Cities with a heart

10 September 2015

The collision of the megatrends of urbanization and technological change has fuelled a movement towards smart cities. As I noted in my previous blog on the race for smart cities, the journey in India is well under way, with the country’s government recently announcing the names of those places selected to be transformed to smart cities by the year 2022.

Indeed, the vision of Smart Cities driving the urban development narrative of the Indian government is brave and will require massive financial investment and technological upgrade of public utility systems. But a smart city must be an equitable city too. And this applies particularly to its children, who, in 7 years will be living their youth in the envisioned smart infrastructure and environment.

Of the 377 million urban Indians, 32 percent are children below 18 years of age. Every fourth child in India (27.4 percent of total children) lives in an urban area. Yet every 8th urban child lives in a slum, often situated next to high-rises and swanky malls.

Urban children in India in disadvantaged circumstances are susceptible to ill-health, poor access to water and sanitation, insufficient education, urban disasters and a lack of protection. A recent report published by PwC India and Save the Children (The Forgotten Voices: the world of urban children in India) points out the enormous challenges in a country where the share of the urban poor in the total number of poor in India stands at 27 per cent.

This poses serious questions for policy makers. As Shri Kiren Rijiju, Minister of State for Home Affairs, Government of India, commented upon release of this report: “Urban schemes should be designed to address the specific needs of children and sufficient budgets should be allocated for this. There is also a need to replicate child-friendly programmes through child participation and redesigning of long term urban development plans through a child’s lens. “

So what’s to be done? The report indicates that while tremendous progress has been made on the ‘hardware’ front in terms of developing city infrastructure, not enough attention has been paid to the ‘software’ i.e. the quality of service delivery focused at uplifting of the poor urban child.

Indeed, India’s demographic dividend can only be truly realised if all government sponsored and affiliated programmes treat children as service availing citizens and consider their needs on equal footing along with those of voters and tax payers.

There are three key areas of intervention for policymakers and NGOs:

  • Urban governance: Indian cities need to have a system of local governance that is committed to fulfil children’s rights. For inclusive cities, a child-led planning process is essential since it allows children to have a say in designing solutions to the challenges that they encounter. Open playgrounds is one such example relevant for the urban child but largely ignored by grown up decision makers
  • Health, nutrition and water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH): Data on urban child health is both limited as well as difficult to analyse. There is a need to generate evidence on indicators of child health, specifically looking at poor versus non-poor and slum versus non-slum.
  • Urban resilience: Considering the increasing threat of natural disasters, the integration of flood and climate change mitigation and adaptation measures into day-to-day urban development and service delivery is needed.
  • Education – What is taught to the urban child needs to be regularly updated to reflect the changing times. Regulatory bodies run by the government should create a flexibility in the system to evolve its content, especially personalities quoted in textbooks whose deeds have the potential to inspire the urban child.

A smart city cannot only meet the needs of the middle classes, investors and gadget users. It has to be a ‘city with a heart’, a city that is inclusive and open to change.

Neel Ratan  |  Global leader, Digital Government Network
Profile | Email |  + 91 124 4620540



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