The Indian Government’s Smart City Mission, launched in 2015, envisions the development of one hundred “smart cities” by 2020 to address the country’s rapid urbanization; thirty cities were added to the official list last week, taking the current total of planned initiatives to ninety. The $7.5-billion mission entails the comprehensive development of core infrastructure—water and electricity supply, urban mobility, affordable housing, sanitation, health, and safety—while infusing technology-based “smart solutions” to drive economic growth and improve the citizens’ quality of life in cities.
In a country bogged down by bureaucratic corruption, the mission has been commended for its transparent and innovative use of a nation-wide “City Challenge” to award funding to the best proposals from local municipal bodies. Its utopian manifesto and on-ground implementation, however, are a cause of serious concern among urban planners and policy-makers today, who question if the very idea of the Indian smart city is inherently flawed.
In an interview with Indian Architect and Builder, Indian master architect B V Doshi warns that the government’s “smart cities,” in their wild chase for efficiency, will destroy the rural informality and diversity that is the cornerstone of the country’s society. Ahmedabad-based urban designer Rajeev Kathpalia agrees, saying “Our cities, to a large extent, are not the same as what is defined as the city in the West. Cattle are still bred in the city so what kind of place is that? Is that a city or is that rural or is that something in between?” In response, he suggests that India needs to build smart cities which respond specifically to its culture and rural networks.
The Indian Prime Minister’s pet project, however, assumes immense significance in the context of India’s population growth and urbanization. The country’s population is set to surpass China’s by 2024 and reach 1.5 billion by 2030; forty percent of this number will need to be housed in urban areas, as opposed to thirty-one percent currently. India's metropolises, already crumbling under the massive pressure exerted by this incessant migration, could easily descend into urban chaos in the near future. “Demographic changes to the city are far more caustic and lethal than those that meet the eye. Cities must plan for an India on the move or end up as slums,” cautions Delhi-based architect Gautam Bhatia in The Times of India.
The Smart City Mission, however, chooses to direct its focus on a mere hundred cities in a country with more than 4,000, and aims to create a “replicable model which will act like a light house to other aspiring cities.” And therein lies its most fundamental defect. “The problem with the notion of ‘smart cities’ is that it sets up the environment to be fashioned in a single image, it’s not about cultural specificity,” explains Mumbai-based urbanist Rahul Mehrotra in an interview with The Indian Express. “The only way to get people involved in the city imagination is to respond to local needs and aspirations. To be socially relevant, cities have to grow out of the roots.” He cites the restoration of the Bandra seafront in Mumbai and the Aga Khan Foundation’s renewal of the Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti in Delhi as strong examples of urban initiatives, observing that development becomes problematic only when a singular model is promoted as the ideal example.
The mission has two chief strategic components: Area-based developments and Pan-city initiatives. The former is aimed at transforming existing precincts through retrofitting and renewal, and to develop new extensions to cities through greenfield developments; the latter envisages the application of appropriate “smart solutions” to existing city-wide infrastructure. The lion’s share of the federal funding however, is being channeled to less than three percent of the city areas. “So you’re not even going to have 100 smart cities. You’re going to have 100 smart enclaves within cities around the country,” predicts Shivani Chaudhry, executive director of Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), while speaking to Humanosphere.
Is the mission inadvertently leading to the gentrification of Indian cities? The results of a recent study conducted by the HLRN underline the mission’s apparent lack of social equity and abuse of human rights: The Indian government maintains that the local populace is being driven out of the city “to provide the choice to those who live in squalor to live with dignity.” London-based writer Adam Greenfield attacks this weak rhetoric while speaking to IMechE, stating that the project “dispenses utterly with the needs of the Indian people—when, that is, it isn't simply bulldozering their communities under in the name of progress.” Residents of slums in at least four of the selected cities have reportedly been forcibly evicted or threatened with eviction to make way for improvement projects. “What may seem like the height of contemporary city-making in the government's presentations and renderings is little more than a pretext to uproot poor farmers and fisher-people from the land, and replace their villages with gated enclaves and golf courses intended to serve the elite,” Greenfield adds.
At this point, it is imperative to ask why proposals from local bodies increasingly look like they are serving the whims of real estate and technology players. The answer is simple: The implementation of the projects at the city-level is to be undertaken under the leadership of a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) instituted specifically for this purpose. While the vehicle is composed of governmental nominees and receives substantial federal revenue, it is free to raise additional resources from the market; the private sector could own a minority stake in the SPV. The projects, as a corollary, could be executed through public-private partnerships. This leaves the door wide open for the horrifying possibility of the privatization of governance itself, coupled with a lack of accountability; an overwhelming majority of the green-lighted projects seem to be located in posh precincts of cities, owing to their greater return-on-investment potential.
“The premise of the smart city as a relevant model for India needs a fundamental re-evaluation, especially when profits seem to prevail over people and technology over human rights,” remarks Chaudhry. She suggests that instead of trying to mitigate the effects of urbanization in a superficial way, the government should aim to address its structural causes—the agrarian crisis, rural distress, failed land reform, and forced migration. Doshi believes that the world does not need to live in a single multi-story tower in the age of the internet, and challenges the very idea of creating cities if adequate choices and opportunities can be generated in rural areas. “I think the land pressure is actually an illusion. Why should you be close-by all the time to a million people?” he asks. Kathpalia insists that we need to rethink the concept of cities as centralized entities, and advocates instead for the conception of independent and self-supporting settlements at different scales, each one complete by itself or moving towards completion.
At the same time, Chaudhry realizes that the government is unlikely to roll back the two-year-old mission. “But I really feel that there’s still time to come up with standards, to come up with indicators and to have an alternative vision proposed by the people themselves to ensure... an equitable development model,” she hopes. And it is here that she hits the nail right on the head—it is the people of the world’s largest democracy who will ascertain the future course of their cities. Their participation in decision-making holds the key to strengthening their local communities against the wrongful policies of the government, as well as the ingress of private corporations and their fiscal interests, while they realize the benefits that twenty-first-century technology has to offer.