Olga Chepelianskaia, senior expert on clean energy and eco-efficient urban development, says awareness of one´s own heritage is important for identity building.
Do you find a difference in action with the new government?
There is definitely a will to have a strong focus. There are new schemes that have come up like the Smart Cities and the Clean India missions. In energy, the government has supported the National Solar Mission. At the same time, important guidelines and actions are still to be out before we can judge their effectiveness.
What are the points to keep in mind for Smart Cities in India?
If we base ourselves on the French experience, our infrastructure is much more established than in India. Yet, most French urban experts have chosen to talk about sustainable cities. While I don´t have a problem with the vocabulary of smart but I think we need to put in the right ingredients. First up are basic services. You can´t talk about smartness when basic hygiene is not taken care of. We see huge issues with this here. You have informal settlements, slums which are not considered to be there because according to the master plan, they don´t exist. In Delhi, for instance, they are often not connected to basic services for this reason. Nevertheless, they do exist and they occupy half the territory. How do we deal with that?
What do you suggest?
The focus should be on providing sustainable basic services first. It should also be on ensuring cities´ resilience to increasingly occurring weather-related events, such as floods, tsunamis, droughts, earthquakes, etc. 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 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 models that India can take from France?
One of the interesting things valid to India is city planning. In France, we have realised that a hard approach often doesn´t work. This is even more valid in India because by the time you have approved the new master plan, the demography has changed, priorities have changed. City networks have changed because of continuous arrival of people. In France, we now incorporate a certain flexibility by talking about strategy in addition to a plan. It means you do plan but you are ready to change according to the conditions that arise. France and India can really cooperate in this area.
What are the challenges?
There are several. For example, there is an issue here with reliability. Very often, you find that people say and agree on something but it is not followed up. This is continuous work I am trying to do. At the same time, from the Indian side, the reliability issue needs to be addressed at a profound level. I think, to some extent, it is related also to the average level of education. The more we facilitate access to quality education and reach a higher average spread of education, the more we can expect that general attitudes may change and allow us to be more effective. What I want to emphasise is also the cultural side. For cities to become liveable, an important component is for citizens to have a strong sense of identity of their city and to feel they belong. I see in Delhi, people come to work and 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, 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...
Well, I think Clean India is a very good scheme but sometimes, we need to look beyond and really see what generates motivation, inner and deep motivation. I think heritage is very important in this identity building. It is essentially when you can anchor yourself in your own values, traditions and heritage that you can contribute something unique and valuable.