Challenges of Building Disaster Resilient Indian Smart Cities
Dr Swati Mitra

March, 8, 2020: The world is gripped with the fear of COVID-19, including India.

December 9, 2019: More 42 people killed in the Delhi Fire incident
July 16, 2019: Building collapses in India’s Maximum City Mumbai killing 7 and trapping dozens

July 14, 2019: Building collapses in Solan, Himachal Pradesh killing 14 people.
April 24,2013: The Dhaka Garment factory collapse where an eight -story building collapsed and killed more than 1134 and injured more than 2,500 people.

The above- mentioned manmade disasters can be heard mostly in the SAARC (South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation) countries; there is a need to examine the causes for the same and how we could build resilience.

Former Head of United Nations International Strategy for Disaster Reduction Ms. Margareta Wahlstrom sums up the Dhaka tragedy thus, “The rapid pace of urbanization around the world means that sub-standard construction work is not just a problem in Bangladesh. We know that many governments are challenged by the task of ensuring adherence to land-use regulations and building codes. More people are living in seismic zones than ever before. We will have over six billion people living in urban areas by mid-century, up from around 3.5 billion people today. We can prevent many tragedies if we invest with care in new urban developments and public safety while raising awareness and commitment by citizens, business communities as well as the construction industry."

Countries in the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) region are located in geographical hotspots making them vulnerable to natural calamities which is further accentuated with poverty and a huge population. On the other hand, urban centres have been growing at fast pace in India which poses a challenge to its infrastructure. In this context, it becomes relevant to explore, understand the concept of Smart City that is being promoted by the Government and whether India should emulate a Japanese Smart City or a Singaporean Smart City or develop its own indigenous smart city.

Definition of Smart City

Government of India and many World governments are espousing the concept called “Smart City” with increasing urbanisation. Now what is a Smart City? In the United State of America a Smart City is one which integrates information and communication technology (ICT), and various physical devices connected to the Internet of Things (IoT) network to optimize the efficiency of city operations and services and connect to citizens. Smart city technology allows city officials to interact directly with both community and city infrastructure and to monitor what is happening in the city and how the city is evolving. For example: Boston.

In Japan a Smart City comprises of cities, for instance, electricity grids in Japan are stable and system average interruption duration is the lowest among major nations. Focus is on electricity/energy. Many smart city projects in Japan are focused on renewing social infrastructures through Information & Communication Technology. For Example: Tokyo

In India the concept of Smart Cities Mission is an innovative and new initiative by the Government of India to drive economic growth and improve the quality of life of people by enabling local development and harnessing technology as a means to create smart outcomes for citizens. A slew of measures ranging from Digital India, connecting cities through water ways, using biometrics to ensure citizens get the government benefits at the bottom of the pyramid and many more have been announced towards making major Indian cities “Smart”.

More on what is a Smart City?

It would be worth knowing as mentioned by Prof. Amita Singh (2016) the concept of “smart city” came up due to a challenge set by former US President Bill Clinton to John Chambers, President of CISCO Systems Inc., the manufacturer of equipment for digital networks: why not use these fascinating technological tools to make cities more sustainable? Following this not only CISCO but many similar organisations have since been projecting the idea of a “Smart City” that would be largely based on Information, Communication & Technology (ICT). To a layperson “smart city” sounds like having fast moving bullet trains, Wi-Fi connectivity and the entire city is wrapped in fibre optic cables.

"The Smart City is a tautology", explains Jean-Louis Missika, Deputy Mayor of Paris and head of urban planning.

Boyd Cohen, Professor at the Universidad del Desarrollo in Santiago observes "Smart cities use information and communication technologies to be more intelligent and efficient in the use of resources, resulting in cost and energy savings, improved service delivery and quality of life, and reduced environmental footprint—all supporting innovation and the low-carbon economy".

Across the world, in the developed and in neighbouring China smart cities are highly enabled with Information Technology ensuring energy efficiency and also which enables people to access different aspects of their lives by using centralised data to live in hi-tech energy efficient spaces, having accessibility to hospitals ,transport, office, malls as these kind of spaces are typically designed by big organisations that ensures people are able to access all these facilities within a given radius.

On the other hand, another definition for Smart City that encourages a particular activity is taken up to your city stand out, for example: Singapore, which produces only 7% of the food it consumes, is taking the plunge into vertical farming. Agricultural farming is being done on 9 to 10 meters aluminium towers occupying a space of six square metres containing rows of vegetables and technology is used to ensure that the plants get the requisite sunlight, Jack Negg the founder of this project says “the power used for this is equivalent to a conventional lamp” albeit the vegetables are expensive, however more such similar systems are being set up in Singapore with an objective to increase agriculture produce.

Rwanda in Africa has a concept of a Smart Village; "A village", Jean Philbert Nsengimana, the Rwandan Minister of Youth and ICT explained to the author, "is its people, schools, health centres, markets, small shops, administrative services, etc. We want to make all these activities smarter. And find a simple model that can be reproduced throughout the country".

In an article published in The Independent, a newspaper in neighbouring Uganda, he wrote: "Imagine a fully digitised local administration. A village where all the citizens have a smart phone and know how to use ICT. They receive services and information on their mobile. They assess the quality of their leaders using the same device. Citizens use their phones to pay for products in the local market, receive their pension or get paid when they sell milk or corn". Within such a vision, "all schoolchildren have a laptop, teachers download the best programmes. Health centres provide quality care by way of telemedicine".

Aside from the above example, how does a “smart city” cope when faced with challenges like natural calamities. Following are examples of two “smart cities” and how they handled the destruction caused by natural calamities.

