Get smart

  • If the city’s ‘smart’ plans do not empower citizens, they will go to waste

Jan 24, 2019-

Kathmandu Metropolitan City’s undying infatuation for the preface ‘smart’ has manifested in several glossy (and costly) infrastructural undertakings—from zebra crossings to dustbins and even toilets. But contrary to what ‘smart’ suggests, many of these initiatives seem devoid of any intelligent or sustainable solutions to the challenges they claim to address.

Take, for example, the ‘smart dustbins’. From November last year, Kathmandu Metropolitan City, in conjunction with its private partner Krishna Suppliers, began scattering over 70 ‘smart dustbins’ throughout the city. According to city officials, each dustbin, which is fitted with advertising technology, costs around Rs 600,000. The city plans to install as many as 200 of them—which means the investment will amount to Rs 120,000,000. As of yet, the ‘smart dustbins’ seem to have made little difference—and in painful visual irony, some of them are even decorated with litter.

To add to the erroneous logic, Kathmandu Metropolitan City also recently issued a ‘crackdown on litter-bugs’—if officials find people throwing any form of waste on the city’s roads, they will be fined up to Rs.5,000. These fines overlook a glaring reality: dustbins are scarce. Rather than spending a gross amount of money on a few ‘smart dustbins’, why not invest money in ensuring that regular old dustbins are available at every street corner? Or why not redirect attention towards working with the central government to battle the city’s enduring waste management crisis? These steps would address much more than a 6-lakh-worth-of-a-dustbin ever could.

The same goes for ‘smart toilets’. Promising costly toilets—equipped with automatic flushes and other ‘modern technology’—when the city hasn’t delivered on its two-year-old promise to construct toilets in 41 places across the city seems ambitious, to say the least. One would think that a necessary prerequisite for the ‘smart toilets’ would be, well, full-functioning toilets. The metropolis is host to around 80 meagre public toilets—for a population of over 1 million people. Most toilets are hardly maintained, do not work and are filthy.

While the intention to make ‘smart toilets’ accessible to persons with disabilities is commendable, the priority should lie in fixing, supporting and maintaining the existing infrastructure. Not to mention, an automatic flushing system—in a metropolis experiencing perpetual water shortages—is a similar strategy to playing a busted flush: wasteful and illogical.

And ditto with the ‘smart zebra crossings’. In December, Kathmandu Metropolitan City announced that it would install 100 smart zebra crossings for which the it had allocated Rs 13 billion. But the regular crossings, 80 percent of which are faded, make little difference, anyway. Cars still zoom through crowds of people. And pedestrians still zigzag through vehicles wherever they please. Instilling a stronger sense of civic responsibility seems to be a necessary long-term solution than installing any form of zebra crossings—smart or dumb.

Granted, these initiatives are nothing new—they’ve been packaged in various forms and promises throughout the years. But they show that Kathmandu Metropolitan City is overlooking what should be at the heart of any ‘smart’ city initiative: empowered citizens and sustainable solutions. Kathmandu needs more than glossy, quick fixes that can be added to mayoral repertoires. The tendency to focus on the temporary is exemplified everywhere—from perpetually defunct broomer machines that blow dust in the air in their attempt to ‘clean Kathmandu’s roads’ to ‘smart dustbins’ surrounded by litter. Rather than pursuing the glitzy, KMC should prioritise on ensuring that basic necessities—like regular old dustbins and functioning sanitised toilets—serve their intended purposes and are available to all.

Published: 24-01-2019 07:27

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