Being the centers for commerce and industrial activities, the cities have become densely populated with weak infrastructure and have become key contributors to the climate crisis by emitting a considerable amount of greenhouse gas as well. Now COVID 19 has proven to be a litmus test on the urban infrastructure to control the crisis as the cities became hotspots of transmitting the virus. While the critical economic condition generated by this pandemic has forced the governments to address the immediate needs, investing in creating more sustainable cities to fight future crises has also become evident.
To create 100 smart cities, India’s ‘Smart City Mission’ was launched allocating 480 billion INR in the 2015 Union Budget. Although there was a debate about the relevance, feasibility, and sustainability of this hefty investment, the holistic approach of the smart cities for infrastructure development along with the incorporation of state-of-the-art technologies for operation and maintenance has proven commendable in the management of the recent outbreaks of highly transmittable COVID-19.
The followings are the interventions of Smart City projects in India that are helping to fight the crisis:
Implementation of Lockdown
The implementation of a city-wide surveillance system and usage of geofencing has helped the smart cities in monitoring the successful implementation of lockdown. While in Vadodara, the district administration is running helium balloons equipped with cameras and a public address system to locate the lockdown violators, Agra Lockdown monitoring app along with AI-based analytics are effectively identifying large crowds through video surveillance solutions.
Preparing Predictive Analytics and tracking suspected cases of COVID-19
According to the housing and urban affairs ministry, the smart cities are using heat maps for developing predictive analysis and geo-fencing for monitoring movements and periodic health status of suspected cases. A coronavirus app launched by Nagpur Municipal Corporation is not only helping the citizens to identify the symptoms but also notify the municipal doctors for further actions.
Providing Telemedicinal Facility
As the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare in collaboration with Niti Aayog and Indian Medical Council has issued guidelines to allow the doctors to provide remote delivery of medical services during the lockdown period, the integrated Command and Control Centres (ICCC) under the smart city projects are being used by doctors and other dedicated professionals for regular monitoring and providing online medical consultations as well. As the ICCCs of 45 smart cities have become center to fight the outbreak, in the Gandhinagar, Kota, Nagpur, Kanpur, and New Kolkata smart cities, medical expert teams are running telemedicinal centers through ICCC, in Chennai, a team of 25 doctors has been given 250 quarantined people to handle through ICCC, in Bhopal Smart City medical officers are stationed in ICCC to assist through a toll-free number, and through Mangaluru Smart City, Karnataka has established a dedicated call center to provide the telemedicinal facility to the self-quarantine citizens.
Besides providing support through smart city interventions to respond and recovery from this pandemic, Smart cities are going to realign their projects with the below measures to battle future disasters:
Cycling friendly roads
In response to the COVID-19, the ministry of housing and urban affairs has launched India’s ‘Cycles4Change’ Challenge to support the smart cities for implementing cycling-friendly projects.
This initiative will not only help all sections of citizens to travel safely after the lockdown but also reduce the pressure on public transport, reclaiming the road space for cycling.
In the first phase, 10 cities are going to be selected to provide technical support from the Centre and a reward of Rs 1 crore each for implementing the initiative. In the longer-term, the Smart Cities Mission would encourage the cities to convert to permanent interventions from temporary initiatives.
Restructuring of Urban informality and controlling densification
The pattern of urbanization in Indian cities is different from the Western cities. The poor construction workers often return to their villages after their temporary jobs in cities and migrating people from villages tend to stay in the suburbs for minimizing the living costs. This entails them to a long commute to work, resulting in traffic congestions and carbon emissions in the city. Among the people living within the cities, a large number of people live in slums and squatters, where access to clean water, sanitation, or maintaining social distancing is not even possible. Therefore, besides creating affordable housing with potential safe density and slum up-gradation plans, adopting decentralizing planning to create economic activities in the rural and peri-urban areas is equally important. This initiative will ease the structural inequity in cities, and can be key transformational measures as well for the smart cities to become sustainable in the longer term.
Potential of Block-chain technology in urban management
Not only adopting block-chain backed solution for the municipal management system, but also in solving broader infrastructural challenges, providing real-time information of basic necessities, and integrating the essential services like food, agriculture, healthcare, and pharmaceuticals to upgrade their supply chain management, the authorities can get greater control over the resources, demand-supply efficiency, and data integrity.
More bottom-up approaches
Besides being technology-driven, the smart city proposals need to follow a more ‘human-centric’ participative approach of development. By proposing need-based initiatives, addressing the local requirements, smart city projects can become more adaptable to the anticipated challenges.
As by 2050, more than 50 percent of India will be urbanized, COVID-19 has given the greatest opportunity to rethink and restructure the urban environment. A more ‘human-centric’ and public health-focused smart city project can make the cities real smart and sustainable with preparedness to face future global crises.