Many of India’s proposed smart city projects are actually ‘unsmart’
The concept of the Indian smart city seems to create a very expensive and localised development, which focuses on core infrastructure with limited citizen engagement
The Centre’s introduction to the Smart Cities Mission (SCM) states that ‘...there is no one way of defining a smart city...’ and that it ‘...means different things to different people.’ This ambiguity provides the mission with an abstract beauty that could ease it from accountability, in ways that a precise definition would have ill-afforded. Given that we are three years into a mission with a substantial budget, at present at over Rs 1,900 billion and growing, it is important to examine the core concept and ask: What does an Indian smart city look like?
First, the mission is malleable and adapts to the NDA government’s evolving positions on urban development. It first appeared in the BJP’s manifesto in March 2014 with the intent of “...building 100 new cities.” During the July 2014 budget speech, this objective morphed into building “satellite cities” and “modernising the existing mid-sized cities”. Finally by 2015, when the draft smart cities note was circulated, the focus shifted to ‘compact areas’ within existing cities to ‘create a replicable model’, which would inspire similar urban regeneration across the nation. Thus, the concept transitioned drastically from creating cities from scratch to improving small areas in existing cities. It is this shape-shifting feature that drives us to define the mission from within. This has been possible through an empirical study, conducted at the Centre for Policy Research (New Delhi), of the proposals, budgets and projects of the top 60 cities to examine the ideas deemed acceptable by the ministry and reverse engineer a possible definition of what is an Indian smart city.
Second, a majority of the projects under the mission would be considered ‘unsmart’ as global definitions of smart city assume a high dependence on technology, IT and big data to solve urban problems efficiently. The mission rejects this notion as the budget for IT in the top 60 cities is below 22%. Given that India has a deficit in provisioning urban infrastructure, this is perhaps one of the greatest strengths of the mission.
Third, the mission does not ensure a rights-based form of urban regeneration despite frequently referring to inclusive and participatory processes that promote democratic decision-making. The chasm lies between intent and recorded actions, as fewer than half the proposals could quantify the number of people that were approached and who gave feedback, both online and in-person. Forms of public participation and consent have evolved significantly in the last few decades and if the proposals are unable to indicate the incorporation of these processes there is little to suggest that the mission will lead to inclusive development for all.
Fourth, the mission could further urban inequality. The two primary forms of urban development envisioned under it are area-based development (ABD) and pan-city development.
As the categories indicate, the first comprises projects focused on a particular area, whereas, the latter comprises solutions that reach out to the wider city.
In order to further ‘compact area’ development, the mission incentivised cities to focus on the ABD over pan-city and the top 60 cities directed over 80% of funding (approximately Rs 1,050 billion) to the city ABDs and under 20% of funding (approximately Rs 260 billion) to pan-city efforts.
The sizes of the ABD vary from under 1 sq. km (Aurangabad) to nearly 17 sq. km (Coimbatore) and on average an Indian smart city ABD lies at 4.9 sq. km or 3% of the city.
The smart city budgets, which are sourced from public and private sources, range from under Rs 10 billion to over Rs 55 billion with a bulk of this funding funnelled into small portions.
This process could exacerbate existing inequalities in cities because only selected portions of cities are improved with high financial investment that might prove difficult to replicate at a pan-city level in the future, or even in other cities outside the Mission.
The concept of the Indian smart city seems to create a very expensive and localised development, which focuses on core infrastructure with limited citizen engagement.
This inferred definition should provoke the government to review the mission.
Given that implementation has only begun, there is still space for the government, civil society and citizens to work towards more ethical and equitable processes of urban development.
Persis Taraporevala is a research associate, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
The article is based on data collated at CPR by Persis Taraporevala, Ajai Sreevatsan and Ashwathy Anand.
The views expressed are personal