India push for smart cities won’t solve urban woes

Experts are divided over the viability of India's plan to create 100 smart cities by 2020.

Some say tackling the massive network of slums is an area that Mumbai needs to grapple with, and the government's plan for smart cities will not solve the problem. Rafiq Maqbool/AP Photo
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NEW DELHI // India is pressing ahead with one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most ambitious campaign promises – to build create 100 “smart cities” across the country by 2020.

“The first Indian smart city to be created could probably be Chandigarh,” the finance minister, Arun Jaitley, said during an investment summit in Gandhinagar this week. “There are satellite towns around Chandigarh that are being created.”

But experts are divided over the viability of the proposal. Some say that the cities that come up will be far from “smart” in the sense used by urban planners. Others fear that the ambition will distract from more pressing urban problems that cannot be solved by a “smart” agenda.

To begin with, the definition of a smart city is ambiguous.

The concept emerged in European urban planning more than a decade ago, said Gautam Bhan, a scholar at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements in Bengaluru.

“It was a way to think about compact European cities and their transition to more sustainable development,” he said. “It was intended to create an optimally functional city: resource-light, sustainable, compact.”

Technology firms such as IBM have championed another model – where millions of sensors across a city relay continuous streams of information to a command-and-control centre.

“You can count cars at traffic stops, identify leaks in water pipes, or tell if a cyclone is coming,” Mr Bhan said. “The technology helps you know, surveil, plan and track.”

The Indian government’s concept note for its smart cities is more focused on technology and infrastructure than on environmental footprints and sustainability.

It emphasises quality but affordable housing, adequate and quality water supply, sanitation, electric supply, clean air, quality education, cost-efficient health care, high speed interconnectivity and efficient urban mobility.

The government is to draft smart-city protocols that cities will use as the basis for future development projects. Their plans will have to be approved by the urban development ministry before the government releases funding so that the projects can get under way.

The first such projects are likely to begin in the next 12 to 18 months, Mr Bhan said.About a third of India’s population is urban, but that segment contributes more than 60 per cent of its GDP, and this is projected to increase to 75 per cent over the next 15 years.

By 2050, India is expected to add another 404 million urban residents, according to a United Nations report last year. Delhi, now the world’s largest city after Tokyo, will have 36 million people by 2030 – with millions of them living in slums or on the streets.

As India’s urban populace grows, its cities are in dire need of rethinking, Mr Jaitley said in his budget speech last July.

At the time, he allocated 70.6 billion rupees (Dh4.12bn) to the smart cities scheme. The government hopes to raise five times as much through public-private partnerships, and its officials have spoken to the United States, France, Singapore and Japan about investments and collaborations.

But the total amount they seek to raise – 420 billion rupees of government and private money – will not be enough to create 100 such cities, said an external consultant familiar with the government’s plans. Already, the idea of creating these 100 cities from scratch – greenfield cities – has been dropped in favour of refurbishing or adding to existing urban centres.

The government’s technocratic approach to smart cities, he said, “can only plug a very small part of the governance problem. What it can’t do, and what the government hasn’t done, is figure out what development priorities should be”.

In the technological ideal of the smart city, sensors are intended to provide information that optimises systems such as drainage networks. Across India, however, drainage networks are patchy or inadequate. In Lucknow, for instance, only 16 per cent of the population is covered by solid-waste sewage system, so sensors will not have much to optimise.

Given the Indian context, the smart cities plan will have limited success.

“You may have better e-governance systems, in which you can file documents or complaints online,” the consultant said. “You’ll have bus stops with an electronic ticker telling you when the next bus will get there.”

The attention and money the government’s plan will lavish upon smaller towns on the cusp of explosive development might fix some problems, but for many of India’s biggest cities, the problems lie in areas that no smart-city agenda can fix.

For instance, tackling the massive network of slums is an area that Mumbai needs to grapple with, said Leena Joshi, a professor at Mumbai’s Tata Institute of Social Sciences. Every year, she pointed out, slums are razed so that the land can be given to commercial developers.

“Where can the poor go? They can only move to other slums or they can move into buildings that are cheap but illegal and dangerous,” she said.

“The failure of housing in Mumbai is obvious. The state hasn’t played much of a role in providing affordable housing at all.”

ssubramanian@thenational.ae