The idea of Imphal as a smart city is attractive. There is a positive ring about it. It hints at a city which is clean, technologically equipped for modern lifestyle and with all the platforms and windows for a seamless integration with yet another brave new world of infinitely new possibilities heralded by internet and artificial intelligence now looming on the horizon of human civilisation. Can Imphal city and all other townships in the state be transformed to acquire the attributes of a smart city? The possibilities certainly are there, but at this moment, given the reality and commitment, the idea seems still a far dream.
For one thing, smart cities would entail a smart citizenry who respect the law and established civilisational conventions. This does not seem to be happening at any level, starting from the very top to the very bottom. The manner in which laws and civilised conventions were thrown out of the window in the Manipur Legislative Assembly in which a Governor was an active corroborator is just one example, but this is not all. It was painful and shameful that the Supreme Court has had to intervene so many times to call the bluff at this level, but inevitably the damages were already done by then.
It is also disheartening to note that the idea that power corrupts, is still very much evident in the entire state power structure today as always, and from the lowliest clerks to the top commissioners and ministers have succeeded in making routine services they are given to handle and dispose of promptly, seem like favours only they have the privilege and power to extend to citizens seeking them, more often than not for a monitory cost. Corruption too still remains a collaborative plunder of the public exchequer, and the consequences are seen in the poor pubic contract works, most loudly visible in the condition of the roads even in the heart of the state capital. Their repair and construction works at best remain cosmetic, with the result that there are very few or none of them which can last out two monsoons at a stretch.
Much have already been written on Manipur’s endemic social and political anarchy. The prospect of undoing this entrenched structure of corruption and inefficiency would intimidate anyone, even if there were sincere intents from any quarter, including of the top executives of the government. Of late, partly as election propaganda, the chief minister has been talking of making Manipur another Singapore if the electorate were to give his party, the BJP, a clear mandate that would allow the party to from a government on its own, without the need for enlisting coalition partners to reach the magic 31 MLAs majority mark. Not in as many words, it can only be expected other parties in the contention, in particular the Congress, would also be making similar promises as the elections draw nearer. Singapore is indeed a smart city by any conventional standard. The qualification “conventional standard” is in acknowledgment that future smart cities may go beyond the conventional vision of smartness of which cities like Singapore have been the hallmark, and the new standard would in all likelihood be defined by the breakthroughs in artificial intelligence. We are already beginning to has a peed into such a future such as in driverless cars, new cashless payments methods etc. As of now we cannot help being wonder struck by innovations such as the Amazon Go stores with no attendants, where buyers link up their remote paying methods with the stores as they enter then are free to pick up anything on display to be charged automatically from their accounts through invisible scanners omnipresent everywhere in the store as they walk out. It is conceivable that these will become commonplace soon. It is equally conceivable that conventionally smart cities like Singapore will far more easily upgrade to these new standards too.
Can Manipur emulate Singapore
For those aspiring to make Manipur another Singapore, let them first remember, for any smart modern society, the new religion is an unparalleled universal respect for law. Few or nobody in Singapore would do things against the law even if there are little likelihood of being caught. Just as a God-fearing person would not do anything that he believes would be against the religious standard set by his God even in private, almost everybody in smart and civilised world would also not do anything not permitted by the law even if nobody is ever likely to notice it.
Hence, people in these cities stop at the traffic light in the dead of the night even if they are the only ones on the road; likewise it is very unlikely a car would be parked on a bridge even when the whole city is asleep; absenteeism in government offices is virtually nil, and government servants work and discharge their duties honestly and in earnest always; pubic property remains everybody’s property and everybody treat them as their own, unlike in places like Manipur where public property is treated as nobody’s property to be abused at will; the law is strict too, and even in a motorcar accident, if rash driving is established as the cause, those in the accident are liable to be made to pay for damages caused to public properties such as electric poles, road fencing etc. These are unthinkable in Manipur just as yet. We still have people littering or spitting at public places with no sense of guilt or unease. Indeed, together with building the necessary infrastructures, there would also have to be a matching reform on public mindset on shared spaces and properties.
Begin from basic
It is often said that when things get too overwhelming and complicated, the best way forward is to start from the basics. From this standpoint, Imphal and indeed all other townships can begin their aspirational journey towards a smart city status by sorting out its basics which have gone awfully wrong. Before taking on the larger issues of entrenched official corruption and work lethargy, especially Imphal can begin by sorting out its traffic by enforcing strict discipline; improve its public transport system; get its waste disposal methods in place; regulate vehicle parking etc. As in the case of electricity supply, prepaid meters should be introduced at the earliest to ensure the least water theft. At the moment, illegal tapping of municipal piped water is rampant. Even in the case of legal connections, revenue collection is extremely lax. The scenario is the same in the case of land revenue collection. Since there are no official pressures, people clear their dues only when they need such clearance certificate while applying for loans etc. This lack of official interest in revenue collection can only be explained by what I have said earlier of the general lack of interest in public properties or assets amongst the people in general, but more atrociously government employees. There seems to be absolutely no accountability for failures to accomplish the responsibilities they are employed and paid for from public money.
