To succeed, citizens must have more say in the Smart Cities Mission
The Smart Cities Mission (SCM), a flagship programme for urban India, has been presented as a participatory and inclusive development programme aimed at enhancing the lives and livelihoods of citizens. This emphasis on participation and economic growth in the structure of the Mission has been extraordinary and could lead to fundamental changes in urban governance. In reality, however, participation has been uneven and the structures upholding the Mission, ambiguous. These issues have led to several kinds of resistance to the Mission — ranging from requests for amendments to the city proposals to a rejection of the Nission itself — from both citizens and the polity.
While the Smart Cities Mission (SCM) has been functioning for over a year and 33 cities have been accepted into the competition, the Mission has been critiqued on numerous occasions, most recently by the Brookings India Institute and the Observer Research Foundation (ORF), with repeated assertions that the idea of smart cities has originated in countries whose socio-economic track records are significantly better than India’s.
These reports have argued that the notion of urban regeneration through the creation of smart cities needs to be better theorised within the Indian context to allow for more appropriate forms of urban improvement with a higher potential of effective implementation.
We find that one of the primary concerns has been the creation of a company, called a Special Planning Vehicle (SPV), in each city to operationalise the Mission at the local level. The constitution and powers of the SPV are fraught with ambiguity and several municipal bodies have been wary about engaging with an entity whose functions seem to overlap with their own.
In Pune, for instance, the local municipal corporators and politicians fear a loss of autonomy of the municipality and have demanded greater representation in the board of the SPV. The negotiations are ongoing and Pune is witnessing a struggle to define the power of the SPV.
While these discussions could slow the pace of the Mission, they may also lead to the construction of a more regulated and accountable body as an outcome of resistance from the local polity. The Brookings India report also flagged that clarity regarding the functions and role of the SPV in the long-term would be critical for the Mission.
Second, the quality of citizen engagement in the Mission has also come under criticism. The cities relied heavily on social media and telecom to reach out to citizens, which was problematic because this strategy presupposed a certain level of literacy and access to technology. The citizen resentment to the Mission in Bhopal and Dehradun resulted in a rejection of the city proposals. Citizens in Bhopal stated that they had not been consulted regarding the changes in Shivaji Nagar and Tulsi Nagar and protested against the eviction notices sent to them. Subsequently, chief minister along with the city mayor announced the shift in site to North TT Nagar.
In Dehradun, NGOs and unaffiliated citizens were up in arms against the state over the inclusion of the tea estate area. The area, considered the city’s “green lungs” and essential for the city’s ecology, was subsequently dropped from the proposal. While Dehradun had the luxury of incorporating changes before their proposal was accepted, Bhopal’s changes to the plan, post approval by the Union government has created confusion and brought out the need for institutionalising formal redressal mechanisms.
One of the significant resistances to the mission has come from West Bengal, where the state government has decided to opt out of competition and not submit proposals for any other city. The state government, pending a formal communication to the Union government has put forth serious disagreements over the financing pattern and the area-based focus of the Mission.
It is imperative that these objections should not be viewed as isolated incidents, but as symptoms of wider issues of insufficient conceptualisation; and recognise that they merit the creation of a formal redressal system to acknowledge and incorporate valid objections to the Smart City Mission.
The implications of the resistance are varied and need to be viewed in a constructive manner. The absence of a grievance architecture could result in further resistance or worse, the creation of spatially and economically polarised cities which conflict with the very ideology of the Mission.
Persis Taraporevala and Bhanu Joshi are research associates with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal