Olga Chepelianskaia, senior expert on clean energy and eco-efficient urban development, tells Rouhan Sharma that awareness of one´s heritage is important for identity building.
As an expert on sustainable and efficient urban development, what are the points to keep in mind for the Smart Cities project in India?
If we base ourselves on the French experience, their infrastructure is much more established. The approach they have chosen to talk about is sustainable cities, rather than Smart Cities. Personally, I don´t have any problem with the vocabulary of ´smart´, but I think we really need to put in the right ingredients. First up is basic services. You can´t talk about smartness when your basic hygiene is not taken care of. We see huge issues with this here. For instance, you have informal settlements, slums which, depending on cities, are sometimes not even considered to be there because according to the master plan, they are not supposed to exist. In the case of Delhi, for instance, they are not provided anything because they are not supposed to even exist. Nevertheless, they do exist and they occupy maybe half the territory of the city. How do we deal with that?
What do you suggest?
The focus in urban areas should be really on providing basic services first. In order to properly design it, it´s important to think of social inclusiveness, and of a participatory approach. I have noticed in a number of meetings that there are high-level officials on one side who have quite a good idea of what is there in the master plan. Then, there are representatives of different communities who come to share what they think of it, because at the time of development of this plan, the concerned stakeholders were not consulted. So, I would really insist on the fact that we need to include stakeholders when we design the city networks and services. The focus should also be on ensuring cities´ resilience to increasingly occurring weather-related events, such as floods, tsunamis, droughts and earthquakes. In order to properly design those, it is important to think of social inclusiveness, and of a participatory approach. I would really insist on the fact that we need to include all stakeholders when we plan and design urban spaces. Another important point is to look beyond the immediate capital cost and to assess costs over the whole project life cycle.
What are the examples or models that India can take from France?
One of the interesting things I think is very valid to India is city planning. In France, we have realised that a hard approach often doesn´t work. I think this is even more valid in India because by the time you have set up the master plan, the demography has changed, priorities have changed. City networks have changed because of continuous arrival of people. In France, we now talk about strategy as opposed to a plan, which if you think about it, gives more flexibility. It means you do plan, but you are ready to change according to the conditions that arise. In India, there is definitely a very strong need for cooperation with international stakeholders. There is a lot that can be done together and it needs to be intelligent cooperation. This is something I´d say France and India can really cooperate on the way forward.
What are the inherent challenges?
There are several challenges that make one less effective than one would be in other Asian countries. These are specific to India. For example, there is an issue here with reliability. Very often, you find that people say and agree on something but it is left behind and not followed up. I think it has to do a lot with the culture and trying to understand where different stakeholders are coming from. This is continuous work I am trying to do but at the same time, from the Indian side, this needs to be addressed at a profound level. I think, to some extent, it is related also to a general level of education.
I found even more in the field of clean energy where I work with the national government, you have brilliant people who design very intelligent strategies and approaches. However, when you look at the implementation, there is such a gap in human skills between those bright people at the top level and those who actually have to implement these strategies. This knowledge is lost in between. It is such a shame because there are such good ideas and when it comes to those who have to implement them, they are not able to do it. There is no capacity to do it. So, I feel capacity building is important and this is one of the areas I am working on. I think the more we promote education in rural areas, and when the general level of education is higher, this is where the general different attitudes may change and allow us to be more effective.
What I want to emphasise is also the cultural side with respect to urban development in India. I think it is very much neglected, not because we don´t want to talk about it, but because, there are other priorities. Therefore, this seems to have become secondary priority. However, for cities to become liveable, one of the very important components is for citizens to have a strong identity of the city and to feel they belong to the city. For example, what I see in Delhi is people come to work and they ´use´ the city for their commercial purposes. You find only a few people who feel they belong to the city or that it is part of their emotional life. When you don´t have that, what happens is you don´t take care of the public spaces as you would take care of your own spaces. So, your house is nice but you go to the street and throw things about!
This kind of change is difficult and requires a mindset change...
Well, I think Clean India is a very good scheme but sometimes, we need to look beyond the obvious and really see what generates motivation, inner and deep motivation. I think heritage is very important in this identity building. Eventually when we have all the contemporary materials and build standardised housing, how much of this really connects us as human beings to one another and to our environment? This sense of belonging and of identity needs to be inculcated. It is essentially when you can anchor yourself in your own values, traditions and heritage that you can contribute something unique.