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Move over Smart Cities – Is it time for India to launch a Smart Slums Mission?

While the India Smart Cities Mission is a bold, timely and much-needed initiative, there is a deeper crisis brewing for a large section of the population that lives in hundreds of slums across every city in India.

To understand this more succinctly, let’s have a look at the below infographic: 

The India Smart Cities Mission has selected 100 cities to receive a federal government grant of US$80m per city over a five year period. The selected cities have proposed a specific area development plan or a re-development plan along with a pan-city technology-enabled project. Some proposals had a combination of all three types of projects and the total cost of these different types of projects per city ranged between US$250m to US$550m in the capital and operational expenditure depending on the size of the city, its population and the scale of the identified smart city project initiatives. The re-development plan in many cases proposes to monetize government land occupied by slums and this is done by inviting a private developer to construct commercial high-value luxury real estate that can fund the construction of low-cost housing for the displaced slum dwellers. But in this drive to overhaul its cities to accommodate a growing population of migrants, tens of thousands of people are being driven from their slum homes as city planners spruce up central business districts and build metro train lines. In Bhubaneswar city, for example, campaigners say about 50,000 slum dwellers will be evicted, many of whom will also lose their livelihoods. There have also been demolitions and evictions in slums in the cities of Indore and Bhopal in Madhya Pradesh, which were named as Smart Cities. There is a view that the India Smart Cities Mission is an elitist approach towards modernizing cities with technology-enabled solutions that will only benefit a few and exclude the most vulnerable sections of the population from the resources they so badly need in terms of low-cost housing, sanitation, water supply, education, and healthcare.

While it can be argued that a program like India’s Smart Cities Mission is required to revitalize at least a section of our cities to make them more competitive, attract investments, reduce cost of urban services and improve the overall standard of living, there is also an urgent need for India to launch a Smart Slums Mission that focuses on bringing innovative methods enabled by the development of frugal technological innovation to the existing slum areas in India. This can help create basic necessities in terms of low-cost housing, sanitation, water supply, education and healthcare without uprooting them from dwellings where they have lived for decades.

Some of the areas of such focus could be in the provisioning of (a) low-cost housing delivered using either refurbished shipping containers or 3D printed houses using waste polymer stacked up to three or four levels. This could also be engineered to provide indoor communal toilets that would help eliminate open defecation thereby inculcating a practice of personal hygiene among slum dwellers (b) Mini Sewage Treatment Plants that are integrated with indoor communal toilets to recycle waste / sewage water that could be used for washing / flushing / gardening purposes (c) Classrooms with e-learning capability at site so that children living in slums can attend classes either during the day or at night and this will ensure they get an education at a place close to their dwelling without having to travel long distances to other schools (d) primary healthcare diagnostic services delivered remotely inside containerized clinics using tele-medicine technology with doctors from district government hospitals so that a first level medical care is available at site without having to visit a hospital for non-critical health conditions. Access to basic healthcare services is critical as a large section of slum dwellers are rag pickers who have an average life expectancy of 39 years due to inhalation of dust and poisonous gas emissions at landfills. Wi-Fi networks can help provide the remote connectivity for e-learning and tele-medicine services along with basic internet access to the slum dwellers so that they can avail of online government services.

There is also great potential in setting up “Slum Innovation Labs” that can rethink everything about how people live and work in slums. The benefit of housing these frugal innovation hotspots inside existing slums is fast implementation and adoption of theoretical concepts into working prototypes that align with the slum’s reality. It should create direct and indirect skilled jobs, become a space to engage youth from the community and become an aspirational point for the slum.

We’re at an inflection point. Up to 90% of urbanization globally is taking place through the growth of slums. Urbanization is inevitable but cities have a choice now in how that urbanization will take place. The consequences of those choices will last for decades to come and hence the time has arrived for India to launch a Smart Slums Mission that can complement its Smart Cities program.

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