Of the many basics that will require streamlining before pushing for the smart city status, there is yet one more neglected but important issue. I have written on this theme many times before, to remind the government but there has been no worthwhile official response to date. It may not command the passion as many of the emotive issues political parties in contentions are flagging as their pet election projects now, but one which would do immense good to make Imphal and other towns fit and ready for the future. The trouble with cities is, they grow faster than popular imagination. The great American architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, anticipated this when he advised home builders to go as far away from the cities as they can, and when they think they have gone far enough, to go five miles more, for the cities would be upon them sooner than they imagine. We are witnessing this exponential growth in Imphal too.
50 years ago
Fifty years ago, practically everybody in Imphal knew each other – the number of cars on the streets could be counted on the fingers on any given day; the most popular vehicle was the bicycle and indeed as many visiting writers of that era were fond of characterising the place, Imphal literally swarmed with bicycles during office going and returning hours; a lot many more loved and managed on foot; restaurants were few and their menus differed little; roads were narrow but they were adequate; fatal road accidents were literally unheard of; people had much less money to spend, but there were not any less happy. Life in short, was slow and idyllic, perhaps even rustic. Quite naturally, to grandparents of fifty years ago, even that pace appeared break necks and their stories of their younger days appeared to children of the time to be a strange era where everybody was on foot and a few on bullock carts. Almost everybody was a farmer, basket makers, carpenters, plumbers, cattle herder, poultry keeper etc.
Times have always been changing, but the acceleration at which the pace of this change has been happening has jumped many folds in the last few decades. In physical terms, Imphal is no longer the same city it was even 15 years ago. Most of the familiar landmarks have disappeared. The famed mango tree at Keishampat, the mounds, the ponds, the crooked banyan trees, the weeded moats, and many more such coordinates are no longer existent. In their places are an ever-increasing number of buildings and modern structures. Spacious homesteads with lawns and gardens that once were common have all been split amongst several generations of siblings, making the old images of these places unrecognizable.
Old and new
Yet, memories of the old world linger on and this is nowhere more evident than in the manner Imphal postal addresses are organised. They still depend on the old, broad coordinates around these vanishing landmarks. This may still be somewhat okay for local residents and local postmen can still locate addresses of residents specified only by these old landmarks. But as the economy gets more sophisticated, constantly mobile professional classes, such as company executives, bank staff etc., who are transferred to the city and take up temporary accommodations would virtually have no postal address. They have to use “care of” appendages, but it is no longer uncommon for local house-owners to rent out their houses while they themselves are away in other cities and states according to the needs of their own professional callings.
The moot point is, Imphal city planners must think of remapping the city so that every square meter of the city will have a scientific and easily locatable coordinates. Scientifically calibrated house numbers, street names, lane numbers, crossroads, junctions, sub post office pin codes, etc., must be made mandatory now. No doubt, those trained for this mapping job will know which calibrating system will be most effective for an unplanned city like Imphal, and they must be put to the job. Fifty years ago probably these attributes were not necessary. But they are now. Moreover, the most of the old landmarks have disappeared, either they have been encroached upon or else new structures replaced them.
Anachronistic Imphal addresses
The anachronism of Imphal addresses confronted me only very recently again when I applied for a reissue of my passport due to expire in less than a year and my daughter’s which has already expired. My daughter’s passport was first made only a few years ago when she was still a minor and after the advent of Aadhaar Cards. Mine is a repeatedly reissued one, starting a few decades before the Aadhaar era. The address entered in my passport is based on the current understanding of Imphal map. In this my homestead stands on plot number 51 of the Manipur Government’s latest population census, and adjacent to the well-known landmark Meihoubam Lampak, and this is an address listed on Google Map too. Nobody can mistake this address for anything else. However, since the government has not taken any initiative to update its own official map of Imphal, the Aadhaar cards follow the 50 plus year old understanding of the Imphal map, and in this the location of my homestead is supposed to be Konsam Leikai.
Maybe four or five generations ago, Konsams were most conspicuous in the area, therefore easy to identify, but today this large locality has necessarily splintered into several sub-localities, and the Konsams are in one corner of the territory that the original Leikai (colony) was constituted of. Today if I were to use this as my correspondence address, I would probably lose several of my mails and parcels.
Two addresses for same homestead
Yet since this is the address on my Aadhaar Card I thought I should also update my address in my new passport to this, just as in the case of my daughter’s. I sought advice from the passport official doing the entry in the computer, and he suggested that I retain the “Meihoubam Lampak” address as in my old passport so that another police verification would not be necessary as this address had already been verified in earlier issue of my passport. But when my file went to the Imphal superintendent of the passport seva office, he wanted a police verification of my address, regardless of the fact that this is a police verified address. When the police later called to pursue the matter, they had no trouble verifying my address, even though it is not the same as entered in my Aadhaar card.
Surely nobody will dispute that this ambiguity of Imphal addresses cannot remain an attribute for the aspired smart city. I do hope the authorities will take note and begin the process of updating Imphal addresses as part the preparation for a Singapore-like smart city future.
Editor, Imphal Review of Arts and Politics and author