Unsmart cities

The vision about smart cities in India being about symbols instead of enabling the power of citizens to find the financial and intellectual resources to address their problems is unsmart


The beginnings of the smart city story in India did not inspire. Even as the Prime Minister spoke of a revolution where citizens would contribute to formulate development visions of their cities, ending the top-down approach, and moving to people-centric urban development, the head table struck a sobering note. There were more than 500 mayors and city leaders in attendance, but all were in the audience. With the Prime Minister were his ministerial colleagues, two chief ministers, one deputy chief minister, and senior bureaucrats. Cutting through the rhetoric, it clarified the real basis of power; the state holds the political reins, and the Union the strings to some large purses.

Currently, of the initial 100 cities (now 109 cities) allowed to submit proposals for selection as a smart city, first 20 and recently 13 more were able to satisfy the requirements decided upon by experts appointed by the Union government. Another seven are expected to follow shortly. It all seems like examinees trying to reproduce model answers in an examination—a bit removed from a vision of 100 supercharged engines of growth, vying to outdo each other.

This is but to be expected. The current smart city discourse in India revolves around ICT (information and communication technology), but a computer is fundamentally un-smart, since it only does what it has been programmed to do. A pre-requisite to be judged as smart, is the ability to decide and act independently, to have, what philosophers call ‘agency’.

Smartness, requires the people in a city—the citizens—to, first, be able to establish institutions to choose among alternatives, and second, to pick a path towards a goal of their choice. If a city is able to do that, it should be considered smart, else not. But, cities in India have very limited agency. They can decide precious little for themselves. Few can shape the use of the land on which it exists; that right kept by the state or, in the case of Delhi, by the Union government for itself. They are also responsible for the cities’ security. The other aspect of smartness is the ability to move towards a goal. But, what are the goals of a city? I would argue that it is to provide sustainable economic progress, social emancipation and political participation. It is hard to contend that cities have tried to meet them in full or even substantial measure. Where there is economic progress, it has rarely been sustainable. It is perhaps most clearly evident as one travels from Vatva, near Ahmedabad to Vapi, beyond Surat; where, reminiscent of Chinese landscapes, economic growth goes hand-in-hand with environmental degradation of even as basic a resource as groundwater, one that is almost impossible to remediate. If one judges by the protests in our cities against discrimination by caste, gender and now, sexual orientation, one can argue that a modicum of social emancipation has been achieved—more perhaps than in our villages, but there is still a long way to go. Segregation of housing by religion seems common, and doesn’t seem to raise much ire.

It is in political participation, however, that cities are yet to begin. There are many politicians, but little politics—in terms of debates over choices—because cities do not choose. Except the Shiv Sena and now the Aam Aadmi Party, few parties have an urban flavour.

In this context, it is to be expected that the idea of a smart city will be reduced to what it has become. A third of the evaluation is based on past performance and the current focus is on something called an ‘area based plan’—a sort of shiny cluster to be implemented by a special purpose vehicle in which the state (aha!) would have a share—that would, at its best, be an engine of growth for the city. A review of the plans submitted reveals little about how this would actually happen in the cities. As almost an afterthought, a small weightage is given to city-wide interventions, actions that could actually affect the lives of people living in the city. In the absence of a role for city governments, the hat-tip to citizen participation was through Internet-based feedback, a nice little exclusionary finish to top off the exercise. Protests were few. Pune did insist on keeping the state out; it’s unclear if it succeeded. Shimla, kept out of the original 100, has managed to shove its way in. Both are seen as troublemakers, rather than robust claimants.

The natural question that arises is: who would own this exercise? Once the consultants have departed, the municipal commissioner transferred, the urban development secretary promoted and the minister replaced, would even this vision, howsoever imperfect, survive? The model answers may remain on the model board.

True thinking about smart cities, as the late K.C. Sivaramakrishnan would say, must focus on city governance, on giving citizens agency and resources. Cities must be able to decide and act for themselves—make their own mistakes, celebrate their own successes. They need to have their own financial resources, i.e., a buoyant tax base, like a share of the goods and services tax, human resources, the ability to hire and, if necessary, fire their own staff, not linked to a state cadre.

Instead, the vision about smart cities in the world’s largest democracy seems to about avoiding the messiness of political representation and a belief, naive or motivated, that smart cities are about symbols; about pipes and wires, glass and steel, and apps and Wi-Fi, providing packaged solutions to perceived problems, rather than about enabling the power of citizens to find the financial and intellectual resources to address the problems they perceive. That, given what we have learnt from cities around the world, is not just sad, but also very unsmart.

Partha Mukhopadhyay is a senior fellow at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.