INDIA RISING

Will India’s experiment with smart cities tackle poverty—or make it worse?

Quartz india
Quartz india

India is rising. In cities across the nation, the pace of construction is reaching frenzied heights. Each city, each district, each state is reinventing itself: one smartphone, one flyover, one superhighway, one mega-project at a time.

In a recent speech, Narendra Modi said the nation needed “to think big and focus on skill, scale and speed to revive India’s growth story.” To this end, the Indian prime minister has come up with a new business model for urbanisation: India’s ambitious national smart cities mission, which aims to transform a hundred small and medium-sized settlements into smart cities.

Getting smart

As part of Modi’s mission, local governments are expected to consult with citizens and come up with proposals to make their city smart. The federal state will then select the 100 cities—based on past record and future potential—to receive recognition and resources for their plans.

While smart cities in the West rely on the mining and analysis of big data to create urban networks, in India they aim to provide basic urban services: water, sanitation, electricity, housing and so on. The provision of e-governance, fibre-optic cables, and superfast broadband is a key part of this plan.

Best avoided. dieterzirnig.com/Flickr, CC BY-NC
Best avoided. (dieterzirnig.com/Flickr, CC BY-NC)

In India, the definition of a “smart city” has been opened up to allow for regional variation driven by innovation, entrepreneurship and business needs. The idea is to use urbanisation as an opportunity to generate wealth and prosperity. It’s also hoped that the new smart cities will bypass the developmental “crises” (such as crime, poverty, energy shortages and slums), which grip mega-cities in the global south.

With this outlook, India’s investment in smart cities seems to be a win-win situation for governments and citizens alike.

The flip side

But scratch the surface, and a very different picture emerges. In fact, the smart cities mission is promoting rapid regional urbanisation by speculating and monetising on the commons—land which belongs formally or informally to farmers and various tribes, who have used it for generations—and transforming it into real estate. Crucially, this transformation excludes those who do not fit into the vision of a smart city.

Not invited. Well-Bred Kannan (WBK Photography)/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND
Not invited. (Well-Bred Kannan (WBK Photography)/Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND)

Attracting investment to fund smart city transformations is a major challenge. Public investment is inadequate, so funding is being sought through public-private partnerships. Global IT consultancies such as Cisco, Siemens, Samsung; infrastructure companies such as AECOM; and coalitions of planning, architecture and management companies have been lining up to provide smart city skills, technology and knowledge. That is, at a price—the terms of these partnerships often bypass the democratic processes associated with planning and governance.

For example, a range of new laws has been brought in, which highlight how India’s journey toward smart urbanisation is being influenced by corporate interests. These include laws sanctioning foreign direct investment in construction, and speeding up environmental clearances for major projects. Then there were the much-contested proposals to relax regulations around national land acquisition.

Corporate takeover

Reforms made in the name of India’s smart cities agenda have facilitated a private takeover of public space. While small and medium-sized towns are undergoing exponential growth, there has also been a large-scale manipulation of territory along their edges. Land acquisition and pooling along economic and industrial corridors, where these smart cities are strategically located, is prompting the construction of further satellite cities.

This is cause for concern: these new developments are largely privately owned, and sometimes even privately managed and governed. They run the risk of becoming enclaves of privilege, with private sector representatives already advocating the exclusion of the poor and marginalised through high prices and policing.

The smart city vision has also been criticised for its focus on the control and surveillance of ordinary citizens. While connected homes and public wifi might be a seductive promise for India’s middle classes, the services and products offered by Cisco, Siemens and others address only the symptoms and not the causes of poverty and underdevelopment.

International investment

So the question remains: who gains from these smart city ventures? The last year has seen an unprecedented number of foreign visits, both by the Indian prime minister and from potential international investors. Since 2014, David Cameron, Barack Obama, François Hollande and several other world leaders have visited India offering the knowledge, skills and investment India needs for its smart cities makeover.

Indeed, Japan’s Shinzo Abe recently visited India to sign a memorandum of understanding for the transformation of India’s holy city Varanasi into a smart city.

This global jostling is worth millions of pounds and dollars for consultancies and construction firms in the US and Europe.

But for all the Indian prime minister’s promise to “lay a red carpet and not red tape” for foreign investors, the process has been anything but fast. One of the big roadblocks has been the bureaucratic processes of investment and approvals for smart city contracts. Difficulties have led to the retraction of several agreements by private investors.

At the city level, some local authorities are refusing to implement the vision, on the basis that it gives India’s central government increased powers over urban development, which were constitutionally reserved for local authorities.

But it is at the grassroots where the smart city vision has been really challenged. After nationwide protests and petitions, the government was recently forced to withdraw proposals to relax land acquisition laws, which sought to remove embedded consultation and compensation clauses.

In Dholera, Rajarhat, Amravati, Haolenphai and several other new smart cities, farmers, tribespeople and indigenous groups are resisting their exclusion from India’s smart city makeover. They are campaigning for their constitutional rights to land, livelihoods and local cultures. Their struggles are proof that neither the Indian government nor its allies in the corporate world has had the last word. India’s experiments with smart urban futures are contested, and will continue to evolve.

The ConversationThis post originally appeared at The Conversation.We welcome your comments at ideas.india@qz.com.

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