Smart Bhubaneswar: City within a city reflecting inequity

by Basudev Mahapatra

It was a joyful moment for people of Bhubaneswar when, on January 28, 2016, the capital city of Odisha got a nod from the Government of India to become a smart city. But after almost three years, the project seems to be suffering from a lot of issues and the city still has a long way to go to become truly smart.

According to many city dwellers, despite announcement of many programmes, Bhubaneswar lacks on many fronts to claim itself smart, and the smart city development is confined to a small part only.

Bhubaneswar Smart City Project

Bhubaneswar is being developed under the Smart Cities Mission of the Government of India to get a smarter face and transform into a city that has core infrastructure to offer a decent quality life to its citizens by applying smart solutions. In order to plan, implement, manage and operate the Smart City Development Projects in the city, Odisha government has constituted a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) company named “Bhubaneswar Smart City Limited (BSCL)” to act as the nodal agency.

The project envisages two way development – “Area Based Development” in an area of 985 acres, spread over four square kilometres, around the centrally-located transit station into a vibrant destination called the Bhubaneswar Town Centre District (BTCD); “Pan City Development” of technological projects, named Smart Solutions project, with social equity as a cross cutting strategy to deliver inclusive society for citizens of Bhubaneswar.

Area Based Development

As per area development plans, a number of programmes are to be implemented while some like smart parks, social equity centre, smart Janpath and housing projects are under execution within BTCD area, which is about 4 square kilometres, to transform it into a world class urban space. It envisions retrofitting and redeveloping the city’s core into a vibrant space by promoting mixed land-use, green infrastructure, pro-business environment and social equity.

Envisaged as people’s smart path, redevelopment plans for city’s Janpath Road include streetscape design, beautification, landscaping, intersection redesign, and infrastructure upgrades with construction of new pavement, rehabilitation of existing pavement, construction and/or rehabilitation of major and minor bridges, culverts, road intersections, interchanges, drains, etc., BSCL says on its website.

According to Toronto based IBI Group, which is the strategy and implementation partner of BSCL for Bhubaneswar Smart City project, the plan is to “transform the city’s geographic centre into a vibrant, multi-modal mixed-use district that supports increased densities, balance of life and work opportunities, and place making opportunities within close proximity to upgraded transit facilities.”

As per BSCL authorities, it has started working on multi-level car parking, on major smart corridors, on smart parks – many of which have already been executed.

The American Planning Association that has awarded Bhubaneswar Smart City project mentions, “The Bhubaneswar Smart City Plan redefines the concept of “smart cities” and outlines a citizen-driven vision for the future by using technology to help residents gain better access to city services, and improve the overall quality of life.

Even though Bhubaneswar Smart City project has won several awards since proposal stage through planning and execution of many programmes, city dwellers like Dr Prasanna Mishra, a senior citizen as well as a retired bureaucrat, are critical on such kind of development planning under Smart City Mission. “The so called Area Based Development adopted for Bhubaneswar Smart City is centred on 2.4 per cent of the total Municipal Area of 46000 acres which is called BTCD. I fail to understand how this bizarre idea will make a Smart City and improve the life of city dwellers,” he says.

While there is no clarity on environmental sustainability in the BTCD area, the current plan seems to be working to develop a high value real estate within the city which will benefit only a few living in Bhubaneswar, opines Biswajit Mohanty, a leading environmentalist who is now the Chairman of Executive Committee of Greenpeace India.

Pan city development

Under Pan Development Programmes, BSCL claims to have launched common payment card system for different services across the city; an intelligent traffic control system; an e-platform called BhubaneswarOne, which can be used to find locations, ward information, information on public services, updated notifications from various Government organizations, location and significance of different tourist sites, event calendar of Bhubaneswar City etc.; and various other smart solutions.

In regard to transport facilities, Dr Krishan Kumar, the Managing Director of BSCL, has said in an interview that, BSCL is in the process of strengthening the city’s transport system. “Within one and a half years Bhubaneswar will have one of the best bus-based public transport systems,” he adds.

