Chennai floods: A ‘Smart City’ must also be a ‘Resilient City’

Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

This column first appeared in The Times of India, on December 4, 2015. Like other products of the Brookings Institution India Center, this is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues. The views are those of the author.

One of the most important ambitions of modern India is the 100 smart cities project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. We want to make our cities smarter by using IT and digital infrastructure, by managing our energy and water use and by creating an intelligent transport network. In the midst of all the frenzied planning comes the Chennai deluge to remind us that a smart city must also fundamentally be a resilient city. It reminds us that the pace of urbanization has to be managed to face pressures of climate change.

The resilience of a city is its ability to persevere in the face of emergency, so it can continue functioning despite serious challenges. The commonly cited examples of cities that have built resilience against natural disasters are Budapest against floods and Venice against rising tides.

A very interesting programme has been designed by the Rockefeller Foundation to promote urban resilience around the world. It examines the question of the purpose of cities, and their responsibility to their citizens. The aim is to identify 100 Resilient Cities across the world that “have demonstrated a dedicated commitment to building their own capacities to prepare for, withstand, and bounce back rapidly from shocks and stresses”. I was very surprised to find that despite our cities constantly battling natural disasters, the only Indian city to be included in this programme was Surat, Gujarat. It has demonstrated a sustained commitment of building capacity to withstand and manage natural calamities.

Surat is one of the fastest growing cities in the world and is also one of the most affected by climate change. Over the last decades, Surat has experienced 23 floods, including one in 2013, and an outbreak of plague in 1994. The city’s most pressing urban resilience priorities are to build community and social resilience for early response to floods, preventing vector-borne diseases and improving nutrition, water management and the electric grid. There are several other cities globally which are facing similar challenges but have not developed strategies to counter these risks, and are therefore not included in the programme. The city that tops that list is Chennai! The other cities with similar challenges include Kigali, Lisbon and Dallas.

For each Indian city, the question of resilience will lead to answers that are likely to be pragmatic and varied. But in the national smart cities initiative, we must make resilience an important criterion for evaluating strategies of individual cities. This will make the city government and corresponding planners think seriously about the best practices for dealing with a variety of crises. And in this regard, it will critically reinforce the philosophy of cooperative federalism that is to become the fundamental principle of the Indian state in the future. There are important lessons that states can learn from one another, and so can the cities in India. Chennai must learn from the experience and resilience of Surat.