The elusive smartness of India’s smart cities

By Ankur Bisen 

The National Smart Cities Mission was launched amidst much fanfare in 2015 by the Union Government of India. The Ministry of Urban Development was made responsible to develop hundreds of Smart Cities under the mission. The launch of the mission saw palpable excitement among urban enthusiasts, media and more importantly the consultant fraternity.

Specific missions were established in respective cities that were helmed by administrators as CEOs who were responsible to elaborate on the meaning of Smart Cities and to implement that meaning. Corridors of buildings that housed these missions saw hectic parleys by consultants and experts from across India and globally with ideas and detailed project reports (DPRs) about smart cities. Contracts were rolled out and smart city missions across hundreds of cities across India came to life.

Dehradun Smart City mission was one such mission that deployed nearly $200 millions between 2015 and 2022,  to transform Dehradun – the capital city of Uttrakhand, into a smart city from whatever its status was earlier.

But in 2022, the chief minister of the state held a critical review of the mission’s progress and was unsparing to conclude that the city is yet to become “smart”. Environmentalists, experts and historians of the city claim that the smart city mission has hardly made a dent to the city’s dwindling ability to manage waste, rapidly rising urban population and of slums, check pollution and protect biodiversity.

The city’s freshwater streams that were once the source of the famed basmati rice cultivation on the city’s periphery have all but vanished. The city does not have a working master plan but the only industry that is alive in the city is real estate. So what was the Smart City Mission working on for the last seven years and continues to do so?

But, more importantly, what is a smart city and therefore, did the mission rightly scoped the smart city plan seven years back ?

Climate change has accelerated the academic research on smart cities as a cross functional subject. It is bringing together urban theorists, economists, planners and scientists to collaborate on “What makes a city Smart” going forward.

From this collaboration, broad contours that can explain the smartness quotient of a city are increasingly getting accepted and these have three characteristics.

Foremost is this notion that the city should be resource neutral or resource positive. It should give back more than it takes from nature. This implies that the electricity that goes into powering the city can completely transition to renewables or solar through a distributed grid system. The emission that it generates viz. methane from waste landfills should be harvested and put to industrial use for its rich calorific value.

Water bodies should be nurtured so that they retain their stamina to recharge always remains in surplus. Broadly, it means that a smart city should collect and process all the aftermaths of consumption within the city or consume resources within its ability to replace or regenerate. A smart city should not only exist to pursue this equilibrium, but it should also sound an alarm whenever this equilibrium is breached and demand a revert to the status quo.

Renowned economist Kate Raworth conceptualised Doughnut Economics for a smarter urban existence on this notion among other principals and that the city of Amsterdam is adopting it for a smart existence. 

Secondly, a smart city should prioritise public spaces over private spaces. Sprawling individual houses in a city are more resource inefficient than are community housing complexes. Public transport more than individual cars should have the right to the city’s road systems. Public libraries and public swimming pools should be prioritised over private clubs or golf courses that are designed for exclusion.

In other words, an egalitarian mindset if it may that a city’s space will get scarcer and more stretched and therefore a smart city should prioritize more of its spaces for shared use than for a single individual. This wisdom is an established way of tribal living from ancient times and is now finding increasing acceptance in movements across Europe resisting private ownership of cars getting more access to city roads and that has seen activists advocating for more road rights to pedestrians, cyclists, and public transport over cars in cities like Paris, London and Amsterdam.

Finally, a city can’t be smart if its habitants can’t decide the course of its current and future existence. From urban planning that plays a crucial role in the land use of a city for decades to deciding fees, levies and taxes for services, people’s representation through urban local bodies is key to determine the smartness quotient of the city. The autonomy of the elected local bodies of cities to govern, to financially stand on their own feet and to legislate as per the will of the cities’ residents is directly proportional to the cities’ smartness.

A near monopoly of the top-down approach to develop smart cities in India faces this reality check. Indian “smart cities” will need to take lessons from cities like Venice that now imposes tourist tax to stop “over tourism” or municipalities in Sweden that owns and runs waste processing plants as public good to imbibe the wisdom of strengthening democratic credentials of their local bodies. 

Hyderabad that surrendered to one spell of rain shower last year and New Delhi that saw only one day of air quality under healthy limits in the whole of last year stand in the company of Dehradun while they all search for elusive smartness quotient after spending millions for over the last seven years. More importantly, no Indian city can claim to be smart if more than a third of urban India lives in slums and subaltern housing.

Process owners of the smart city project in India will vouch for the project’s successful implementation citing centralised traffic signalling system, signage boards that glow at night and digitised record keeping among other initiatives, the framework on which India’s urbanism searches a smarter existence is at odds with the smartness habitants of these cities yearn but are coming to terms with its expression or the lack of it.

Ankur Bisen is a Senior Partner at Technopak Advisors, and the author of ‘Wasted: The Messy Story of Sanitation in India, A Manifesto for Change’ (Macmillan; 2019). Twitter: @AnkurBisen1

 Disclaimer: The views expressed are not necessarily those of The South Asian Times  

Images courtesy of (Image: ELE Times), (Image: Insight IAS) and Provided

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