India’s ancient settlement hopes for high-tech ‘smart city’

Allahabad, an ancient settlement on the banks of the Ganges, is hoping to become one of India’s first tech-savvy “smart cities” under ambitious plans being piloted by prime minister Narendra Modi.

Indian commuters travel along a busy road during a traffic jam as there is no parking and traffic control system in the middle of the old city in Allahabad - one of three designated 'smart cities' under ambitious plans piloted by prime minister Narendra Modi. Sanjay Kanojia/AFP Photo
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ALLAHABAD, INDIA // Its roads are clogged with traffic, the pavements overflow with rubbish and power cuts are a fact of life.

But Allahabad, an ancient settlement on the banks of the Ganges, is hoping to become one of India's first tech-savvy "smart cities" under ambitious plans being piloted by prime minister Narendra Modi.

“We are the spiritual capital of India, this place is known as king of the pilgrims, of course we should be a smart city,” Swami Anand Giri said at a crowded Hindu temple overlooking the holy river, as devotees filed in to touch his feet and receive his blessing.

Plans for the city have been gathering pace since Mr Modi signed a memorandum of understanding with US president Barack Obama during a visit to India in January. Allahabad, one of India’s oldest cities mentioned in ancient Hindu texts and surrounded by sacred rivers and farmland, was one of three selected for the first phase. The eastern port Visakhapatnam and Ajmer in the desert state of Rajasthan were also picked.

But along with the plans, which include a power plant run on cow dung and another on tonnes of collected plastic rubbish instead of polluting coal, come the growing expectations of a city used to neglect.

Mr Giri said technology could be used to clean up the filthy Ganges, whose confluence with the Yamuna river in Allahabad draws millions of devotees, ascetics and foreign tourists for the Kumbh Mela and other festivals in heaving seas of humanity.

“I’ve seen those machines cleaning up the Thames in London. We should have them too,” said Mr Giri.

Solar panels in every home could also help to boost power output, with their stored energy kicking in when the city’s daily three-to-four hour blackouts hit, according to senior professor CK Dwivedi at the University of Allahabad.

But some have sought to rein in expectations. Diane Farrell, acting president of the US-India Business Council, said companies would only become involved in the city’s projects if there was a clear profit to be made.

“Right now the cities are in a phase where they are putting all of their aspirations on the table, but then you have to sit back and work out how to pay for it,” Ms Farrell, who visited the city as part of a US fact-finding delegation in January, said.

“Cities cannot be reliant on US companies for funding or foreign governments, they need to develop successful PPPs [public-private partnerships],” she said.

Shortly after sweeping to power in May, Mr Modi pledged 70.6 billion rupees (Dh4.13bn) this financial year to kickstart his goal of developing as many as 100 energy-efficient, technology-driven “smart cities”.

But with millions of Indians pouring into cities from poor rural areas every year, straining already stretched affordable housing, public transport and basic services, much more money is needed

The government’s February 28 budget provided little additional funding for the smart cities project, despite urban development minister Venkaiah Naidu’s estimates that $952bn worth of investment is needed over the next 20 years.

“When you look at the challenges facing India’s cities, it’s easy to start hyperventilating,” said Anil Menon, responsible for developing smart city strategies in India at tech giant Cisco.

On the couch in his office, Allahabad’s municipal commissioner or chief executive, Devendra Kumar Pandey, threw down a folder with pages of ideas proposed so far, including many from several Indian companies keen to get involved.

Along with the alternative power plants are proposals for optical fibre rollout to create wifi hotspots, door-to-door garbage collection with bigger machinery and manpower to stop dumping in public areas.

Then there’s a possible new airport for the city which sees only a handful of commercial flights every week and vies for space with the air force.

“We are at the planning stage, not the project stage,” Mr Pandey said. “We will try our best and hope for the best.”

As night fell, crowds thronged the market in the densely-packed old centre, jostling on the roads with rickshaws, motorcycles and cows for the approximately two metres of space as traffic inched forward in both directions.

“There needs to be traffic management,” said shop owner Mohanji Tandon Bhiya, suggesting traffic lights, cameras and off-street parking via a central command centre.

“It’s also dangerous,” he said, pointing to a tangled mess of electrical wires dangling over the street, as shops snatched power from the grid.

“There hasn’t been any development here for 40 years,” said Mr Bhiya, a staunch Modi supporter. “But the smart city is sure to come true, because there is a vision behind it.”

* Agence France-Presse