ganpati then that wisdom would have seen his devotees learning from the 2005 floods and many more such events and move to better and better management. If there was wisdom we would not have seen such a terribly insecure and guarded Devendra Fadnavis (after a full majority) but a more confident and courageous CM convening people across party and support lines to come together in making Mumbai a well managed city.

People do not have a Ganpati Utsav in a London or a Singapore and Shanghai and Paris and possibly that’s why those cities are wiser in their management. And it is the Ganpati devotees who go all out to enjoy and devour these cities. They pray that they get wealth or jobs, which will take them away from the drab aesthetics and bad management of this city (and many more in this country) to greener pastures in the Christian world of Europe and America.

For me this is a god who does not deliver well on any of those promised qualities that are suggested and is a failure. The Brahmins need to take note and correct the defects in their product. Yes he works wonders at the individual level and has rewarded handsomely the very political class and terribly selfish middle class over the past 30-40 years of my life and observing the whole game but then that is the same political class in partnership with the the none so wise middle class, which has made the city what it is.

Wisdom would have meant that there would be a clear realisation that Metro and coast road will not solve traffic congestion. But it seems it is this very god who has removed all the obstacles to unwise and folly ridden projects with not so honest intentions, which are disguised in not so intelligent positions.

I am happy being me and the celebration class is happy being them and it seems the twain shall never meet.

Point 3

I already answered to Shaina’s point about coast road and Metro but to add to it I must say that this government has been disappointing for its levels of insecurity and pettiness. The time really is to collaborate but this has been a government in a huddle not wanting to let in anybody it is uncomfortable with.

In no single coming together of people is there complete agreement, there are fights in families, disagreements in office projects but through all of this people realise that the only way to achieve anything is through collaboration. And so I would like to invite her for a discussion off panel discussions, to put heads together to work on numerous avenues available where there is no clash in positions.

Through a tweet I am marking the post to Tamanna Inamdar, Senior Editor at ET Now and the host, Sujay Kantawala and Shaina NC.

Mumbai Metro – Citiflo integration

The image below appeared in Times of India on 23rd March, 2016

a95ce1ae-116e-4e5e-8186-55bf287fd54e

There will be difficulties in the success of the partnership between Mumbai Metro and bus aggregator Citiflo. The same obsacles which plague BEST buses and rickshaws will also affect the Citiflo operations leading to financial stress. No doubt Citiflo must have done its calculations but the moot point to observe in the information provided in image above is that a distance of 5kms is proposed to be covered in 30-40 mins i.e a speed of 10kmph or less. This is the same problem affecting BEST buses, they cannot turn around fast enough are spending most of their time idling in traffic, which is what the Citiflo buses will also do. Of course the passengers will be sitting in air-conditioned comfort, while still wasting as much of their time.

The objective has to be to make sure that a distance of 5 kms is covered in less than 15mins and the solution is to create new road(s) to access the hinterland consisting of Chandivali and Powai and to reduce load on the ridiculously overloaded Saki Vihar Road.

The low rise slum pockets which carpet between Saki Naka station and Subhash Nagar/Asalpha Station need to be the focus of attention and have indeed been so. Last year in September some of us were invited to view this presentation which had Asalpha as a case study.

The image below will help highlight the situation. Three placemarks to focus on – Asalpha Metro Station, Nahar Amrut Shakti Colony and the commercial complex called Boomerang. The straight red line between Asalpha and Nahar measures 800 meters. That is all that the distance is, which normally would get covered in 5 mins. But currently Nahar Complex has to be approaced via Saki Vihar Road and Saki Naka Station, doubling the distance and the time taken during peak hour congestion can easily be 20-30 mins.

All that is needed is a straight road to be developed from Asalpha Metro Station to Nahar Amrut Shakti. Beyond this there are existing roads connecting to Chandivali and Powai. The road should have a minimum of 15 feet wide footpaths on both sides, thus enabling those staying in Nahar Complex to just walk to Asalpha Station.

Even streamlining the existing Kherani Road can offer immediate relief. Kherani Road during peak hours is a sad sight to see and speaks volumes of the neglect of urban planning and the complete lack of compasion and vision within the city to offer the most simplest of solutions to its citizens.

