ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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India’s Weird (Wired) Smart City

The skylines of Indian cities are cluttered with unregulated and often murderous cables, snagging our dreams of smart cities.

Even at the risk of being snubbed as cynical, a somewhat observant resident of any Indian “smart city” would find a horde of unsmart instances defacing and disabling the city. The list of unsmart features of a smart city is too long to be listed here. In The Conquest of Happiness (1930), Bertrand Russell wrote,

Powerlessness makes people feel that nothing is worth doing, and comfort makes the painfulness of this feeling just endurable. Throughout the East the university student can hope for more influence upon public opinion than he can have in the modern West, but he has much less opportunity than in the West of securing a substantial income. Being neither powerless nor comfortable, he becomes a reformer or a revolutionary, not a cynic.

Close to a century later, there is no doubt that Indians, in the “East,” are cynical in their “powerlessness” over the defacing and disabling of their neighbourhoods.

And why shouldn’t they be? The Times of India, in its 24 March 2012 Mumbai edition, reports how a metal wire that was used to support illegal cables got snagged around the throat of Israr Ahmed Khan, a motorcyclist, on the Western Express highway. The Pune Mirror, in its 12 January 2021 edition, carries the news of the anti-encroachment department of the Pune Municipal Corporation (PMC) cracking down on cable operators for bypassing its norms about laying underground cables and taking the aerial route. The PMC is said to have removed 178.7 kilometres (km) of illegal overhead cables and 500 km more remains to be taken off. The Asian Age, in its 27 February 2017 edition, apprises its readers about the New Town Kolkata Development Authority’s attempt to ensure a cable-free sky by removing all overhead cables and putting them inside underground ducts.

The skylines of Indian cities, including the elite and distinctive smart cities, are cluttered with unregulated and unfettered cable lines. Cable operators, providing internet and television connections, seem to find unstinted support in streetlight poles, street-side trees, overhung bill boards, cornices of buildings and anything that can hold the cable to take their cable lines to the client’s bedroom or study designedly and that too unchallenged. Such unregulated and unsightly cabling of the city skyline is weird even for a “subaltern city,” let alone the sui generis smart cities. The matter becomes weirder because the municipality acts across Indian states do not seem to have any guidelines to regulate the laying of cables aerially. While the Indian Railways Act, 1890, Indian Telegraph Act, 1885, and the Indian Electricity Rules, 1956 have guidelines to regulate the laying of underground or overground cables, it is a pity that our city administrations have not come out with stringent regulations to make the skyline free of cabling. Although a large number of smart cities have proposed to construct underground utility conduits, none of them can boast of a cable-free city skyline. Proper laying of a cable grid under the ground is not only the safer option and technically warranted, but it also clears the city skyline. The underground utility conduits (ducts) proposed under the Smart Cities Mission of several Indian cities should accommodate all sorts of cables, including electric ones, and the plan should also provide room for water networks through a separate chamber. Such an arrangement would ease the hassle of repairing/replacing the cables, pipes and spares, and generate revenue for the respective municipalities.

Section 4 of the Indian Telegraph Act, 1885 identifies every person, association, group of persons, or a company as a telecommunications service provider (TSP) who are duly licensed by the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) and who provide, inter alia, mobile phone services, internet and data transfer services. Despite such a statutory definition of a TSP, it is unclear how the mushrooming private cable operators can bypass the statutory provisions of laying the cables underground when the DoT-registered TSPs comply with underground laying of optic fibre cables across the municipal area as well as elsewhere like the highways, railways, and forest areas. Under the Indian Telegraph Right of Way Rules, 2016, different state governments have made rules for RoW (or right of way [use]) charges and assigned the responsibility to city administrations. Although such guidelines cover cabling, braveheart cablers unabashedly dangle the cables suspended over streetlight poles, trees, billboards and any vertical physical structures across or parallel to roads!

There are also stark differences at the level of the state governments about the agency responsible with the laying of underground cables. For example, it is the Department of Industries and Commerce (infra section) in Punjab that is responsible for such guidelines, while in Assam, it is the Department of Information Technology. And although the state-level guidelines do assign the task of overseeing the cabling and installation of telecom infrastructure, there are marked differences in the levies imposed against different sets of cabling/installation work by different state governments. In some cases, even though the State Municipal Act does not have any provision for regulating the cabling and installation of telecom infrastructures, the respective municipal corporations have enforced their own guidelines, with non-uniform levies.

The Smart Cities Mission and the Digital India Mission are ambitious and promise a better urban life for a section of the citizenry. But both the missions will miss the goal if the mess with cabling is not mended. Besides being a real everyday peril, dangling wires in city roads also take away from the distinct beauty and character of each city. Leave alone the injuries and fatalities that such suspended wires cause, imagine the future of smart cities when a smart drone delivering groceries in under five minutes finds its wings snared by the dangling cables!



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Updated On : 28th May, 2022
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