[Urbanstudy] Criticism of India’s Smart Cities Mission is mounting

Vinay Baindur yanivbin at gmail.com
Wed Aug 23 04:00:49 CDT 2017




Criticism of India’s Smart Cities Mission is mounting
PATRALEKHA CHATTERJEE <http://citiscope.org/authors/patralekha-chatterjee>
AUGUST 21, 2017
Critics say a push for 100 ‘smart’ cities is neglecting needs for basic
services and putting India’s poorest at risk of eviction. (Amlan

DELHI — The development of “smart” cities was one of Prime Minister
Narendra Modi’s first initiatives upon taking office in 2014. Launched the
next year, the stated focus of the Indian government’s Smart Cities Mission
<http://smartcities.gov.in/content/> is “on sustainable and inclusive
development, and the idea is to look at compact areas, create a replicable
model which will act like a lighthouse to other aspiring cities.”

However, as the Mission’s portal candidly acknowledges, “There is no
universally accepted definition of a smart city. It means different things
to different people.”

Given the myriad interpretations of that term in this rapidly urbanizing,
hugely diverse country, it comes as no surprise that the project, which
seeks to create 100 “smart” Indian cities by 2020, has had its share of
bouquets and brickbats.

The programme has put Indian cities in competition with each other to
access a share of government money. Ninety proposals
<https://smartnet.niua.org/smart-cities-network> have received funding for
a wide variety of projects, from building mobile applications
 to housing
new “greenfield” cities from scratch
Cities are expected to leverage the national funds to attract additional
public and private investment.

Two years into it, many urban experts are asking whether the initiative is
addressing the real problems facing too many people in India’s teeming
cities: crushing poverty, a lack of basic services and an ever-present risk
of being forced to leave one’s home.

The latest critique comes from the Delhi-based Housing and Land Rights
Network <http://hlrn.org.in/>, a civil society coalition. The group
recently released a study that looks at the Smart Cities Mission through
the lens of human rights and social justice
<http://hlrn.org.in/documents/Smart_Cities_Report_2017.pdf> — and finds it
seriously wanting.

The study makes the point that while “smart” city proposals offer a varied
menu of technological solutions for better cities, it slips up massively by
not outlining a comprehensive vision that takes into account the shortfall
of basic services many urban Indians face.

“We have to deal with the basics first,” the network’s executive director,
Shivani Chaudhry, said in an interview with Citiscope. “The fact is that a
large part of our urban population is living in really dismal conditions,
without basic services.

“Smart cities are not based on city-wide plans,” Chaudhry continued. “They
cater to a select population within a city. More than smart cities, we need
smart solutions in an inclusive policy framework. Equity should be at the
heart of urban planning.”
Claims of discrimination

Consider some telling figures, culled from the HLRN report — 31 percent of
India’s population (about 380 million people) live in urban areas. By 2030,
India’s city dwellers are projected to number about 600 million.  The
number of families unable to afford a house could reach 38 million by 2030.
Almost two-thirds Indian cities have informal slum settlements and more
than 13 million households live in them. And more than a third of families
living in such settlements do not have basic amenities like electricity,
piped water and sanitation within their premises.

The report argues that the attention and funding given to only 100 of
India’s more than 4,000 cities and towns is discriminatory. It also faults
the Smart Cities Mission for promoting greater urbanization while failing
to address structural causes of migration: an agrarian crisis, drought and
floods, a lack of jobs in rural areas and failed land reform. The report
says the Mission does not focus on the specific needs and rights of women,
children, and marginalized groups, minorities, migrants, domestic workers,
and persons with disabilities.

*[See: Can the New Urban Agenda heal India’s rural-urban divide?]*

The lack of human rights standards and indicators to monitor implementation
also raise questions about whether the Mission will be able to improve
living conditions of all city residents, especially low-income groups and
other disadvantaged communities, it notes.

The HLRN report charges the flagship project with diluting democracy
through mechanisms such as “Special Purpose Vehicles”. These are
public-private entities created under national law, intended to manage
projects and the funding attached to them. The report says these entities
can potentially bypass elected governments and local bodies.

M.Venkaiah Naidu, India’s former minister of urban development and newly
elected vice president, has dismissed the criticism that the Smart Cities
Mission has elitist aims. At a workshop on urban transformation in June
he said that housing, school and road projects would benefit “the common
man”. He also said that less than a quarter of spending on “smart” city
projects is to be spent on technology-driven solutions.
Evictions a concern

One of the report’s main areas of concern is the Mission’s tepid approach
to forced evictions of the many urban poor living without secure tenure.
“Despite recognizing that a large percentage of the city population lives
in under-serviced and inadequate settlements,” it says, “none of the
shortlisted cities have adopted a human rights approach to housing or
included safeguards that the right to housing will not be violated during
the implementation of ‘smart city’ projects.”

It points out that while the winning proposals proudly list housing
provided for low-income groups
the amount of construction is still grossly insufficient to meet growing
needs for affordable housing. The proposals are also “silent” on the number
of homes to be demolished, and families evicted, under various schemes.

*[See: In India, debating the meaning of ‘competitive sub-federalism’]*

A telling example cited by the report authors is the north Indian town of
Dharmshala, which figures in the list of “smart” cities. The report points
out that the city’s proposal provides for constructing 212 houses for slum
dwellers under a government scheme, while “300 houses were demolished in
2016 by the Municipal Corporation of Dharmshala.”

The HLRN analysis offers 16 recommendations for reforming the “smart”
cities programme. On top of the list is the suggestion that the national
government develop human rights-based indicators to monitor progress of the
Mission, with a specific focus on the most marginalized and poor.

“People, not technology, have to be at the centre of any state
intervention,” Chaudhry said. “While technological developments are very
important and hold the potential to bring about positive change, they
should be based on an inclusive approach, not on a platform that is
patently exclusive.”

This story is tagged under:
The New Urban Agenda <http://citiscope.org/topics/new-urban-agenda>
Cities and the SDGs <http://citiscope.org/topics/cities-and-sdgs>
SDG 11: The ‘Urban Sustainable Development Goal’
‘Smart’ Cities <http://citiscope.org/topics/technology/smart-cities>
India <http://citiscope.org/topics/india>
Narendra Modi <http://citiscope.org/topics/narendra-modi>
Citizen Participation <http://citiscope.org/topics/citizen-participation>
Technology <http://citiscope.org/topics/technology>
Property Rights <http://citiscope.org/topics/property-rights>
Slum Dwellers <http://citiscope.org/topics/inclusivity/slum-dwellers>
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