Asalpha1

A close up image

Asalpha2

None of this is unsurmountble, even as the dense cluster of slums may look intimidating. With the right planners and adminstrators 2-3  years maximum. In a better governed city this would have been made mandatory on Nahar Developers to create such a road before undertaking any construction on their site.

But such kind of thinking and work draws no interest from anybody but the planners and those who are into advocacy. Companies like Mumbai Metro and Citiflo have their immediate balance sheets to look into and the commuters whose problems they (and activists) are trying to solve are plugged into FM Radio or playing video games on the phones. Most of them do not even read such news reports.

Coast Road diary

18.01.2015

Today I spent time trying to understand what will be the capacity to transport of the coast road project.The 128 odd km train network transports 7 million people everyday. 4000 BEST buses running on whatever number of route kms transport 4 million people. Similarly the 36km coast road, how many people will it transport?

For example if the project is 36 kms long and has four lanes and if each lane is 3.5 meters wide then we have a conveyor belt whose total area will be

For one kilometer

1000 meters into 14 meters = 14000 sq.mtrs.

For 36kms

14000 x 36kms = 504000 sq mtrs.

Now if each car(to begin with only cars) is occupying 25 sq. mtrs of space then we can have 504000/25 = 20160 cars on this conveyor belt – two lanes are for south and two for north.

Now if these lanes are moving at a consistent speed of 50kmph then how many vehicles pass through in an hour? How many people (depending on vehicle type, single person driving a car or a bus full of people) would be transported in an hour? How many in a day.

I checked the coast road report and realised that the dimensions of the road are much more

Widths of coast road

We will see a total road width of 36ms so the above calculation changes to

1000 x 36 = 36000 sq. mtrs.

For 36 kms

36000 x 36 = 1296000 sq mtrs area

And 1296000/25 = 51840 cars

Subsequently I decided to check up on google and found this useful document – technical paper from Transport for London on the same subject. Though the document has not given the answer it has all the correct formulae and principles to be followed. Now hopefully I will be able to with the assistance of more trained people be able to ascertain how many people will be able to flow in the peak directions on the coast road.

My concern is that as per the coast road they are providing 18 meters of road in each direction which is 60 feet wide. I do not see any road along the west coast which is 60 feet wide – one side? Everybody moving on the coast road has to join the mainland sometime and when four lanes converge into less than two lanes like in Bandra and Juhu and Andheri then will that not lead to traffic backing up on the coast road? Leading to traffic jams transferring from the internal city roads to the coast road?

Importance of public transport – the difference between Mumbai and Pune

I had a good conversation with my friend Neha whom I met after long. We were meeting to discuss her interest in doing something for the cleaning of Mithi river but since she had shifted to Pune it was natural to catchup on how she finds life there. She was quite unhappy with Pune as a city since it seemed to lack the energy and vitality which is so endemic to Mumbai. Probing further the number one reason turned out to be the absence of good mobility options, which could enable her to move around the city more freely for work, hobby or leisure. In the absence of a public transport system like in Mumbai she was left restricted to her home and work most times having to decide on every meeting and interaction outside of this from the lack of mobility options.

Being from Mumbai she was used to having a functional and comparatively speaking great public transport system in place, which can absolve people from the need to own a vehicle or two-wheeler to drive around. There is great trunk network in terms of the railway system which can be accessed in 30 mins from anywhere to go long distance and within the local areas the taxi, autorickshaw and bus network is dense and excellent. There are ten areas for improvement that I can point out for Mumbai but when one gets an external perspective it makes you appreciate all that is going right (and which we unfortunately are not investing in for the future).

She works in a technology company and is stuck to her office transport. A company bus comes to pickup at 7:30am and drops back by 6pm. Timings are fixed and have to adhered to if you do not want to miss. How much more boring can things get? There is absolutely no bus service or train or metro to access the office. auto rickshaws do not charge as per meter and are not easily available. Traveling by fleet taxis like Ola or Meru or Uber on a daily basis is too expensive. And she cannot drive a two wheeler and does not want to own a car.

In Mumbai she never had the need to own a two wheeler or car and consequently does not even know how to drive either. Rickshaws in Pune are badly governed in most parts and can charge unreasonably.

