Criticism of India’s Smart Cities Mission is mounting

Critics say a push for 100 ‘smart’ cities is neglecting needs for basic services and putting India’s poorest at risk of eviction. (Amlan Mathur/Shutterstock)

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 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 have received funding for a wide variety of projects, from building mobile applications to housing to 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, 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 — 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.”

Back to top

More from Citiscope

Latest Commentary

Patralekha Chatterjee is a correspondent for Citiscope based in Delhi. She is an award-winning journalist and columnist who has written extensively on Asian cities. Full bio

Get Citiscope’s email newsletter on local solutions to global goals.