Are India's "Smart Cities" the smart choice?

by Shivani Chaudhry
Wednesday, 3 June 2015 11:10 GMT

Windows of various shanties in Dharavi, one of Asia's largest slums, are seen in Mumbai January 28, 2015. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui

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One in four urban Indians is poor, and one in five urban households lives in a slum

One of most popular buzz words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government during its first year has been the "Smart Cities" initiative. Yet despite the hype, it remains fairly ambiguous.

The Cabinet recently approved $7.5 billion for the Smart Cities Mission. This may seem a lot, but when Census 2011 data reveals that one in four urban Indians is poor, and one in five urban households lives in a slum, should building 100 "smart cities" be the priority for India’s urbanisation quagmire?

As the vast majority of urban India grapples with the perils of poverty, discrimination, precarious housing, water scarcity, unemployment, malnourishment, poor health, and gender-based violence, is the government’s resounding focus on "smart cities" justified?

By 2030, more than 40 percent of India — about 600 million people— will live in cities. This calls for concerted efforts to protect the rights of the growing urban population along with an evaluation of why the prevalent model of neoliberal urbanisation has failed. The same paradigm that created the problems cannot be used to solve them.

Despite the rhetoric, and despite multiple papers, conferences, and resources being dedicated to the theme, it is still not clear what the government means by a "smart city".

The Minister for Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation mentioned a "4S and 4P formula" to make a city smart: "Smart leadership, smart governance, smart technologies and smart people; and the Public-Private-People Partnership."

Government proclamations indicate that smart cities are likely to promote foreign investment and the flow of private capital, possibly through special investment regions or economic zones, which may augment land acquisition, displacement, and livelihood loss.


But the question is, will smart cities promote human development and safeguard human rights of their residents? Will they help resolve existing crises in Indian cities?

As the government develops its blueprint for a "smart city", it should prioritise the adoption of an "inclusive city" paradigm.

The first step is to provide adequate housing and livelihood security for all - urban India faces a minimum shortage of 19 million houses, which is estimated to increase to 34 million by 2022.

The formal market system has failed to meet the country’s housing needs. This is visible in the rapidly rising number of people living in grossly inadequate conditions on the streets and in underserviced urban settlements.

About 3 million urban dwellers are homeless, as they cannot even afford a space in a slum. They suffer the worst violations and are denied their basic human rights.

Homeless deaths resulting from extreme weather, ill health, hunger and state negligence continue to rise across the country, without anyone being held accountable.

Over the last 10 years, it is estimated that at least 25,000 homeless persons have died on the streets of Delhi. This is a matter of national shame that cannot be condoned. The current heat wave across India has claimed more than 2,000 lives, the majority of these people are homeless.

It is important to prioritise adequate housing for the homeless and others living in precarious conditions, as they are the most vulnerable.



The government’s goal of "Housing for All by 2022" is commendable and should meet U.N. standards of "adequacy" - security of tenure, access to basic services, habitability, affordability, accessibility, and appropriate location of housing; and, cultural adequacy.

The government needs to develop a social housing policy and invest in low-cost housing options, including affordable rental housing. Ironically, the Indian state has played a greater role in the destruction of urban housing than in its construction.

Evictions should be prohibited across the country, as in Delhi. The arbitrary cut-off date to determine eligibility of the urban poor to access entitlements also needs to be abolished.

Settlements where people live should be upgraded, instead of relocating them to remote sites that isolate them from jobs, schools, healthcare, and community networks. Multiple tenure options should be explored with community participation and tenure should be provided in the names of women.

The government may want to reconsider promoting public-private partnerships as the ideal. When profit, not social welfare, is the goal, the poor tend to be excluded and only the rich benefit.

The government also needs to contain speculative forces that have resulted in spiralling property prices and black money circulation. In order to ensure equitable and sustainable use of land, it is important to incorporate the principle of the “social function of land” into land use planning and policies.

Mapping of vulnerable groups and the collection of disaggregated data are required to develop adequate policy responses. People from all sections of society, especially marginalised groups, must be involved in planning, including in developing city master plans.

Women’s equal representation in urban local bodies, state legislatures, and parliament is critical. To ensure harmonisation of laws, policies, and programmes, and to maximise resources, relevant government ministries and departments should collaborate and work more together. Rural and urban issues need to be viewed along a continuum because urban reform cannot succeed without addressing agrarian reform, land rights, and rural development.

The Indian government should adopt the “right to the city” as the underlying principle of urban development. The “right to the city” consolidates the struggle for the realisation of multiple human rights—the rights to work, housing, health, education, food, water, land, social security, information, participation, and a healthy environment—especially for the most marginalised. It is the right of all residents to an equal share of the city’s benefits and to participate in its development.

With an available budget of $7.5 billion for smart cities, it would be strategic to first allocate resources to improving urban conditions, protecting the most marginalised, and redressing inequalities.

The state could develop human rights-based indicators to measure progress in key areas, including housing, basic services, renewable energy, public transport, information, and gender equality; as well as a reduction in poverty, inequality, hunger, and wasteful consumption.

Cities should be inclusive, equitable, ecological, and sustainable. Improved technology and connectivity are important, but what Indians need most is the realisation of their human right to live with dignity. Let the government focus on that first.

Shivani Chaudhry is Executive Director, Housing and Land Rights Network, New Delhi.

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