How smart and liveable is the city of Guwahati

Blessed by the Goddess Kamakhya, served by the bounteous Brahmaputra and adorned by numerous hillocks and beels sustaining life, Guwahati epitomizes the words of late Lakshminath Bezbarua

O Mur Apunar Des, O Mur Sikuni Des… 

O my endearing country, O my enchanting country, 

So euphonious, so bounteous 

Nowhere in the world can one find such a place, even if one scours through life. Let me have one look at your face. My heart hasn’t been sated yet. 

The cultural vibe of Guwahati inspires affection, making it home to 1.2 million people with diverse ethnicity, beliefs, and aspirations. Adding to the richness of the culture of the northeast, a sizeable community of Bengalis, Biharis, Punjabis and South Indians have made Guwahati their home. But this urban influx, which has made Guwahati one of the fastest-growing cities in India, has made the city congested, polluted, unequal and unconcerned about disappearing green spaces.

The city mascot, the Gangetic Dolphin, has left the city shores for calmer and cleaner waters while the elephants and leopards are finding their sanctuaries shrinking each  morning. So how do we plan for a city to accommodate 1.4 million people by 2030 without losing its pristine natural habitat? The Smart Cities Mission, the latest flagship program for urban renewal and retrofitting in India, struggles to find the answers for Guwahati yet. 

Guwahati was selected as one of the first 20 cities under this mission in 2016 based on a competitive objective assessment of the area-based and pan-city project proposals.

The focus areas were the restoration and development of the stormwater cushions (Bharalu, Morabharalu river systems, Borsola and Deepor Beels) and Brahmaputra river front development, developing an integrated network of pedestrian-friendly infrastructure linking with a robust  public transport system and unveiling a gamut of technology initiatives for data-based  decisions in the domain of traffic management, solar street lighting, EV charging services,  hydraulic information system.

The projects conceived under the Smart Cities Mission amounted to Rs 2,256 crore, with funding from the central and state government grants and revenue generation by the urban local body through user fees, land value monetization, municipal  bonds, loans etc.

The Smart City Mission in Guwahati has envisaged the inflow of funds and better implementation through convergence with other missions like the Swachh Bharat  Mission, AMRUT, Digital India and National Skill Development Mission. But even after six years of enrolment, Guwahati is yet to show the signs of a Smart City. Which leads to the question – what is a smart city? Or rather, when do we tag smartness to the profile of a city? 

For the lack of an accepted definition, let us imagine smartness as an attribute of a functioning city. A city, which is just economically vibrant and culturally rich, has an inviting vibe and allows its inhabitants to aspire and achieve their potential. Cities, in their complexity, mimic the human body – arguably the most functional machine to this day. So, how is the physical and mental health of the Guwahati that we experience today? 

The built environment of concrete and steel mimics the bones and muscles of the city, which seem to suffer from chronic dystrophy as the demand for residential houses and piped water severely outmatch supply. The demand side problems seem to stem from the skewed nature of urbanization in Assam.

The Kamrup Metro district has an 83% urban population, while Cachar, Dibrugarh, and Tinsukia districts have less than 20% urban population. Though Kamrup Metro has the locational advantage of sitting at the junction of transportation linkages with excellent rail, air and road connectivity to the rest of the northeast region and India, lack of investment in creating quality health and education services plague other districts of Assam. 

On the supply side, the Government has limited its role to providing building assistance through loan schemes as the city continues to build aggressively through the investment of private  developers. The recent survey under PMAY-U concluded that 53% of the overall demand for  urban housing is for self-built incremental housing supporting the narrative towards loan-based assistance in providing housing.

The Assam Housing Development Board has shifted from the Rental and Janata Housing Schemes to joint ventures with private developers to provide affordable housing for economically weaker sections and low-income groups. Though expected to improve fund availability and provide flexible design options, the translation of  intent into action will depend on the institutional mechanisms to hold the private sector accountable for delivering quality infrastructure.

In this context, it is interesting to compare Guwahati’s development with Singapore, a city situated 4000 km to the southeast and one of the most inclusive and liveable places in the world. With 84% of the population living in public housing, the government has consciously gone for high-rises, densifying the residential areas to 8000 people/sq km and generating space for public parks, recreation centres and public transit. Guwahati, in contrast, is metamorphosing into an urban sprawl with rising homelessness and slum areas. The 15 projects worth Rs 814 crore undertaken thus far under the Smart Cities Mission do not have an affordable housing component. 

Also Read | Assam Budget lacks intent to improve poor human development record

The absence of sewage treatment plants and the limited coverage of the sewerage network are polluting rivers and destroying wetlands. The acute drinking water crisis in areas like Hengrabari and Chandmari, exacerbated by landslides and flash floods during monsoon, has led to immense social costs and anxiety.

The four critical water supply projects in Guwahati, under execution with the assistance of GoI, Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), are way past their projected target dates. The housing and water crises are causing the proliferation of slums, malnourishment, and poverty for many. This exclusion of the informal settlers from the growth story of Guwahati threatens to disturb its social fabric. 

The city’s blood circulation system, arterial roads, public transport, and pedestrian  infrastructure warrant angioplasty since every corner is congested with traffic jams. From GS Road to MG Road to Jhalukbari highway, traffic snarls are a common irritant for Guwahatians. Adding to it is the congestion caused by 14 level-crossing gates in the city where the railway alignment intersects with the road network. For a population of 1.2 million, Guwahati has over 3 lakh four-wheelers and 6 lakh two-wheelers.