Case Study of Japanese Smart City

During the World Conference for Disaster Risk Reduction (WCDRR), the Japanese Prime Minister announced a project for imparting training to 40,000 people over a period of four years with a budget of 3.8 billion euros. Japan is known to be vulnerable to typhoons, earthquakes and has active volcanoes (about 20% of earths volcanoes are in Japan), but the loss of life is much lower as compared to India. According to Yoshiyasu Hyoutani, Deputy Director General for Disaster Management “this is thanks to a real ‘culture’ of risk prevention, we have over 4,000 checkpoints scattered across the archipelago. We are able to measure the magnitude of an earthquake in an instant and immediately send information across the country,” he explained. “For example, at the time of the 2011 earthquake, there were a hundred Shinkansen high-speed trains in operation. We stopped them immediately and there were no accidents, no deaths.”

It is interesting to note that towards flood prevention plan in Japan, it has the world’s biggest infrastructure for flood prevention: a gigantic main reserve tank, five containment silos and a network of more than six kilometres of underground pipes of a diameter of 10.6 metres. The system collects water, drains flooding from four rivers and spurts out up to 200 cubic metres of water per second into the region’s main river, near Tokyo. Its impact, in an area where urbanisation stands at 50 percent, is considerable, as the Chief of the Metropolitan Area’s Outer Underground Discharge Channel, outlined. “The result is that we have four-times fewer flooded zones,” said Chief Oosu Eiichi. “And we have cut the number of houses affected by floods by two thirds.”

Being highly prone to earthquakes the Japanese have built an Earthquake Resistant Tower which is about 643 metres high called the Tokyo Tree. It serves as a telecommunications system during any natural calamity.

Case Study from India, Odisha, Bhubaneswar

Odisha, is prone to massive storms and cyclones lying close to the Bay of Bengal. The Super Cyclone in 1999 had destroyed the entire city with an estimated loss of 4.4billion US dollars and more than 10,000 people lost their lives, 25,000 were marooned, however, since then the state has built itself with resilient systems. The State Disaster Management Authority has been proactive in ensuring that the response Force, shelters, and every other mitigation strategy has been put in place. Institutionalisation of Disaster Risk Reduction has been achieved in Odisha so far as the preparedness phase is concerned, and as consecutive cyclones have taken place, the loss of life has been reduced to single digit or nil.

However, post Cyclone Fani, that caused a damage of US $ 6 billion approximately to Odisha the recovery and rehabilitation process was seemingly slow, while Bhubaneswar falls under the Government of India’s Smart City program, basic amenities like water electricity and medicines took more than two to three weeks and more to reach common people; hospitals were flooded and were finding it difficult to handle patients.

What could be an Indian Smart City?

The concept of “Smart City” as espoused in the above case and to a lay person seems to be a city that is technologically set right as seen in the Japanese smart city and the Indian Smart City concepts, which surely makes one think, could Indian Smart Cities be developed as per the needs, demography, socio-economic pattern which maybe more effective keeping in view the immense diversity in the sub-continent in terms of geography, vulnerability that could make Indian Smart Cities Disaster Resilient.

However, the above diagram is an overall simplistic representation of the country zone wise with broad vulnerabilities, while in-built in any of these zones are many more vulnerabilities which are localised. For example: within a city a national highway passes through which is highly accident prone or during the monsoons in Bangalore most of the roads are in pathetic conditions leading to fatal accidents. Therefore, a humanitarian approach involving “people” makes a “smart” city more viable in the Indian context. Similarly, in every city there is a huge influx of population of migrants which pressurises every civil system leading to creation of unregulated slums, traffic congestion, water scarcity etc. and all these together require “smart” solutions. For example: China is planning “sponge cities” that use vegetation to soak up floodwater. Similarly, in Spain, La Marjal Park draws on a technique that stores and recycles rainwater called the “aljibe” technique. The park stores and recycles rainwater to prevent flooding and preserve natural resources that has the capacity of 18 Olympic pools.


Simple and smart solutions to handle one’s own unique “issues” meant to bring better quality of life is the requirement for an Indian Smart City. Similarly, as seen post Cyclone Phani, during the recovery and rehabilitation process to restore basic amenities took lot of time, therefore, the response time needs to be shortened to bounce back. Similarly, with COVID-19 striking the world, in India, simple effective solutions are in place to ensure awareness through radio, television that would prevent a panic situation as well.

Besides, an Indian Smart City could be built on tapping on the natural strengths of our tropical country, wherein solar, wind energy could largely be used thereby reducing carbon footprints, ensuring that cities apartments use either Solar or Windmill energy for large part of their consumption. Besides small steps for example like vertical gardening in apartments, growing their own organic vegetables. These maybe small steps but across the world termed as “Smart” and in the Indian context the key driving force towards ensuring sustainable and efficient systems that make life comfortable to live.

With political will and a humanitarian approach, these are achievable goals by generating awareness amongst the people through capacity building on the one hand and technological push on the other India may be able to have its indigenous Smart City and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

  • Francis Pisani, Journalist “A journey through Smart Cities: Between Data-polis and Participolis”,Published by UNESCO
  • Professor Amita Singh at Jawaharlal Nerhu University, Delhi “Datapolis and Participolis: the revenge of the poor people in India”
  • Marcus Goddard, Vice President, Intelligence Netexplo, GLOBAL SYMPOSIUM ON DISASTER-RESILIENT SMART CITIES
  • Masa Inakage, Dean and Professor at the Graduate School of Media Design, Keio University “Toward an Affective City as Integrated Model of Datapolis and Participolis”
  • Marcelo Pimenta, Professor at Escola Superior de Propaganda e Marketing (ESPM Sao Paulo) “Datapolis and Participolis: A major subject for our societies”
  • Ian Monroe lecturer at Stanford University “Smart Cities Start with smart citizens”
  • (The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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