Ajmer’s famous 13th-century Sufi shrine draws millions of pilgrims from around the world every year. The city recently launched a new website called “Amazing Ajmer”. But life in this ancient city of 550,000 people in northern India is anything but amazing. Running water is available for just two hours every two days. Only 130 of 125,000 homes in the city are connected to the sewage system. Dirty water flows in open drains in cramped neighbourhoods. Stepwells and lakes have become garbage dumps. Illegal buildings and slums dot the city.
But soon, Ajmer could be transformed into a 21st-century “smart city” – an urban-planning term for the gleaming metropolises of the future that Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to create by 2022. ... But it’s a grand vision that the residents of Ajmer – one of the 100 cities designated for the modernisation – are not quite ready for.
When Modi and President Obama met in Washington in September last year, US companies selected three Indian cities, including Ajmer, to become smart cities. Last month, IBM, Oracle and several other companies met officials in Ajmer to discuss using smart technology to solve some of the city’s challenging water, traffic and waste problems.
“While we are trying to bring 21st-century technology, we also need to sort out some 19th-century challenges in Ajmer,” said Mukesh Aghi, president of the US-India Business Council, which organised the meeting. “Basic services like sanitation, health, roads and electricity have not kept up with the pace of growth in these old cities. We can leverage smart technology to leapfrog some of these problems.” Aghi said the US companies are considering a pilot project to install smart electricity meters that will help consumers track consumption and promote conservation.
Ajmer’s residents have already posted a billboard in the heart of town declaring themselves a smart city. But many still wonder whether the initiative is just an urban fantasy of technology and real estate companies that is being imposed on Ajmer. “Can we first work towards becoming a functioning city before aspiring to be a smart city? We lack even the basic services that a city should typically provide,” asked Suresh Mathur, a retired schoolteacher who runs a city cleanliness drive.
Other critics have dismissed Modi’s smart-cities plan as a 21st-century urban utopia, as a distant Neverland and Orwellian.