Too smart for their own goodCreating 'smart' infrastructure piecemeal will be a waste of our money and time.
In my last column, I could not extol enough the virtues of us finally having had elected local governments in place after a break of a decade and a half. There was reason for such forcefulness since it was essential to add to the chorus of protestations given the real danger of constitutionally mandated fresh elections being thwarted—admittedly for a few months but then who knows what the future has in store as we found out the last time around. With that peril now having passed, one can safely go back to casting a more critical eye at how our elected local leaders have performed these past five years. Especially since they will soon be out begging for votes.
One thing is sure. In the weeks to follow, we will be hearing a great deal about how the coronavirus upended the grand plans our municipal bosses had for us. There is justification for such excuses given how disruptive Covid-19 has been to lives globally even though many would know deep inside that the pandemic has provided a convenient fig leaf for their ineptitude in many regards.
I would argue that the main accomplishment of the inaugural local governments of federal Nepal has been the fact that they were there. Regardless of the promises our local leaders had made, it was going to be tough to follow through even if the pledges had been made in earnest. Coming into existence as they did with the restructuring of the state, most rural or urban municipalities had to start literally from scratch. This included finding a house to set up shop, buying furniture, hiring staff (while also waiting for those to be deputed by the central government), and the often-controversial purchase of modes of conveyance.
They soon realised their shortcomings when it came to the actual business of governance. This included the drafting various laws in areas under their jurisdiction and the painful learning process of what they can or cannot do. For the most part, of course, the simple function of copy+paste took care of the former since the federal government “helpfully” provided templates for them to follow. Some local bodies soon realised though those circumstances differ widely, and wholesale adoption of generic laws sometimes does not work. But that was to come later.
All the while, they had to contend with heightened and unrealistic expectations from them, which they themselves were often responsible for. Let’s take one example. If one recalls, among the ideas most bandied about by the heads of (mostly) urban municipalities in the first year or so into their term was the creation of “smart” cities, towns or villages, as the case may be. The implication was that in a matter of time, gone would be the days of bulky registers and bedraggled files and the lengthy queues at government offices. Citizens would be able to stay in the comfort of their homes and take part in the government of their own lives and their communities. Years down the line, I doubt if any municipality would have the gall to call itself “smart” in the sense they meant it then.
The fault is not entirely due to the newly elected and enthusiastic elected officials. There were many purveyors of the hardware and software required to create a “smart municipality” going from place to place, pronouncing it to be the cure-all for all our governance woes. While there were those hoping to make a quick buck with or without the connivance of municipal authorities, not all of them could deliver beyond a slickly produced PowerPoint. And the allure of getting something done and relatively quickly could not have failed to sway our local leaders.
Wholly taken in by the “smart” revolution, there were officials who would have us believe that using modern GIS technology, they would be able to pinpoint where every household stood within their municipalities. Since there has been this great campaign to collect data by municipalities all over the country, GPS coordinates are likely to have been collected. One does wonder how useful that data has been to the municipal offices as well if they do not make use of it to, for instance, provide services to them at home like delivering passports and social security benefits to the elderly but also send a bill of arrears against unpaid land taxes. One can also be reasonably sure that any such data collected would have been outdated the minute it was collected since there is hardly likely to be any in-built mechanism to update it periodically.
More than electronic devices
One also wonders how useful all of this is to the ordinary folk since, as happens with most government offices, such data is likely to be seen as “their” property and not shared with anyone, especially that pesky individual called the citizen. And, even if the citizen had the information, unless she had the means such as a smartphone to read it, it would be pretty useless to find her way around let alone make any other use of it.
Having been one of the contenders for the appellation of “smart”, Lalitpur Sub-Metropolitan City appears to have realised that there is much more to being smart than using fancy electronic devices. Hence, although late in the day, it began the simple process of naming streets and giving house numbers. Just a plain old measuring tape does the job although the operation was certainly more sophisticated with “smart” technology used to map the city. It remains to be seen how far this information will be made use of by the city and its wards in the days to come or will be something as one-off as across the Bagmati.
That it should take nearly two decades for Lalitpur to adopt a system after a similar and successful initiative had been undertaken in Kathmandu is the big surprise here. Equally surprising is that this simple task of providing an address to every building in the country has not been universally adopted although it is happening in fits and starts due to our habitual need to wait for a donor to show up.
All in all, given my experience so far as a resident of the Kathmandu Metropolitan City, with its numbered houses standing on named streets, I doubt it would make any difference to how things are done. In the first place, when writing down addresses as in various application forms, there is generally no provision for either. And, when they do, as in the case of the KYC (know your customer) form from the banks, one cannot get away with simply providing such details since a major requirement is the provision of a “residence location map”. It matters nought that we are in possession of an address substantially more correct than a “map” created by the artistically, cartographically or directionally challenged among us.
I guess it is just as well that our municipal heads did not quite succeed in their “smart” dreams. Without the whole country’s system turning “smart”, creating “smart” infrastructure piecemeal is a waste of our money and time.