New ‘Smart City’ hatches solutions to India’s urban chaos
AMARAVATI, India—The government planners now dreaming up India’s first “smart city” realize they have a problem.
To solve it they are planning to dispatch a fleet of drones, bury the power grid and link a biometric database to every square foot of land here in India’s newest state capital.
The problem is that none of India’s modern-day planned cities have lived up to their hype. Instead, they have succumbed to slums, crowding and chaos.
Amaravati was named the new capital of Andhra Pradesh after the Telangana region broke away as a new state in 2014. Since then, $1 billion in loan pledges from the World Bank and Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, alongside another $2.3 billion from state and federal government agencies, have breathed life into the project.
Planners envision a city of 3.5 million people on land currently home to 100,000 farmers and rural laborers living in 29 villages.
Farmers are exchanging their land for smaller, more valuable plots in the new city. Poorer farm hands who don’t own land have been promised a place in new government housing. For low-income business owners such as small restaurants and retailers, government developers plan to offer “micro-plots” as small as 50 square meters in size for $3000 and up.
Two of Singapore’s largest developers, Ascendas-Singbridge and Sembcorp Industries , have signed on to build the city’s commercial district, while British architects Foster + Partners are designing a sprawling government complex to spread over two square miles.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged to build or redevelop 100 “smart cities” in coming years, sparking a wave of interest from offshore developers, and skepticism from those who view the plans as unrealistic.
Mr. Modi and other leaders are striving to avoid the mistakes of past grand urban development plans. In Navi Mumbai, a satellite city of 1.1 million next to financial capital Mumbai, the latest national census determined that around one of every five residents now lives in a slum—defined in India as at least 300 people or about 60-70 households living in poorly built, congested dwellings without basic infrastructure such as drinking water.
Gurugram, a new city previously known as Gurgaon south of the capital Delhi, is likewise dotted with slums and struggles to provide services such as sewerage, water, drainage and firefighting.
Efforts to provide such services to slum residents—who rarely pay for property taxes or for utilities—have left many cities financially crippled, unable to do more or raise money to upgrade infrastructure. Only one Indian city has managed to raise a municipal bond in the last decade.
Amaravati, its planners in the state development agency say, will be different. They insist that technology will help the city run more efficiently and allow them to impose rules and order on growing populations in ways that haven’t yet been possible.
“This is a highly futuristic city; India’s second growth story will start from Amaravati,” said Dr. Sreedhar Cherukuri, the commissioner in charge of Andhra Pradesh’s state development agency.
Every contingency has been thought of, state planners say.
They aim to deploy drones to spot new slums popping up within the sprawling parks it plans, allowing authorities to quickly clear them.
Every property owner will have their fingerprints and iris scans from a new national database linked to land records. Residents will pay property tax and utility bills using bank accounts and mobile apps linked to the database—a system intended to prevent owners from dodging visits by government debt collectors.
An underground power grid with smart meters that identify spikes in usage will make it impossible for poachers to climb up power poles and steal electricity, an endemic problem in India.
Buses and trams will be largely self-driving, minimizing the tardiness and petty corruption plaguing public transport in India.
The visionary behind this new city is N. Chandrababu Naidu, the state’s chief minister. He helped transform the state’s previous capital, Hyderabad, into a high-tech hub. Over the years he has fraternized with Bill Gates and was an early adopter of new technologies such as video streaming, which he uses to keep up-to-date with village-level chiefs and remote projects.
The approach has its critics. India’s poorest citizens have often abandoned low-income housing developments and planned economic zones to instead live in slums closer to more lucrative employment in big cities, said Ani Dasgupta, the global director for the Washington-based World Resources Institute Ross Center for Sustainable Cities. India’s government, he argues, should be supporting existing cities and upgrading slums rather than rolling out cutting-edge technology.
With data pointing to greater population growth in India’s existing smaller and medium-size cities, “the focus should be on how these cities can grow sustainably,” he said.
Still, planners are positioning Amaravati as the blueprint for India’s next wave of urban investment, as India tries to get ahead of a wave of 300 million rural migrants the United Nations projects will hit its cities by 2050.
The national development bodies of Singapore and Japan have signed on to help design the city, alongside groups from Malaysia, China and the Netherlands. Britain’s National Health Service is planning to launch the first of 100 new medical facilities slated for India in Amaravati. In September, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies said it had an agreement with Andhra Pradesh to conduct a six-month feasibility study and then potentially build a Hyperloop transport system along the lines of what Elon Musk has championed in the U.S.
Mr. Naidu manages almost every detail of the city’s planning. This year, Mr. Naidu decided the home of the capital’s legislature should be shaped like the Kohinoor diamond—and the High Court like an ancient Buddhist stupa.
One of Mr. Naidu’s favorite film franchises, Baahubali, features a mythical Indian city that Mr. Naidu told The Wall Street Journal “is technically and creatively one of the best.” On his suggestion, he said, the films’ director, S. S. Rajamouli, is now preparing a design brief to guide the architects for the city’s government sector, Foster + Partners, the firm of British architect Lord Norman Foster.
Of the villages that have given up their farmland to create Amaravati, Tulluru, home to 12,000 people, is the closest to the city’s proposed new center. In the plan for the city, the tumbledown warren of old concrete buildings and hand water pumps will remain as a heritage site, wedged between skyscrapers and government complexes.
Some Tulluru residents said they were optimistic they can survive the transition. Landholder K. Rama Rao, a 64-year-old chili and cotton farmer, has sold some of the commercial plots allocated to him and bought a palm oil plantation outside Amaravati.
Jetti Sireesha, a 30-year-old laborer, owns no farmland. She said she hopes to find new work in the nurseries slated to supply Amaravati’s vast planned parklands.
Mr. Naidu said he believes Amaravati can emulate prosperous modern cities in China, Japan and Southeast Asia, and at 67 years old he is staking his legacy on making it work. “I’m confident,” he told the Journal. “People will associate it with me totally. Amaravati means Naidu.”
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