Building smart cities is not enough. What we need is a compassionate society to take care of the elderly and the homeless.

An old woman lies in a hospital in Mumbai.  No one knows her precise age — perhaps 80, perhaps 90. She was born in a village near Ratnagiri.  Her date of birth was never noted.  So we don’t know.

What we do know is that she was widowed young, has a daughter who survived but who is also a widow.  The two women look after each other.  Their lives have followed an eerily similar pattern.  And both have spent their entire lives caring for others.

Years of standing at the kitchen stove, going down on their haunches as they swept and swabbed, picking up heavy buckets of water and doing all the other chores that domestic helps do has meant that both women have developed acute arthritis.  Their joints are stiff and swollen.  Yet they have no choice but to continue to stress these unyielding joints, forcing them to bend a little as they go about their daily tasks.

Although she does not work as a domestic help anymore, the older woman has suffered unbearable joint pains for years.  With age her condition has worsened. She lives in a 15x10ft house in a Mumbai slum.  There is no running water.  It has to be collected when water is released each evening and stored in a drum.  And there is no toilet.  The nearest public toilet is a 15-minute treacherous walk up and down narrow slippery lanes.  For an elderly woman with unmoving limbs that is a mountain she simply cannot climb. The only option is the indignity of open defecation in the drain outside her house.

Sadly, even as she lies inert in her hospital bed, hooked on to an oxygen tank, she is probably better off than she has been for many years.  The women’s ward has six beds; only three are occupied.  It is substantially larger than the room in which she sits, sleeps and eats in her own home. In the hospital, someone washes her, changes her clothes, puts clean sheets on her bed and brings her nutritious food to eat every day. In her own home, her daughter, already frail and still working as a domestic in two households, has to seek the help of neighbours and family members every time she has to help her mother sit up or move a few feet. It is humiliating and frustrating for both.

Yet, a hospital bed is obviously not a permanent solution.  It is a temporary respite until a diagnosis is presented. And even when that happens, there will be no easy choices about what to do next.  Can a bed-ridden elderly woman, without access to running water and to a toilet, be nursed back to health in a claustrophobic slum dwelling?

I tell this story not only because the woman is someone I know, love and respect; a woman who has cared for me and my family; who has laughed with us, cried with us, scolded us and fought with us.  And who has never said ‘no’ to anything we asked for; who cared for us in a way we can never repay.

This woman is also ‘everywoman’, or rather every poor and elderly woman living in a poor urban settlement anywhere in India. Her condition illustrates the challenge that poverty, illness and age presents to those living in impermanent housing.

An estimated 26 per cent of people living in urban India live below the poverty line.  Yet, this poverty is not just about numbers, about rupees and paise.  It is the poverty of absence — the absence of basic necessities.  It is the poverty that forces families to make the heart-breaking choice of not treating the elderly, of taking them to their villages to die because they cannot afford to treat their ailments in the city.  It is the poverty that exacerbates the indignities that most elderly people suffer, regardless of their economic situation.  It is the poverty of hopelessness that you see reflected in the eyes of this ‘everywoman’.

I realise that these conditions will not change overnight, that many more like this woman will, and indeed do, suffer a fate worse than hers.  But it does strike me as ironical, and vulgar, that we should obsess about building “smart” cities and “global” cities while forgetting that for the largest number of people the solutions are simple and local.

Affordable housing, so that people like this woman have an option to be cared for at home, should be the topmost priority if we want to build really smart cities.  With such homes will come water and sanitation.  This is not rocket science.  And is surely not beyond the capability of our “smart” urban planners.

Instead, we are deluged with plans to make our cities Internet compliant, with advertisements about dream housing where every desire is fulfilled (at a cost that only a tiny sliver of India’s population can afford) and of health care that means being permanently in debt as the medical industrial machine churns out profits.

A compassionate society is one that cares for the indigent and the elderly.  We are nowhere near the mark.