The bus network in Pune is pathetic. She was critical of the need to have spent public funds on BRTS since there is no congestion on Pune roads. And if money had to be spent on the project then it should have been completed and made functional. The public bus service is more like the state bus transport service and nothing which anybody in the middle class and working in the technology or ITES place would work in.

People like to go for art exhibitions or dance or theater performances or just loiter in favourite parts of their city, which need not be the closest from their residence or go for dinners and lunches or for a hobby classes or be part of advocacy group meetings or meet friends or shopping and more. In the absence of affordable and convenient mobility options a lot of these activities which contribute to a more fulfilled and improved quality of life are left as a preserve of only those who can afford to move around in personal transport or cars. The options maybe better for the lower socioeconomic bracket since they may choose bicycling (where too not many women) or using public bus service but the frequency is not that good.

Mobility provides opportunities for economic opportunities and a more full filling life and it should be among the fundamental priorities of any city government. Left unattended mobility will be left for only those who can afford it and it will lead to an overall deterioration of the cities economic ability and cultural profile.

At a time when the government is of speaking of Smart Cities it would be worthwhile to have a mission mode focus on first providing the basics of a good affordable public transport system in the 65 cities chosen as part of JNNURM. My recent article Leadership for Smart Cities

As part of some additional information for writing this post I searched “map of route density of buses in London” and came to this interesting link

http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2012/apr/18/london-bus-travel-map

A similar search for Pune brought this interesting link

http://www.mrane.com/punebusmap.php

About BRTS and dedicated lanes

Her remarks on BRTS reminded me of the continuous difference of opinion that I have with some members in Mumbai Transport Forum – our sustainable transport community in Mumbai – that as far as buses we need not worry much about providing dedicated lanes or BRTS alone to increase the use of buses by people.

My contention for buses in Mumbai is that we need to focus hard on the aesthetics, comfort (which means AC as well), hygiene, use of IT for predicting times, far improved bus stops and bus priority measures through signals or other means. We need to increase bus frequency on all trunk routes, even it means buying more buses to compensate for the higher turn around time of buses due to congestion.

Once we take care of this a sizeable amount of people who are currently anyways idling in their cars will shift to buses, preferring to reduce the burden if they are the ones driving or for cost reasons. A lot of those using taxis or auto rickshaws for longer routes would also shift.

In the Pune context there are just no worthwhile buses on the road at all. People will be interested in dedicated lanes and speeds for the buses if they first see the buses on the road, which they can use. Putting a BRTS corridor in place without first not investing in improving the fleet and quality of the existing public bus service is like going for cake before bread or putting the cart before the horse.

Buses provide an excellent choice for providing public transport for cities. Require very little additional infrastructure utilizing existing roads. Cost economical. They can be quickly put to service and can provide a better reach.

 

Images from Mumbai

Inside an AC BEST bus Mumbai A bus depot in Mumbai AC Fort Ferry 1 bus

 

Spectacular disinterest on Climate Change in Mumbai

Even as New York City – and many more cities globally – saw one of the largest public congregations demanding action on climate change, the silence in Mumbai was nothing short of spectacular. I was informed of only one very small and local march in Dadar (West) but there was nothing like the big euphoria and prior planning and social media drum up before the event. There has been absolutely no coverage of even the global events in any of the English dailies and clearly the editors know their audience very well.

I had thoughts about organising something but I am now nowhere as active as I was in the last decade.

Towards the mid of last decade Mumbai too came to be swayed by the great outreach carried out by Al Gore and team in taking Inconvenient Truth to the world. To me it was annoying to see every tom dick and harry to be organizing screenings of the movie. I never saw any interest in the same people and organisations – the Rotary’s and business chambers of the world – towards any of the here and now issues.

I was involved in so many of those here and now environmental issues in the front line and trenches and could have done with some show of mass enthusiasm and support on them. Saving the mangroves, cleaning the Mithi, improved public transport to avoid emissions and congestion, energy efficient buildings, solid waste management and the usual jazz. Support for Al Gore was easy but not for one of them within the city. And then India wants to become a super power when it doesn’t have the faintest of clue or interest in what soft power is – of course I should not forget Bollywood and the influence of Amitabh Bachchan. In 2007 even the US government was recognizing some of my leadership by inviting for the IVLP program but there was no interest in any government authority here.

