Everybody loves a “smart city”. From Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York City, to the European Union to Chinese steel makers looking for a slice of our urban renewal pie — everyone is eager to help the Narendra Modi government roll out its 100 Smart Cities plan. Now that the Union Cabinet has cleared the Smart Cities Mission with an outlay of Rs 48,000 crore, and set aside another Rs 50,000 crore for the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation for some 500 cities, expect more sweet love for the recasting of India’s urban landscape.
All this should be music to us — the city-dwelling types, and our country cousins who love the idea of being surrounded by high rises with sparkling glass facades. But there is a niggling question that threatens to spoil the party spirit — Will these smart cities create smart children?
They clearly will not, if current trends are anything to go by. Children are growing up in our cities breathing poisonous air, drinking poor quality water and eating enormous amount of pesticides with their food, far above international or even national limits. To add to that, poor children in our cities are growing up without satisfactory sanitation facilities, going to schools where teachers are absent more often than they are present, going to these schools packed like sardines in unsafe vehicles, having to queue up for hours at government-run health facilities every time they fall ill.
How exactly will the smart cities address these issues? Who are these smart cities for? Consider the situation of children in “normal” cities in the country today. For everyone except the super-rich and super-insulated, life isn’t pretty. By 2050. India’s urban population is set to exceed 800 million, from the 300 odd million today. In almost every city, the infrastructure is unable to keep pace with the population growth, leading to festering sores of squalor co-existing with swishness. Everyone pays a price for the mess, but children pay more.
International NGO Save the Children’s “State of the World’s Mothers 2015” report released this week throws up inconvenient truths: India is one of the 10 countries in the world with the greatest survival divide between wealthy and poor urban children. Others who figure in this list include Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ghana, Madagascar and Nigeria.
In a scalding observation, bound to set the conspiracy theorists aflutter, the report which focuses on the urban disadvantage says that the quality of life of mothers and children in Delhi’s urban slums is among the worst in the world and the health inequity between the rich and the poor is stark.
The report pointed out that despite the comparative advantage of cities, the poorest urban children often do worse on health indicators than rural populations in the same country. For example, in 40 per cent of the cities studied, measles immunisation rates among poor urban children are lower than the rate among rural children.
It is not only the children of India’s urban poor who are at risk. Air pollution is putting at risk even middle-class urban children, another recent study revealed. While rising air pollution in the country poses serious health risks for all, it impacts children more seriously as they are still growing and physiologically ill-equipped to deal with pollution. Delhiites know that they inhale foul air day in and day out. But it is terrifying to read that the capital’s children have the weakest lungs compared to kids from other metros.
A survey conducted by HEAL Foundation and Breathe Blue shows that four out of every 10 kids in the capital suffer from severe lung problems. The survey says about 35 per cent school-going children fared badly in Lung Health Screening Test (LHST), indicating poor air quality across India. Out of this, a disturbing 21 per cent of the children surveyed in Delhi were categorised as “poor” followed by 14 per cent in Bengaluru, 13 per cent in Mumbai and nine per cent in Kolkata.
Urbanisation is a double-edged sword. Better access to health services, education, sanitation and safe food and water that should accompany urbanisation can indeed improve health. But if urbanisation is fast and unplanned, it leads to informal settlements, poor housing, poor conditions and, above all, over-crowding, all of which can speed up the spread of diseases and worsen health status.
Over the last half century, the dramatic improvements in mortality and morbidity rates in highly urbanised countries like Singapore, the Netherlands, Japan and Sweden showcase the health-promoting features of modern cities. But there is also the chaotic avatar of urbanisation evident in many parts of India and across the developing world when rapid urbanisation goes hand-in-hand with poor governance. Recent research from Nigeria found that the urban child mortality rate increased with urban population growth. The increase in deaths was linked to more people living in slum-like conditions.
The problems facing urban children in India are not new. They have been in the making for years. Going by public statements, the Modi government is all too aware of the situation. At a conference on “Building Smart Child Friendly Cities in India for 21st Century” in Delhi last year, urban development minister M. Venkaiah Naidu flagged the issue of “harsh urban realities” adversely affecting “brain development and perspectives” of young children, particularly, of the poor during their early childhood.
Mr Naidu conceded that urban planning in the country had become synonymous with infrastructure development. City masterplans must incorporate specific things to meet the needs of young children, he said.
That was last year. Now with the Modi government gearing up for its first birthday bash and talk of smart cities renting the air, it is time to join the dots. Let us face it — the loud conversation around smart cities leaves many things unstated. To begin with, no one really knows how the “smart city” will shape up. It is also not clear how a “smart city” proposes to provide the basic conditions to foster smart and healthy children, our future.
If a smart city works only for some of its citizens, is it a smart enclave. It can’t claim to be a smart city? It is high time we had a smart conversation about this.
The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee @gmail.com