It is just a fortnight since we brought you the news that a national magazine survey placed Chennai at the top of the chart on the liveability index. We now have the other side of the tale to tell – when it comes to the digital divide. Chennai ranks very low on facilities that are available online.

This finding has come to light following the expiry of the deadline set by the Centre for the States to nominate their smart cities. A national daily based outside of Chennai has some rather depressing statistics to report – out of 11.64 lakh property owners in the city only 70,000 pay their taxes online, 10 per cent of electricity consumers pay their bills online and out of 7.35 lakh buildings with water connections, just about 60,000 use the online payment facility. The record when it comes to public transport is even worse – out of 3,600 buses plying in Chennai, only 50 have global positioning systems (GPS) installed and out of 1800 bus stops just a handful have digital signboards that give updated information on bus arrival timings.

Compare this with what is happening in other cities – Bangalore is working overtime to meet its self-imposed deadline of installing GPS in all 6,500 of its buses within this year, Ahmedabad is setting up clusters where free internet connectivity will be available and Delhi police is working wonders on mobile applications for smart phone users – there is an app to report lost property and there is another one for users to alert the nearest police station when in danger. Hyderabad, which is in many ways the pioneer among smart cities in India, has expanded its e-seva portal which it launched way back in 2006, to encompass all transactions with the public on civic amenities and services.

Internationally, it is accepted that for a city to be defined as smart, it needs to use information and communication technology to
make physical infrastructure more efficient thereby making the socio-cultural environment much stronger;learn, adapt and innovate and therefore respond much faster to changing circumstances; engage effectively with local people in local governance and decision by use of open processes and e-processes; make use of creative industries, community and social networks to achieve these aims.

Does Chennai fit into any of these? Sadly, the answer has to be no. There is no consistent policy for such a development to happen. Take, for instance, the project of fitting GPS on city buses. This was launched with much fanfare and funding from the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission a few years ago. A change of government was enough to ensure that the entire process was mothballed. Such shortsighted thinking is making sure that our city lags behind when all others are marching ahead.

At a time when it is considered ‘unsmart’ to be queuing up at counters to do tasks that can be accomplished at the click of a button, it is time for Chennai to wake up. It is certainly a waste of human resources to have people go from government department to department to get their work done. What is needed is a policy statement to make Chennai smart and then having a Chief Technology Officer for the entire city whose task it will be to get it moving quickly on the digital highway.

Most American cities have one as does London. Singapore too has created this post. What is the point in claiming to be working on becoming world class when the building blocks for such a status are yet to be in place?