That was also the time when I was more motivated and enthused with the co-benefits of tackling climate change. The here and now benefits compared with what will happen a bit down the century. How better public transport is as much about climate change but has an immediate relevance in better quality of air and quality of life, how saving mangroves prevents floods now as much as provide resilience to climate change decades down the line. I had my doubts whether all those so enthusiastically screening the movie and the droves attending it had any serious interest in doing something about the issue. And it seems vindicated with the response in the past month to the People Climate March.

To me the craze with screening Inconvenient Truth and Al Gore was symptomatic of the the craze to be associated with all things white and American which this country suffers from. There were so many of these wealthy middle class teenagers and those in their early 20s organising all kind of arbitrary events on climate change – distributing solar lamps, organising talks by teen counterparts in America, equivalent stuff in the adults. There was the Indian Youth Climate Network formed.

So now when there is such a poor response in Mumbai to one of the most significant events globally, I am left wondering what happened to all those enthusiastic – though I found them very shallow- kids who were doing all the jumping around on climate change in the last decade? A lot of last decades events were given a push up by supporting US organisations and I guess that is what was missing this time around. Left on their own the folks here are incapable.

Even then it was becoming clear to me that in the youth most of the enthusiasm revolved around showing extra-curricular activity on their resumes when they make applications to the Universities in America and Europe. Very little of their enthusiasm and motivation was about any serious interest in developing India’s response to climate change. It is easier to mouth generalities working in the UN and WB than handle their city governments within. It is quite apparent that at least in Mumbai there is no significant new strong young leadership coming up to champion for environmental issues in general or climate change.

Nothing more to say except mark a milestone in my recording of India’s response to climate change  – which is quite pathetic – on which I was posting mostly in the last decade. More in the link below. I think I am quite vindicated about the poor opinion I had about all those who were so enthusiastically organizing and watching the Inconvenient Truth screenings.

https://rishiaggarwaal.wordpress.com/category/climate-change/

Neglect of North Mumbai transport infrastructure

13th July 2014

I experienced a new route to travel to Pune and realised how as a city we are cheating ourselves of a good quality of life by denying essential transport infrastructure which should have been developed decades ago but is nowhere in sight as of today.

A friend from Mulund was going the same way and going by his car and suggested I meet him at Nahur Bridge which joins the Airoli Bridge and is a straight route from there to the Pune Express Way. I stay in Oshiwara MHADA, Andheri (W) and with the new Metro in place coming to the Central line is no longer a foreboding thought. I took a bus from close home to the nearest Metro Stop at Azad Nagar, got on the Metro, got down at Ghatkopar and took the Central line train to Nahur and then walked to the highway.

No travel trip goes waste for me, always exposing me to sights and sufferings, which I would otherwise not have seen (those who are regular on these routes go through this everyday) and in this case the misery of people coming from Nahur Station to the Eastern Express Highway was experienced first hand by me. But this blog is not about the suffering of those people right now. The kind of suffering people are going on Nahur Bridge and onward to Airoli is to be seen to be believed. The Mayor and other politicians and IAS officers who sit in the cozy comforts in the head office and travel to work and home in air-conditioned red beacon cars would never identify with the suffering at many such places in the city.

During the return trip I was not as eager to do all these three interchanges back but the only alternative was the road route back in a cab and that would have been a time killer. It occurred to me that the Goregaon Mulund Link Road (GMLR) should be the exact transport link which would make it so much easier for me to reach Nahur Bridge and back from Andheri (W) area.

The map below shows the two route options

Andheri - West to Nahur route options
Andheri – West to Nahur route options

Red is the existing route which I took and break up is as below

Oshiwara MHADA to Azad Nagar – Bus or autorickshaw –    3.75 kms
Azad Nagar to Ghatkopar – Metro –                                             9.25 kms
Ghatkopar to Nahur Station – By Train –                                    9.25 kms
Nahur Station to Nahur Bridge – Walk                                       300 meters through bad footpath, water logging and exposure to rain.

The total trip is 22.5 kms and takes a little over an hour.

Green route which is what can be provided

There is a portion of the route passing through the green forested section which would be a tunnel connecting Mulund on the eastern side and Goregaon on the eastern side.

