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Outrage: ‘for the Smart Cities Mission, cities are solely instruments of economic growth’

Smart city

As the Smart Cities Missions aim for engines of economic growth, more and more Indian cities resemble company towns 

When it was launched hurriedly by the newly elected government in 2014, India’s Smart Cities Mission reminded me once again of a famous Central Asian tale about the Sufi master Mulla Nasruddin. One evening, Nasruddin loses his keys on the way home; seeing him distressed at the doorstep, a man joins him in the search. After searching unsuccessfully in the dark for a while, the man turns to find the Mulla looking for the keys only around the street lamp. Surprised, he asks Nasruddin the reason for this inexplicable strategy. The Mulla replies (presumably with a straight face): why search where there is no light?

Nasruddin’s emphasis on convenience of implementation, rather than on the fit between solution and problem – marks much urban policy formulation in India for me. But the Smart Cities Mission goes further. It identifies the technologically ‘smart city’ model as the solution to India’s urbanisation problems. Like Nasruddin’s helper, many in India have been puzzled by this: how does any holistic diagnosis of India’s urbanisation challenges lead logically to a narrow prescription for technological ‘smartness’?

The Smart Cities Mission has evolved since its introduction in early 2014. Core ideas have continued, specifics have been modified. The unrealistic vision of creating a hundred new satellite cities from scratch, as separate enclaves for the privileged creative class or knowledge worker, has given way to an acceptance of proposals from local governments for retrofitting existing cities. But the privileged enclave is reincarnated as ‘area-based development’ – creating islands of high-quality infrastructure and amenities in the city to attract foreign investment.

As a strictly ‘additional’ sop to inclusivity, IT-enabled ‘pan-city’ projects to improve governance or public services in the city at large also get a look in. Indeed, the guidelines issued by the government in June 2015 make all the right noises: ‘the objective is to promote cities that provide core infrastructure and give a decent quality of life to its citizens, a clean and sustainable environment and application of ‘Smart’ Solutions. The focus is on sustainable and inclusive development and the idea is to look at compact areas, create a replicable model, which will act like a lighthouse to other aspiring cities’.

For this, the Union Government plans to invest a modest Rs480 billion (over US$7 billion) over five years across 100 cities – that is the price of two or three flyovers, every year, in each city. Cities must use this money to attract private-sector investment to fuel the visualised leap to the new urban utopia of technological ‘smartness’.

‘The Smart Cities Mission is not about cities at all – rather, it views cities solely as engines, or instruments, of economic growth’

In pointing the ship of policy towards this utopia, the government clearly believes the central problem of Indian urbanisation is technocratic: you just need to fix (replace and upgrade) the infrastructural and built environment (urban ‘hardware’), and corporatise management systems (urban ‘software’), and all will be fine. That is good news for the construction and allied smart infrastructure industries, and for the bureaucracy. But how correct is this reading? What alternative analyses and strategies have been considered?

Many independent experts believe, for instance, that the real issue is political, not techno-managerial: Indian cities are not their own masters – in terms of revenue, powers or responsibilities – and are controlled by state governments to further their own agendas. The well-known problems of efficiency and effectiveness of urban administration in India, can be traced at least partly to this situation. The situation persists in spite of the Constitution (74th Amendment) Act, 1992, which mandated decentralisation for more democracy. New technology or corporatised management systems can hardly help correct this central political problem of urban governance. Similarly, it is not clear whether lessons have been learned from the failures and perverse outcomes of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), the pioneering, decade-long programme on which the Smart Cities Mission follows up. Thus, cities are being selected for inclusion in the Mission through a competition based on the Smart City Plans they submit. As with JNNURM, however, this is likely to favour those cities that already are more competitive, bankable and institutionally robust, thereby widening the inequality gap. Weaker cities are also likely to struggle significantly to attract private investment, which is the primary source of funding for the smart city dream. After all, privatisation of urban infrastructure had a rocky ride in JNNURM – not surprising, given that it is never easy to extract profitable user charges for say, water supply, from the usually impoverished urban majority in Indian cities.

It is more important to examine closely the objectives of the Mission than the logic of strategy. Easier said than done. In the latest guidelines dated June 2015, different objectives are outlined with equal emphasis without addressing possible contradictions or calibrating trade-offs: the Smart Cities Mission is meant to ‘drive economic growth’, provide a ‘sustainable environment’, improve quality of life, be inclusive, and provide livability for all. Similarly, the key requirement of necessarily including expensive ‘smart solutions’ (helpfully listed in the guidelines) in every city proposal contradicts the call to prudence and rationality implicit in one evaluation parameter that encourages doing more with less. Retracing the steps of policy evolution only sharpens the potential for contradiction. The Draft Concept Note on Smart City Scheme dated December 2014, equates ‘decent living options’, with a ‘very high quality of life (comparable with any developed European city)’ and piously advocates making them available to all. Noble thought, no doubt. But its impracticability in a hugely unequal society – one whose cities barely provide half their population with the most basic services – gives one pause for thought.

What explains the contradictions, divergent objectives and absence of practicable strategies for the best promises, like ‘affordable housing for all’? Possibly this: the Smart Cities Mission is not about cities at all – rather, it views cities solely as engines, or instruments, of economic growth. The city in its entirety – not just its roads, pipes and cables – is being recast as economic infrastructure. Another piece of the puzzle supports this conclusion. Under Mission guidelines, the smart city is to be produced and run by a special purpose vehicle (SPV) in which the private sector can acquire a significant stake, much like a corporate township. The open sociality of a city run by elected representatives of citizens – its minimally democratic cityness – is clearly an expendable value. The smart fate of the vibrant Indian city is looking more and more like a company town.