“We have completed about 30kms of underground cabling on major streets. Housing projects have taken off now. We have almost finalized our systems for about 10000 houses for weaker sections in Bhubaneswar, which will take care of about 15 per cent of our requirement. This, if repeated 3-4 times, should take care of housing for all,” he has said.

“It still lacks on many fronts. Nothing is said about having a slum free city, nothing about more amenities like Night Shelters, Working Women’s Hostel, Public Toilets, etc. They talk about interruption free electricity to the BTCD area only and not for the city of Bhubaneswar,” Dr Prasanna Mishra tells.

Even after three years, there is very little improvement in terms of infrastructure and services, says Biswajit Patnaik underlining that traffic congestion in the city still remains an issue all over the city.

BTCD and several other parts of the city, however, have undergone a major makeover exercise. With lots of beautification works done, new city bus services and smart bicycle services are implemented in the city.

Launched before the Men’s Hockey World Cup 2018, the Smart Bicycle programmes has lost its lustre by now. Many of the bicycles don’t have the seats. The mobile app driven scheme also does not attract local youth or even tourists because there is no instant hiring system in place, Mayank Mahapatra, an undergraduate student at city based Rajdhani College, observes.

“Many of the works seem to be temporary or without long term utility value and are simply wastage of public money,” says Panchanan Kanungo, former finance minister of Odisha.

“In the name of Smart City, we are going to spend 4500 crore rupees of public money to benefit only a few businessmen, well-off and powerful people,” he adds. The issues need an informed public dialogue and should not be left to the fancy of a few power-point flaunting bureaucrats, Dr Mishra urges.

Making it socially smart

It’s not only infrastructure and services; the smart city needs to be socially smart as well when equity and inclusiveness remain two pillars of Bhubaneswar Smart City project. On this front, BSCL has started many activities to engage people of different strata.

“We conduct meetings with the wards and ward committees. We proactively reach out to institutions and have a dialogue with them. We have started a program with the youth under the Socially Smart Bhubaneswar, where we don’t just talk about Bhubaneswar’s smart infrastructure, but we also try to learn how the citizens are socially smart in it… We are working with UNFPA (United Nations Population Fund) to create a socially smart Bhubaneswar,” says Dr. Krishan Kumar.

“We also organize a large number of programs on outreach, like ‘Pathotsav,’ which is one of the most successful programs across the country with almost 40000 people participating every Sunday morning. We have Ekamra Walks (in the heritage space of the city known as Old Town) where people come and join us,” he adds.

“We are working in 24 slums within the BTCD area; we have reached out to about 70 colleges in the city and discussed gender violence, gender equity in campuses, and related issues. In slums, we focused on youth and groomed peer leaders from the communities. We have imparted safety training to around 330 girls and linked 169 youth for skill training of which 18 have got employment,” says Sarojini Brahma, UNFPA coordinator for the socially smart city programmes.

“The peer leaders have taken charge of development of their respective communities. They are promoting education of all children in their communities. In fact, they are taking ownership,” she observes.

However, there still are many social issues to draw adequate attention. According to a report titled City Makers in Bhubaneswar, prepared by Centre for Child and Women Development (CCWD) on the homeless dwellers of Bhubaneswar, more than 6500 people living in Bhubaneswar are homeless. While 66 per cent of these persons sleep on the pavements under open sky, 33 per cent spend the night on Verandahs of shops, temples and public places, the study finds. The existing shelter homes with less than 400 beds accommodate only 0.58 per cent of city’s homeless people.

The Smart City project needs to work to address such issues in order to become truly socially smart. And, instead of centring the development within a very limited space within the city, BSCL has to expand its vision of development and work to ensure equity across the city in terms of access to all services and infrastructure.

Basudev Mahapatra is a Bhubaneswar based senior journalist. Views are personal.

This piece first appeared in the January 2019 issue of Urban Update magazine

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