Have you noticed lately that the hype about Vizag turning ‘smart’ is rather muted? A little bird informs us that the US team, which is supposed to help us turn smart came, visited the city and threw up its hands. The reason: elections to the local body have not been held. Now, why is it so important to hold elections to the city’s corporation as a prelude to turning it smart? The professionals from the US are apparently hesitant to impose the idea of a ‘smart city’ on the people unilaterally, without seeking their participation. They innocently believe that the first step (and the requirement) towards smartness is to be democratic.
Visakhapatnam is not a city with a homogenous population, with a uniformity of requirements or needs. It is a city of diverse population, with different aspirations. In short, it is a city of many divides. Those divides are economic, social and cultural. Till all such divides are reconciled, the concept of smartness falls on its face. Now, what are those divides? Let’s see.
If you were a little bird flying in the sky, what kind of Vizag would you see? How do the ‘divides’ of the city manifest themselves? The bird’s eye view of the city would be somewhat like this. Let’s presume that the bird starts her journey from the Ramakrishna Beach-end. She will notice three, no, four distinct divides, each with its own characteristics. The little creature will first see clusters of spacious houses in neat layouts, each provided with pretty gardens and attractive facades in areas like Daspalla, Siripuram, MVP Colony, or the star hotels that dot the landscape. Such houses capture the sea breeze and command stunning views of the sea as they are located on the spurs overlooking the waters. The bird has reason to cheer, for there are green clumps of trees in some places like Andhra University and the old jail area. However, if the bird is smart and has ever seen the world and the beaches elsewhere, she will wonder why the blue of the sea is not edged with a white ribbon of beach sand, as it ought to be. Being a small bird with a bird brain, the little lovable creature might wonder, but can’t reason why. She does not know that the humans who live in those sumptuous and attractive houses have worked overtime at wiping out those once pristine beaches! This is where the city’s privileged live. They have exclusive access to most of the resources of the city. They enjoy a separate set of rules. For example, the houses here may be built without setbacks, they might encroach on to the roads, on to nallas, or on to the open spaces like parks that rightfully belong to the town. The tolerant authorities will benignly concede many concessions to them and do not question the sundry violations and infringements of the law of the land. The houses here flourish, proliferate and sometimes they even grow tall and robust, for they have been given for ‘development’. Things here are honky-dory and the bird is in a chirpy mood. She hops from tree to tree with a song on her lips. This is the first part of the city, the happy and happening part. The roads are good, the electricity lines are neatly laid out and the residents enjoy all manner of comforts.
Then comes the core of the city, further down, away from the beach. It is a confusion of houses and a veritable concrete jungle. The houses are stacked one on top of the other, like match boxes. Some lie along the maze of narrow alleys, in a higgledy-piggledy mess. Open sewers carry the household waste with a nauseating stench. Garbage piles along the streets and is only cleared as and when the temperamental corporation chooses to do so. Near Poorna Market, the traffic of auto-rickshaws, wheel-barrows and cycles chokes the roads and the plastic-eating cattle and humans coexist, alongside filth and garbage. There is neither greenery, nor any fresh breeze here. Both smells and heat are trapped in the narrow confines of the adjoining streets of the market and the inmates plod on, inured to their lot. The crush of population, consisting of small and petty traders, daily wage earners and rural migrants selling their wares, do not merit toilets, clean air, or proper roads. Can a smart city touch their lives? And how? If it does not, that in itself will continue with the present divide and will, in fact, intensify it.
Then, if the bird strays towards Dolphin’s Nose to the industrial segment, it will stop short in consternation. Its sweet song will falter and she will choke on the foul air. Its eyes glazed and throat burning with pollution it will wonder if she has strayed into a different world. Mars, perhaps, where there are wide expanses of desolate land but no life? There are toxic mounds of chemicals, bizarre looking structures colored in ugly rust and chimneys belching noxious fumes. The roads are slushy with a combination of industrial waste, mobile oil, and god knows what else. The air is so thick with coal, chemical and iron dust that even the trees are shrouded in a cocktail of industrial particulate matter, and the area looks like a surrealistic scene in a movie depicting the end of the world after an environmental disaster. Caterpillar-like train tracks carry coal and sulphur in open wagons, adding to the abomination of the place. Severely-scarred hills and polluted rivulets dot the landscape. There were mangroves there at one time, soaking up carbon dioxide. But they have all been removed to make way for more industrial units. Our little bird will splutter in the foul air, flutter its wings in dismay and fly as far away as possible.
