February 25, 2023: Did the Indian government come up with the sudden declaration – that 22 of the 100 cities chosen for a so-called ‘Smart City’ project would be ready by March – with an eye on the G20 leaders’ summit the nation will host later this year?
The question arises because the information apparently leaked to a news agency by an unnamed official speaks of a time frame for the completion of a major chunk of the project, tailored to showcase before the visiting G20 world leaders that much of India’s urban population resides in “better planned” areas with “improved livability” conditions. It’s immaterial that these “better planned” areas would actually continue to be hubs of poor quality of life and unlivable slums.
According to the anonymous official, while work in the 22 Smart Cities would be completed next month, the other 78 would be ready in May-June. That’s in time for the 18th G20 leaders’ summit to be held at New Delhi’s Pragati Maidan with aplomb on September 9-10.
WHO IS IT FOR, ACTUALLY?
The government ostensibly aims to promote Smart Cities as advanced urban waterholes giving a decent quality of life to its residents besides a clean and sustainable environment. But activists and critical-thinkers question whether the so-called Smart City Mission, or SCM, actually promotes the interests of only the elites and leaves out the masses living in chaos and dereliction.
Launched on June 25, 2015, the SCM selected 100 cities for redevelopment through four rounds of competition from January 2016 to June 2018.
The implementation of the SCM at the city level is carried out by an SPV (special purpose vehicle) – a 50:50 joint venture between the state government and the urban local body – that plans, implements, and evaluates the projects.
The central government is providing financial support of Rs 48,000 crore over five years for the entire project, which comes to about Rs 100 crore per city per year. The state government or the urban local body, too, is expected to pitch in with a grant, with the rest of the project’s costs to be funded from various sources, such as public-private partnerships, convergence with other government missions, loans, and other avenues.
Shaguna Kanwar, project coordinator for national programmes with the NGO and monitor YUVA (Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action), pointed out the flaws. “The SCM fails to address a primary concern of the country – the critical need for access to housing and basic amenities (like electricity, water, schools and public hospitals) for millions in the country… the SCM may be just a garb to promote the interests of a few,” Kanwar wrote.
While the government booklet ‘Smart City Mission (SCM) Statement and Guidelines’ speaks of applying ‘smart’ solutions to various issues through a robust IT network and digitisation, analysts call the project “inherently unsmart”.
There are fears that the exorbitant cost of the “high-end infrastructure and superlative quality of life”, as the Smart City mission emphasises, would jack up the cost of so-called development, raising the cost of living, and making the cities out of bounds for those struggling on the margins.
SHIMLA, A CASE IN POINT
Small shopkeepers in Shimla, which is on the list of Smart Cities, are tense about whether they can continue to survive there after the reset. “We are Indians, we are not from another country. We are not different, and we live here. Please let us stay,” a shop owner told Empire Diaries in this article.
Indian cities, including those that are part of the hallowed SCM, are paying the price of an irresponsible urbanisation drive. Shimla, the capital of the state of Himachal Pradesh, is just one of them. Once a refreshing getaway in northern India’s mountains and known for its serenity, Shimla now has all the ugly characteristics of a typically modern city – a road network choked with traffic, escalating growth of slums in nooks and corners resulting from surrounding rural distress, poor sanitation for low-income neighbourhoods, exploding population, overdose of consumerist lifestyles through an infectious spread of giant shopping malls, and worsening hyperlocal climate conditions impacting snowfall cycles.
Compared to the look-and-feel of cities in richer countries, most Indian cities are in a state of complete civilisational mess as a result of unplanned urbanisation, with the fast-escalating slum problem gripping urban habitations in almost every state.
A RIGHTS VIOLATION
In fact, the springing up of new slums across Indian cities accelerated after the Covid-19 lockdowns, which hit the financial well-being of many of the city folks as well as the rural population. It is an escalating urban distress that’s hardly reported by the mainstream media in holistic terms and beyond the narrow, agenda-driven lens of politics.
Many of the urban centres are part of the 100 Smart Cities Project are now hubs of massive, putrid-smelling slums, where residing is an unacknowledged human rights violation in terms of a lack of basic facilities and attention.
Research done by the news outlet Down to Earth focuses on this point. The study revealed that 27 smart cities have proposed 41 slum redevelopment projects. The research brought out chilling statistics about urban living in India.
• Slums are so common that they’re found in 65% of Indian towns.
• Every sixth urban Indian resides in slums unfit for human habitation.
• 1.2 million slum households in India drink untreated tap water
• 63% slum households in India are either without a drainage connection or are connected to open drains
A major reason behind the ballooning slums and shanties, both in numbers and size, lies in a freefall that has gripped the farming sector and villages, forcing the rural population to escape (read: migrate) to the cities, where the central and state governments don’t give them a life beyond temporary relief.
There is a fear that the area-based development model provisions for funds to be spent mainly on developing only small parcels of land in upmarket cities, thereby sparking deeper inequality in the country.
According to the government, “Area-based development will transform existing areas (retrofit and redevelop), including slums, into better planned ones, thereby improving livability of the whole city. New areas (greenfield) will be developed around cities in order to accommodate the expanding population in urban areas.”
Though on an average, the area-based development proposals and projects corner up to 80% of the funds, they’re concentrated only on 5-10% of the city area, eventually turning the initiative into a project only for the elites.
For example, in West Bengal, the selected area under the mission is New Town, a breathy, well-planned township in the northeast fringes of Kolkata and inhabited by the upper-middle and upper classes. Instead, it would’ve been more worthwhile had the national project focused on addressing the chaos, congestion, and traffic woes in the heart of Kolkata.
An analysis of the SCM by Delhi-based NGO HLRN (Housing and Land Rights Network) noted that there’s no emphasis on inclusion and social justice when it comes to planning Smart Cities.
“The mission is being advertised as a strong investment opportunity for foreign governments, MNCs, and the Indian corporate sector. However, the slow rate of investment and inability of cities to mobilise the required funds reveal the limits of overly relying on the private sector,” the HLRN wrote in the report titled: ‘India’s Smart Cities Mission: Smart for Whom? Cities for Whom?’
“Moreover, the undemocratic powers conferred on SPVs and the predominant role of the corporate sector bring to light dangerous trends of privatisation of governance and corporatisation of Indian cities,” the report said.
‘SMART’ MOVE: EVICTIONS
According to another HLRN report, an estimated 22,630 people had been evicted due to infrastructure development under the SCM between 2017 and 2019.
India’s much-hyped ‘Smart Cities’ are dwarfed by slums and perpetual urban mismanagement. To make the project indeed come true, a meaningful involvement of ground-level activists and citizens’ representatives from different strata of life is required. Instead, there’s an over-reliance on experts, technical persons, and marketing stunts that are snuffing out chances of an inclusive and utilitarian approach in making India’s cities more livable.
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