Lessons from Panjbakhtar

Ajay Khajuria
Recent news reports about the controversy involving land belonging to the historic Panjbakhtar Mahadev Mandir, located in the heart of the City of Temples, has focused attention upon the working of the institutions charged with the responsibility of upkeep and development of the Jammu Urban Area. The sequence of events which have unfolded, in the aftermath of an otherwise avoidable situation, also point towards the need for better understanding and institutional collective responsibility of all concerned in safeguarding the overall interests of the citizens.
Pertinent in this regard is the role of the, Jammu Smart City Limited, a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) entrusted with the responsibility of implementing the Jammu Smart City Project under the prestigious Smart Cities Mission. A flagship program of Government of India, the mission aims at better planning and governance of cities to provide a better quality of living to the citizens. For such an onerous task, therefore, it is imperative that all matters are handled with extreme care and the sensibilities of the inhabitants are kept in mind. As per media reports, however, a proposal for diversion of land belonging to the said religious institution for construction of a multistoried parking complex was placed before the Board of Directors of Jammu Smart City Limited, but somehow, no definitive view could be taken on the evidently contentious proposition, and the opportunity to nip it in the bud slipped away.
It can hardly be overemphasized that there has to be proper conceptualization, planning and execution of smart city proposals which, ideally, need to be formulated jointly with due participation of citizens. This was also highlighted by this author in a previous article published in Daily Excelsior on 10th January 2019, which touched upon several concepts envisaged under the Smart City Mission. However, even after five long years since the mission was launched in 2015, it appears that there remains a need to understand the underlying spirit of the mission and to appreciate the importance of putting robust participatory mechanisms in place.
It is imperative to mention here that citizen’s involvement has been recognized as a cornerstone for creating vibrant cities everywhere. For instance, the city of Bhubaneswar a frontrunner in implementing the Smart City Mission, and listed among the top 20 smart cities in the World, had exhibited higher level of citizen engagement for its success. In fact, cities across the world are using various digital initiatives, like Smartphone Apps and one touch point for two-way communication between citizens and municipal administrations, which enable citizens to convey their suggestions and feedback on how they want their city to develop, and, get feedback on the action taken in respect of issues reported by them.
It may not be out of place to reiterate that the very guidelines for implementation of the Smart City Mission issued by the Central Government also emphasize a citizen centric approach as the basis for formulating proposals. It has been categorically stated therein that “…. issues, needs and priorities of citizens and groups of people will be identified and citizen driven solutions generated.” It is quite implicit, therefore, that for ensuring long term sustainability of any smart city initiative the beneficiaries and the administrators need to envision its components jointly, and involvement and participation of the citizens in the process of their implementation is required to be facilitated.
Such collaborative involvement also has the potential of throwing up innovative solutions to seemingly intractable problems by providing the opportunity to tap upon locally grounded insights. A case in point being the suggestions generated on social media, in response to the aforementioned controversy, regarding available alternatives to decongest the Vir Marg area. It is reasonable to assume that, had efforts been made at the very beginning to reach out to a wide cross section of citizens for their views, perhaps, a faux pas like the Panjbakhtar Temple land episode would not have come to pass.
While the instant issue appears to have been resolved due to proactive intervention by the highest level of the Union Territory administration, there continues to remain a plethora of issues which need to be tackled, in order to make Smart City Jammu a reality. Decades of deterioration in work culture and erosion of institutional mechanisms has resulted in crucial issues, required to be resolved for meeting the challenges of a fast expanding city, having remained languishing for years no end. The growing needs and expectations of the inhabitants also remain at a discount.
In this regard, besides application of innovative and sound urban planning principles for area based development, the demand for amendments in the outdated J&K Development Act needs to be addressed urgently, so that impediments to actual implementation of the development plans on ground are removed, and the development of planned housing, both in the public as well as the private sector, is facilitated.
Similarly, the clamor for review of the urban infrastructures and services like the urban mobility systems, waste disposal systems, energy systems, drinking water, buildings, green areas, health, etc., also deserves urgent and effective responses. Besides other measures required, retrofitting needs to be taken up in the congested areas of the city, in a well thought out and resolute manner, to enable planned reorientation of the existing infrastructure as per present and future needs.
Further, the planned initiatives need to be coupled with technological solutions to meet the present and future challenges faced by both the city administrators as well as citizens. This includes the pan-city solutions which focus on improving livability and facilitating economic growth of the inhabitants, as well as on enhancing the experience of pilgrims/tourists and other visitors to the city.
Taking up the challenges outlined above, and giving new direction and speed to the Jammu Smart City Project, however, requires a paradigm shift in its approach by the authorities concerned. The key, doubtlessly, being to devise mechanisms to know the needs of citizens, the solutions they are looking for, and inviting them to contribute in moving towards innovation and efficiency. Such a course would facilitate the development of efficient & effective urban management based on participative citizen platforms, holistic urban e-governance and improved service delivery.
While the overall environment may currently be abundantly enabling, it remains to be seen whether the conscientious and concerted effort required will actually materialize, to put in place the much needed participative mechanisms and development of a joint vision for steering the Jammu Smart City Project to its logical conclusion.
(The author is a retired KAS officer )