So the industrial units are our next divide. The industries therein are not subjected to the laws of the land, for they are a law into themselves. For example, they can spew foul smelling gases into thickly-populated neighbourhoods in the quiet of the night and the people can do nothing about it. They can dump and/or transport coal, chemical or iron right through areas like Kota Veedhi, precious little can be done about it. The ever-slumbering Pollution Control Board will look surprised and, in fact, get irritated if you ask them why there is so much pollution. See what I mean?
Meanwhile, having taken a breather from the effects of the apocryphal environmental disaster of our famous industrial area, of which Vizagites are so very proud, the bird will fly to the outreaches of the city, in search of fresh air and sunshine. Here, if the bird looks around, she will notice an interesting phenomenon. The strange cardboard-like structures, most of which are covered with tin sheets, asbestos or bare plastic cloth, demonstrate an interesting tendency to creep up to the hills. The hovels are also amorphous, unlike elsewhere, and are in a continuous state of flux. Anything and anyone can change their shape or size. There is no stability here. Beginning with gales or cyclones, heavy rain, fire or the civic authorities, anyone can attack them. The hovels are regularly flattened, and the people who live in them are either driven away or relocated at some impossible places. Then there is also the sheer volume of the people who live there. The bird, being a creature of limited intelligence wonders how so many people can fit into such small shelters. What are they? Insects? Ants perhaps, who can live underground?
Like the ants, the people who live on those hovels have their uses. They clean our streets, iron our clothes, run auto-rickshaws and look after our plumbing and masonry needs. Most of them do not read newspapers, have no TV sets and are not literate. There is total disconnect between them and the 21st century India, which talks about IT parks, tourism hubs, online connectivity and smart cities. Authorities treat them as non-residents, some hostile creatures para dropped from another planet, useful when required, not needed when their use is over. Civic amenities like drinking water, drainage street lighting, or basic security elude them. Their children do not go to decent schools either. The police exist, sure, but not to help them. Just the other day there was a newspaper item about an 80-year-old woman, who made a police complaint saying she was being harassed by the local drunkards. In a classic case of Oliver Goldsmith’s “Dog it was that died,” it was the poor, old and sick woman, who was made to run around with repeated summons from the police stations, not to mention insults and harassments from the local police, till the Human Rights Commission intervened. The offenders were never brought to book. All rules apply to the people in those shanty towns, but they enjoy no rights. They can be uprooted, arrested, locked up and whole colonies razed without notice. All this, notwithstanding the fact that they too pay taxes whenever they buy anything, be it a match box or a cake of soap.
Now, who are these people, making a mammoth slum of our beautiful city and fouling up the atmosphere? They are not some extraterrestrial creatures, invading our cities. They are citizens of our country; the displaced people, dispossessed of their land, driven out of their villages in the name of industrialization or some other public purpose. They are the victims of our changing times and more importantly, changing priorities.
They were originally farmers, artisans, and craftsmen, who lived with dignity in the rural areas. They depended largely on the land and supplemented their income by producing articles of utility, be it handloom textiles, baskets weaving or wooden articles of everyday use. But when they were displaced and their traditional occupation was denied to them, they were forced to relocate themselves in the cities where their traditional skills, knowledge and wisdom are of no use. They became daily wage earners, auto-rickshaw drivers or railway porters. Then there are the tribals who ran away from disease and poverty and come to the city in search of employment. These are the people that settle in the outlying areas of cities, in the make-shift houses and slums. Displacement for them is not just economic but also cultural. They crowd the cities not by choice, but because they have no other alternative.
Theirs is the other Vizag that we do not want to see. But it exists, and is going to grow in size and in population, whether we like it or not. Today agriculture and food security are passe and industrialisation is the thing of the future. So whatever be the provocation, it is the rural agricultural folks that bear the brunt of the so called “development.”
Therein lies the problem. These days of constant talk of smart cities, how are we going to integrate all these Vizags? A smart city, by its very definition, is that which “uses digital technologies to enhance quality and performance of urban services” and engages more effectively and actively with all its citizens.” So how does the city plan to engage the rural migrants to improve the quality of their lives? Till that silent and amorphous vizag is integrated, till the industry is compelled to fall in line with pollution and fire safety norms and till the civic authorities ensure discipline of construction activity, the idea of a smart is not feasible.