Ancient Indian city of Ajmer awaits its ‘smart’ makeover

Rama Lakshmi
The Guardian
July 5, 2015

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants the northern city to be a futuristic trailblazer, but residents are just hoping for water, sanitation and power.

 

Women carrying water in Ajmer, India. Smart technology can solve some of the city’s challenging water, traffic and waste problems. Photograph: Alamy

 

Ajmer’s famous 13th-century Sufi shrine draws millions of pilgrims from around the world every year. The city recently launched a new website called “Amazing Ajmer”. But life in this ancient city of 550,000 people in northern India is anything but amazing. Running water is available for just two hours every two days. Only 130 of 125,000 homes in the city are connected to the sewage system. Dirty water flows in open drains in cramped neighbourhoods. Stepwells and lakes have become garbage dumps. Illegal buildings and slums dot the city.

But soon, Ajmer could be transformed into a 21st-century “smart city” – an urban-planning term for the gleaming metropolises of the future that Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to create by 2022. These modern marvels would be connected by grids in which water, electricity, waste removal, traffic, hospitals and schools are seamlessly integrated with information technology to run them more efficiently. The government has set aside $7.5bn to make it happen, and Modi officially launched the programme last month. But it’s a grand vision that the residents of Ajmer – one of the 100 cities designated for the modernisation – are not quite ready for.

Even as it becomes a buzzword, many people here are still unclear about what it means to be a smart city. And others question whether Modi’s fascination with smart cities in South Korea, China and Abu Dhabi can be duplicated in India. The ambitious project also signals a marked shift in Indian politics, analysts say. For decades, the village dominated the country’s political and economic decisions, a stubborn legacy that dates back to Mahatma Gandhi’s constant refrain that “India lives in its villages”. But now the pace of urbanisation is so rapid that policymakers can no longer look away. More than 350 million Indians live in cities. By 2030, more than 600 million Indians will live in crowded citiescrumbling with creaky infrastructure.

In a radical departure from the previous government’s rural focus in the past decade, Modi wants to boost cities as engines of economic growth. By 2030, officials say, 70% of India’s economic output is expected to come from the cities. “Cities in the past were built on riverbanks, they are now built along highways. But in the future, they will be built based on availability of optic fibre networks and next-generation infrastructure,” Modi said last year.

In the past eight years, the smart-cities rubric has become fashionable among global urban planners, who want to use digital technology and big data to create surveillance-heavy intelligent systems that control how people live, consume energy, go to work, and stay healthy and safe.

India’s programme involves radical renovation of deteriorating cities as well as constructing new municipalities from scratch, similar to a Wall Street-like financial hub, called the Gift city in Modi’s home state of Gujarat – where the progress is still nowhere near its promised hype.

When Modi and President Obama met in Washington in September last year, US companies selected three Indian cities, including Ajmer, to become smart cities. Last month, IBM, Oracle and several other companies met officials in Ajmer to discuss using smart technology to solve some of the city’s challenging water, traffic and waste problems.

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