As the City sprawls northwards and westwards, 7,500 new vehicles hit the road each month, clogging every arterial connection. Heightened intensity of monsoon floods due to the deteriorating health of the beels and Bharalu-Bahini river system, the stormwater cushions frequently cripple an overburdened transportation network.

The city is solving the traffic puzzle by widening roads and building more flyovers. But with poor availability and service quality of public transport, this capacity  augmentation will further induce demand for automobiles, given the purchasing power of the middle-class.

Traffic will eventually expand to fill the capacity as has happened over the GS road, leading to more demand for roads precipitating a vicious cycle. The city needs more  car-less drivers through investments in mass transit, pedestrian and cycling infrastructure and nudging affordable ridesharing services to have a greener and more inclusive future. 

Gifted with healthy lungs, Guwahati is ageing into an asthma patient with AQIs soaring to 300 in January 2023. The private automobile-driven transportation system and the construction spree constantly spew dust and particulate matter, robbing the city of clean air. Artificial parks and heritage conservation initiatives like the Atal Udyaan and the Mahabahu Brahmaputra River Heritage Centre are laudable, though unaffordable for regular trips, as they operate on a service fee model.

Functional, accessible, and affordable parks nourish the development of children while catalysing bonhomie in the community. Enrique Peñalosa, Mayor of Bogota, observed that children are a kind of indicator species. If we can build a city for children, we will have a city for all. Kids cannot just hop in a car or drive to the store, so, if we build cities that consider the need for alternative forms of transportation for children, we naturally meet the needs of many other segments.

The more frequent and affordable bus service, desired by the youth, also supports the elderly and the low-income group. The teenage desire for smooth, protected walking and skateboarding paths also helps the person in a wheelchair or a parent with a new stroller. Our planning process needs to incorporate the needs of this vital segment of our society. 

Akin to the nervous system, which helps the human body to regulate, learn and adapt to  changes, the Smart Cities Mission is an attempt to add a layer of a sensory network over the  cities. The mission is designed as an anchor to enable the cities to gain insights from real-time  data analysis on critical parameters like traffic congestion, air quality, energy consumption,  heat stress etc.

Under the mission, the Guwahati Smart City Limited (GSCL), the Special  Purpose Vehicle responsible for the Smart City initiatives, is building a sensor-based integrated  network to provide services like Smart Street lighting, EV charging, Wi-Fi access and  collecting data for surveillance and efficient governance.

Further, to restore the health of the Bharalu river system, STPs (Sewage Treatment Plants) are planned along with sensors to assess the quality of water of Barsola and Deepor beels in real time and convey the information to the city operation centre for timely interventions. The Brahmaputra Riverfront development  project, a Rs 826 crore package of works, aims to develop the 6-km stretch of riverfront between the Raj Bhawan and the Kamakhaya Temple into a vibrant public space with cycling, walking and  jogging tracks along with placemaking interventions. 

Urban Planning and service delivery in India suffer from overlapping governance. While the registration of vehicles, operation of buses and ferry services are the purview of the Department  of Transport, the Guwahati Metropolitan Development Authority (GMDA) looks after the  ropeway services, planning river bridges and the metro rail service.

The Northeast Frontier Railway, which operates commuter services from the feeder districts of Kamrup Rural, Nalbari, Darrang and Morigaon to Guwahati, does not figure in the jigsaw puzzle of urban transportation planning in the Guwahati Metropolitan Area. Thus, even when Guwahati is spending Rs 2,296 crore on the smart city project, and the Railways is transforming Guwahati and Kamakhya Railway terminals into world-class stations, intermodal travel remains a gruelling experience. 

A journey where one payment system caters to the entire leg, where the modal transfer is effortless by design and where information is available on one platform, making the transit node a transaction hub, remains a distant dream. In contrast, the Land Transport Authority or the Transport for London holistically spearhead the urban transport milieu in Singapore and London, making public transit the preferred option for the majority for its ease of access, reach, affordability, and safety. 

Should the City levy a congestion toll to discourage the entry of private vehicles into the city centre? Should Guwahati go for Metro rail or BRTS or a balanced mix, and how to integrate it with the last mile? How to address the e-commerce-induced transport demand? What should be the executing agency’s liability, Government’s oversight, and mechanism for public scrutiny during the construction-led worksite dust pollution? How should the city experiment with high-rises, superblocks and FAR (floor-area-ratio) to increase density from 2700/SqKm to 5000 with interspacing green areas in earthquake-prone geology? How should the city promote cycling and walking like the Danes and Parisians?

After all, the width of footpaths determines the depth of a democracy. Answers to these lie in active citizen engagement in the design and planning processes. With interactions with town planners, policymakers, and the political executive, we can engage in feedback analysis and data sharing, leveraging the strength of collaborations in urban planning.

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Karma Paljor

The Smart Cities Mission is a watershed event in our urban history. How we involve all the stakeholders, select need-based projects, and upskill our planners will weave  resilience into the character of our cities. City governance in India needs to leapfrog from representative democracy to participative democracy for cities to be just, inclusive, sustainable and act as incubators of entrepreneurial spirit.

Dr Utsav Shukla is currently posted as the Deputy Chief Operations Manager (Freight), Northeast Frontier Railway. Views are personal.

Also Read | What will it take to build a congestion-free Guwahati?

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