The door to door route length is about 16.5 kms of which the tunnel component is 5.5 kms.

Buses can run between Seven Bungalows Depot or Oshiwara Depot in the Andheri – Goregaon region and ply till Airoli bus depot and never go empty. This route would free up unnecessary load on the railways or the metro or even on some of the roads.

The tunnel is the only component which needs to be developed and all of the other 11 kms of roads required are in place. There is absolutely no problem with encroachments on the Mulund side though Goregaon side might be tricky with a lot of formal development by prime developers like Rahejas and Mantri having come up just where the tunnel entry/exit should be. Not insurmountable and would never have been a problem had this tunnel been built even as late as ten years back. This is how infrastructure takes a back seat even as developers shape the city land use and people come to stay and work and for decades go through struggle wasting precious time.

Providing the green route would make a difference to millions of lives and greatly relieve the burden on other transport systems.

A recent news report mentions GMLR requiring a 9.2 kms of road with need for reclamation, road on stilts etc. and that may not have a tunnel option which would not be the best option I think. I still need to study any report from BMC

 

 

 

Sincere City not Smart City

Smart City is the new lingo being banded about in context of Indian cities. It seems to be the Mantra for cities for the new Modi government in place. Having been involved with improvements in the quality of urbanisation primarily in Mumbai for a fairly long time I think foremost the most critical and essential requirement for India’s urbanisation today is sincerity and not all the technological imagery that is being bandied about. The existing top 50 cities and urban agglomerations of India are completely capable of delivering the highest quality of life for a significant amount of India’s population if they are governed well and with sincerity. When there is sincerity and integrity then the right technological solutions flow effortlessly; in the absence of integrity it will be impossible to apply the right solutions to existing Indian cities or build new ones..

Today what is stopping the existing Indian cities and agglomerations from delivering is the complete lack of transparency and accountability in the way they are governed. Public money is squandered in unaccounted projects and there are blatant manipulations of various urban policies to benefit vested interests while millions suffer a poorer quality of life. Urban areas for good or bad will be the centers of economic and human development in the foreseeable future and yet what is happening in Indian cities currently is a complete betrayal of national interest.

It is more than a decade now that I have been involved with urban issues in Mumbai as an activist making noise about irregularities and pushing for the right governance construct in which decisions should be taken. While there is progress, overall there is no improvement in the quality of life. I will pick examples of gross insincerity from a few of my involvements. None of this is limited to Mumbai; I follow other cities in India and being in touch with activists and technical experts in those cities suggests it is the same tale of woe across all the top metros of India.

Let us start with whether we have smart citizens in the first place? In all my interactions over the years with that segment of people which consists of the audience or ‘market’ for improved cities I have found in most a singular lack of understanding about how their municipal corporations work, simple understanding about budgets, various committees which decide on multiple issues in the city and the way these committees sanction public money for various projects.

Civil society members are squeamish about discussing the conduct or character of the elected representatives and senior officials who take decision not wishing any personal confrontation and hoping things will somehow change by talking in generalities.

If this is the case with budgets, the case with understanding public policy is far worse. The numerous ways in which the working of a city can be distorted with decisions about how to use land or how much to build on each unit of land or the kind of transport to be encouraged is beyond the understanding of even the well educated. How can we have a smart city without smart residents? The politicians are perfectly happy with such dumb residents who can easily be swayed by ‘smart’ rhetoric. A smart city would be one where at least ten percent of its residents are smart enough to understand the ABC of governance.

The city gives its purse strings to the incompetent and the downright diabolical but will not make available a paisa to those with integrity and passion and enormous competency. Is such a smart city? Is it a function of technology to provide your citizens with information about how you have used their money for which you are only a care taker as an elected representative or an IAS officer who is trained to supply good governance? Those who were sincere could provide that information even before the computer or typewriter was invented, those who are insincere will not do so in the day and age of ERP software and smart phone apps.

Mumbai’s pathetic roads is a good place to discuss next. You cannot drive for two minutes without having to slow down on a bumpy stretch. Even some arterial roads where the surface will be good will see a few sections which are broken. If not anything then almost all the traffic junctions of the city have the most potholed sections reducing the throughput during signal cycle and causing traffic to pile up during peak hours. This is leading to high levels of stress for the citizens, wear and tear of vehicles, high productivity loss for some of the most hard working people in the country, increased vehicular emissions and enormous fuel wastage which impacts our foreign exchange position.

