Cities & Architecture

Will Smart Cities Be Geared Only Towards The Well Off?

bombay by night

We are in the midst of a number of culture wars about the meaning of “Indian-ness” in a time of rapid change. Changes in patterns of work, relationships (between partners as well generations), leisure, sexual preferences, and food (to name just a few contexts) are producing new anxieties about loss and recuperation. But, curiously enough, the loss of social certainty hardly ever leads our politicians and policy makers to create spaces and opportunities for thinking about the nature of social change and how best to deal with it. This requires a clear understanding of the ways in which different kinds of lives and processes are entangled to produce cities.

Sadly, this perspective – without which the various seminar hall dialogues about urbanism are simply air-conditioned pass-times – is not really of much use either to either politicians or the policy makers. For, both of these groups think of society as a machine, capable of precise action through supplying the right kind of fuel. That imagined fuel in the present time is technology. In the midst of enormous social change – that is both an effect of technology and also its accompaniment – we are insistently told that technology will both return to us to a (mythical) cohesive past as well as deliver us to an Edenic future. In turn, we make technology sepia-tinted and begin to think of social complexity in the languages of Amar Chitra Katha and Marvel comics. While these forms of entertainment are relatively cheaply afforded, the cost of such thinking when transformed into social policy is extremely – and irreparably – high. The cost of such techno-totalitarianism is deep and wide because it censors and banishes a genuine understanding of social problems. The peculiar aspect of the present is the frightening belief in the exclusive powers of technology.

Investor-friendly smart city

One of the most significant experiments of our time is the Smart Cities programme of the Government of India. And, even though urbanization in India is a very significant issue, we have hardly paid any attention to government plans for our urban future. The last such intervention in urban living occurred in the 1950s with the construction of Steel Cities. The Smart Cities programme, however, dwarfs the Nehruvian dream of spatial modernity. The document called Smart Cities: The MoUD’s (Ministry of Urban Development) Note for the Parliamentary Panel on Urban Development outlines the following definition for Smart Cities: ‘Smart Cities are those that are able to attract investments and experts & professionals. Good Quality infrastructure, simple and transparent online business and public services processes that make it easy to practice one’s profession or to establish an enterprise and run it efficiently without any bureaucratic hassles are essential features of a citizen centric and investor-friendly smart city’. Ninety eight cities across India have been selected to be converted into Smart Cities. The Smart Cities idea is built around a host of technological processes that, it is suggested, will address issues of infrastructure, housing, ‘IT connectivity’, ‘e-governance and citizen participation’, and safety and security, particularly those relating to women, children and the elderly. Each selected Smart City will receive around Rs. 100 crores per year for the next five years. Further funds are to be raised municipal bonds, ‘leverage borrowings from financial institutions’, both Indian and global, and Public Private Partnership (PPP) schemes. Most significantly, Smart Cities are to be developed through ‘constituted boards’ to be known as Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs), each of which will have a CEO, as well as nominees from the central government, the state government and urban local bodies.

The Smart Cities plan was developed through the assistance of Bloomberg Philanthropies, which also assisted the MoUD in selecting cities for the Smart Cities funding. Among other global corporations, IBM and Cisco SmartCity Dubai have either expressed strong interest or signed agreements to convert selected cities into smart ones.

The conceptualization and planning of Smart Cities is taking place in the context of a number of broader changes that have been in train for the past few decades. One of these is the changing relationship between the state and private capital. Further, there is also a new imagination of the typical urban dweller. This is a historically significant development in as much as it also re-imagines urban citizenship in quite specific ways. To begin with, it is not clear – or perhaps quite clear – what the relationship between the SPV, elected bodies and non-professional citizens might be. If the city – the Smart City – is imagined as a corporation, then how might urban spaces – those of security and insecurity – be imagined? The social complexity of Indian cities lies in the kinds of asymmetries of power, identity politics and the politics of gender that cannot be captured when we recast this complexity as a mechanical relationship between technology and global capital. It is important to think about the kinds of publics the Smart Cities idea addresses and to consider whether this is where public good lies and is the best – or even within shouting distance of the ‘best’ – way of improving urban well-being.

What is the nature of Indian cities? It certainly isn’t something that can be understood through techno-totalitarianism, which is a way of thinking that borrows uncritically from urban experiments within western contexts. Our cities, however, are wracked by the kinds of problems that make even the most dystopic visions of the western city seem no worse than a very hot day without air-conditioning. A number of valuable studies tell us that deeply skewed access to resources – water and electricity, for example, – is a fundamental cause of urban violence. This is a problem of distribution and distribution of resources lies in the realms of social and economic justice. The most advanced of technologies care little about issues of equity. On the other hand, if thought of as singular solutions to the problem of contemporary life, (as the Smart Cities idea does), technology ends up widening the gap between the rich and the poor and, in fact, multiplying the problems we already face. Should the Smart Cities project primarily have the well-off as its key beneficiaries?

Relationship between police and citizen

Relationships between the police and ordinary citizens is at the heart of some of the greatest problems of urban life. Access to systems of policing depends on the type of the complainant and the type of complaint. So, as indicated by data recently released by the Delhi Police (The Hindu, October 9 2015), of the 7,124 registered cases of crimes against women, the police filed charge sheets in just 324 cases. Can mooted systems of ‘e-governance’ – which the Smart Cities idea seeks to expand exponentially – really address the social attitudes and relations of power that define crimes against women as well the lackadaisical attitudes that the police have towards those unable to exercise ‘influence’, to see their complaint through to a satisfactory resolution? Will better ‘IT connectivity’ ensure that a Dalit family in Greater Noida is not forced to strip in front of a police station to protest police inaction in registering its FIR?

Cities – as distinct from villages – promise anonymity and, hence, a certain kind of freedom that close surveillance in a rural setting makes impossible. And yet, the religious ghettoisation of our cities seems to be increasing rather than diminishing. Modern apartment complexes silently seek to ensure religiously homogenous populations, leading to rising intolerance of different ways of eating and being. How exactly might ‘e-governance and citizens participation’ come into play here? Is the role of CEO of a Special Purpose Vehicle for Smart Cities to be defined as a social one or only in economic terms?

Techno-totalitarianism promises technotopias. As we know, however, all forms of totalitarianism promise Utopias in return for suspending criticism of simplistic solutions. What we really require are courageous politicians, policy makers and bureaucrats who will not suspend criticism and ask difficult questions about what makes a difference in people’s lives. That is the public good.


  • kiran

    <<<Our cities, however, are wracked by the kinds of problems that make even the most dystopic visions of the western city seem no worse than a very hot day without air-conditioning.

    the author himself is thinking through western constructs , Detriot ,Chicago have a very high homicide rate compared to any Indian city, and on a hot day without AC………