Smart Cities, anyone?

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What is the purpose behind creating Smart Cities? Who will decide the public agenda for these cities? Will every citizen benefit?

The government says it will create 100 smart cities over the next five years under its Smart City Mission. This is in addition to rejuvenating 500 existing cities under a mission called AMRUT (A Mission for Rejuvenation of Urban Transformation). Twenty cities have already been picked in February 2016, on the basis of their track record in generating internal resources through user charges, online publication of budgets, grievance redressal systems, completion of past urban renewal projects, citizens participation, vision and goals etc.

People are impatiently looking forward to living in smart cities instead of the cities that we do inhabit; a promised city where they can work and live without suffocating in toxic air or risk being disabled by tap water. Who would deny the need to commute to work smartly without losing three hours every day, or go out for a long walk without tripping over lose pavement stones and skipping over garbage? Which one of us would not like to sit in a beautiful park and watch children play? And who would not like to live in a decent, affordable home or have city corporators answerable to the tax payers? Who can contradict the need to improve quality of life in our cities? But how important are these concerns in the proposed smart city map?

So far, the plan seems to suggest that massive private partnership and foreign funding will be needed to fund this Mission. The government will make available only one lakh crores rupees through the centre, state and municipal budgets. Four times that amount will be obtained through private parties and loans from World Bank, ADB, BRIC Bank, Chinese Asian led Infrastructure Bank, German, French and Japanese and other such sources. More will come in from other private players. Some accounting firms estimate that $150 billion will be needed over the next five years! Funding numbers are still evolving. Meanwhile, large real estate developers, internet service providers, and foreign urban infrastructure consultants are getting organised for major contracts, and hence the market excitement. For real estate players, this is a much needed shot in the arms. The market has been stagnant, saturated at the top and largely ignored at the bottom.

For want of genuine citizen participation what is being projected in a smart city are basically ICT enabled services, Wi-Fi services, and mobile phone applications that inform citizens about other available services. With no agenda to increase affordable public services, all that this can amount to is calls/ messages to private taxis and autos, private garbage cleaners, oxygen cylinders, power suppliers, water suppliers and so on.

For its IT based conception, enormous role of private players, debt and sheer scale, this mission is indeed unique. The implication is that user fees and local taxes will have to go up. The Urban Development Ministry suggests that local urban bodies will have to be creative in raising funds because many of their traditional taxes like octroi are being included in the GST. Special Purpose Vehicles created to make and manage these cities will circumvent elected LUB (Local Urban Bodies) or make equal partnerships with them thereby circumscribing local democracy. So who will decide what is priority in the Smart City is? Will basic services be priced fairly?

The city will eventually fall into two or more parts depending on what the citizens can afford in terms of roads, power services, garbage disposal, schools, hospitals and other public services. These parts will live cheek by jowl as is the custom in India; servants, drivers, washer men in dense, unhygienic clusters around the cybernetic smart city residents. The Census of India 2011 estimates the urban population to be 377 million (37.7crores) – an increase of 31% (11.69 crore or 1.17 per year) since 2001. Inescapably, as poor migrants pour in, it will be difficult to envisage where the old city ends and the smart city begins.


Anuradha-Kalhan

Anuradha Kalhan

Anuradha Kalhan is an independent researcher. She was earlier a Fellow at NMML, Teen Murti.

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