Year after year crores of public money are spent on filling potholes and fixing broken stretches which in no time reappear. The whole process is nebulous and many a person in the administration and the contractors have been able to build a fancy lifestyle for themselves from this racket. Here too smart gets bandied. There is a lovely lingo of various technologies to fix potholes, machines from Germany and Austria to be imported, fancy processes and all that. Had there been sincerity then the nagar sevaks would have been delivering rather than going for visits abroad to get the right ‘smart’ technology for Mumbai.

Then there are vendors and bureaucrats who offer to sell ‘smart’ IT solutions to monitor traffic congestion using GPS and data from cell towers and cameras and what not. They are a separate set of solution providers unconcerned with the road department and how it functions. There is no integrated unified planning for transport in the city. Every cartel finds its own niche in controlling a part of public money and seeks to ‘optimally’ leverage the control. It is these cartels which are now firmly in control of the smart city propaganda. Is anybody talking sincere city?

Now the latest fancy project of the politicians and bureaucrats is to develop a 36km coast road along the western coast of Mumbai at a cost of Rs. 9000 crores which they are touting as the one final solution to all of Mumbai’s traffic congestion problems. The report prepared by the municipal corporation reeks of insincerity, makes no pretense of hiding its biases and violates all basis norms of report writing. Just so as to defuse the opposition from the sustainable transport advocacy groups the same bureaucrats who have sabotaged a BRTS for Mumbai are even dangling a carrot that they will run a BRTS on this corridor.

Would it not be smart to have your 2000 kms of road network in good shape and improve throughput by a minimum of 20 percent from the same roads rather than spend Rs. 9000 crores on a 36 km coast road with a false promise that it will solve all of the cities traffic congestion problems? Is it not insincerity and cheating when you do not look into the travails of 12 million people as they go about using the existing road network? And the money and other resources are all there.

All of America is now realising what a public finance nightmare it is to create funds for renewing highways and all those flyover which looked so cool and ‘smart’ in the 60’s. America has the luxury of printing as much money as it wants to fund its infrastructure and is still not able to put it all together. In the 21st century smart would be defined as learning from the mistakes of the 20th century. Smart would be what is happening in Europe today and the incredibly experience rich public transport and non motorised transport infrastructure that is coming up in its top 50 cities. All of this is happening with a lot of technology but determined by a smart vision founded on a strong base of integrity.

A smart city is one which can understand terms like mixed land use and sustainable mobility and which can have the vision before the technology as was again and again exhorted at a conference in July by a team of technocrats from EU nations who had been flown in to give some insight to Indian bureaucrats for suggestions on how to solve the waste and other environmental problems of Mumbai. The bureaucrats not surprisingly were looking only for technology and could care much less about all this vision nonsense.

Smart is seen to be a function of technology, of vendors who can supply the right gadgets and IT enabled services and of big budget spends. Thus you will have dustbins fitted with RFID tags and weight sensor which will monitor when a dustbin is full and send out a radio signal to a collection van to collect before it starts over spilling. Not mixing waste and doing high level of segregation at source is not advertised because that will affect the business of those companies which in cahoots with politicians have the contracts to transport waste to dumping grounds. Solid waste management is one area where this fraud of ‘smart’ and technology has been played to the hilt. Mumbai itself has seen itself cheated by its officials and elected representatives in the name of using technology to alleviate the city’s garbage problems.

The Smart agenda has existed around for sometime now. As any of the biggies in the space – IBM, Siemens, CISCO and the like – about how much business have they got? Completely non-descript low key companies make the mark in whatever IT work goes on. I am not saying for once that small and medium enterprises should be discriminated against. All that I am saying is that we need the best value for our money and merit should win over any other parameter. Here the space is crowded with companies which win in an L1 contract and after tying up with some front company of a politicians son. Is this smart?

I hope the PMO and the MOUD will start an aggressive agenda to first bring sincerity into the way Indian cities are governed.

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This blog post has also appeared as article on Scroll.in

http://scroll.in/article/672826/India-doesn%27t-need-smart-cities.-It-needs-smart-citizens