When streets get smart

While the states prepare to build their smart cities, we look at the feasibility of the government’s smart city mission.
Smart city model at Trade Fair, New Delhi (Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Smart city model at Trade Fair, New Delhi (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

India's urbanisation continues unabated but most of its 53-million plus cities offer an appallingly low quality of life. Ten of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India as per a report by the World Health Organization. Despite this, most of India is now aspiring to produce smart cities. With the launch of the ambitious smart cities mission by the Government of India’s Ministry of Urban Development in June 2015, this aspiration has got an impetus.

Amaravathi in Andhra Pradesh is a smart city in the making. Having lost Hyderabad to Telangana after the bifurcation of the state in 2014, the AP government is actively pursuing the smart city dream. The idea is to create a new greenfield capital named after the famed city built by Satavahanas, the Andhra kings dating back to the second century BC. For developing the new capital, hyped as a world class smart capital city, the government of Andhra Pradesh has entered into an agreement with International Enterprise, Singapore to prepare a master plan.  

The proposed city on the right bank of river Krishna will include 25 villages in Guntur district. The area will be altered into a gleaming metropolis of the future. The city is expected to offer good infrastructure, housing, power, 24X7 water supply, economic opportunities, parks, green spaces, hassle-free urban transport and pollution-free environment. All this would entail responsive city governance, a unified approach to city management and digitisation of services for urban governance. Internet of Things, where physical devices would be connected with thousands of sensors, software, network connectivity and big data would play a vital role in this.

C. Ramachandraiah, professor at the Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Hyderabad examines in a paper how this proposal for a city is leading to tendencies towards land speculation and argues that voluntary land pooling on such a large scale has been made possible through coordinated use of coercive tactics and legal measures by the state.

Funds for smart cities

A smart city could take anywhere between 20 to 30 years for completion. Under the smart cities mission, basic urban infrastructure like water and sewage pipelines, housing, public amenities, roads etc will be added or upgraded in the city.

What is the funding mechanism to realise the mega projects being proposed? “The 100 cities selected under the smart cities mission will get Rs 48,000 crore as a part of a centrally-sponsored scheme over five years, making it about 100 crores per city per year. The funding ratio between the Centre, states and local municipal bodies is 40:40:20,” as per the official sources. This makes one wonder how the states and civic bodies will generate 60 percent of the funds considering these civic bodies could not generate even 10 percent of the overall funding required for the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), another urban project launched previously.

The smart city plans talk of rebooting infrastructure from the ground up--improving basic urban infrastructure, water and sanitation, and public amenities like roads. For most cities, there exists a financing gap of at least 20 percent of the total investment plan, as per a newspaper article. This means that the gap in funds will be met by the private sector. As per the official website of the smart cities mission, “The projects will be executed through Build-Own-Operate (BOO) and Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) mechanisms”. As per the mission statement for smart cities released by the Ministry of Urban Development, each municipal corporation has to float a special purpose vehicle. The private sector or financial institutions could take up an equity stake in it as a minority shareholding to cover funding deficit.

Bhanu Joshi, a public policy researcher at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, writes, “Seventy-one percent of the funding for the mission will be spent on area-based development, the beneficiaries of which are about four percent of the city’s population on an average.” In other words, the smart city’s urban agglomerations would be concentrated in a very small part of these urban areas.

What drives the smart cities concept?

There is a fear that the splurge for smart cities will lead to environmentally-degraded inefficient spaces getting converted into totalitarian ones with picture-perfect gated communities using smart technology. In the Indian context, the creation of special purpose vehicles for developing smart cities is seen as an attempt to supersede the existing legal constitutional framework. The 74th amendment of the Constitution gives power to the marginalised and excluded sections in urban decision-making and governance.

Shripad Dharmadhikary of Manthan Adhyayan Kendra says, “It is always possible to design and implement decentralised governance systems based on ecological planning.” However, Saskia Sassen, professor of sociology at Columbia University says, “The motivating force for smart cities in today’s time is the market to facilitate the ‘flows of capital’. Very much like in colonial India where the driving force for building cities was to fulfill imperial needs.” “Reforms made in the name of India’s smart cities agenda have facilitated private takeover of public spaces,” says Ayona Datta, a reader in Urban Futures at King’s College, London.

“The smart cities programme, despite its rhetoric, is bent on sprucing up downtown areas and developing them as commercial hubs for recovery of the initial investment,” says Rahul Banerjee, an Indore-based researcher and activist. Banerjee has created sustainable and environment-friendly home-based solutions to manage his own water supply and sanitation issues. “There is little scope for decentralised development in them as this involves subsidies to the poor which is not really visible in whatever has been done so far,” he says.

This urban policy and developmental model has digitisation of urban services as key. A NASSCOM report estimates “an investment opportunity of about $30 billion for IT companies in meeting the demand for technology-based smart solutions for smart cities”.

Smart city, for whom?

Will these smart cities be able to create urban spaces that are not unpleasant and dehumanising? Will the needs of all sections of the society be considered while creating these smart cities? Most of these urban centres have 40 percent slum population and high proportions of urban poverty. Converting land for institutional, industrial areas and urban infrastructural development has in the past led to widespread slum clearances and relocation of evictees. 

Without planning how to absorb the unemployed into various sectors of employment, it is pointless to plan for smart cities. Smart cities cannot be built with agrarian crisis lurking on the peripheries and urban unemployment and poverty in the centre. The experience of the smart city of Rio points at this. A new analysis of Rio De Janeiro's smart city initiatives finds that it has, in many ways, failed to go beyond high-tech marketing rhetoric and help real people living in the city.

Urbanist Ed Glaeser points out that successful cities are about people, rather than buildings and roads. The problem is the smart city projects are often too constricted and benefits only a few. The need is of sustainable, productive urban spaces--the cities with diverse shots of smartness.

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