India’s GIFT: The hubris of technotopia in its “first” smart city

It was 45 degC on a scorching day in early May as we made our way to the much publicized GIFT (Gujarat International Financial Tech-city). Excitement and anticipation was building up in the car as it turned off the main highway into a byroad dotted with signs announcing the arrival of GIFT. One of my co-passengers going to a corporate presentation in GIFT city that day remarked how this part of the landscape looked similar to Dubai – clean pavements without rubbish, manicured lawns, mature trees that did not grow natively in the region, and a general absence of people on the roads. There was a reason for the last one – GIFT was not yet complete. All it had to speak for its ‘smartness’ was its artificially created landscape that led visitors to its newly completed twin towers – GIFT one and GIFT two. That and its security gate, where we were stopped to identify ourselves to the security guards.



The ‘first’ smart city?

GIFT (short for Gujarat International Financial and Tech-city) is now widely reported as the first smart city in India – apparently a model for its 100 smart cities which will be built in the next few years. GIFT is the brainchild of India’s current Prime Minister Narendra Modi who visited Shenzhen in 2006 and was inspired by Chinese urbanization and wanted to bring this to India. GIFT was born out of a desire to create a global financial centre which would tap into India’s ‘unlocked potential’ to attract foreign investment in Gujarat. GIFT was going to be India’s answer to Shenzhen, and Gujarat’s answer to Mumbai.

GIFT exudes a number of firsts. It claims to be the ‘first’ global hub for domestic and international financial services. It will have India’s ‘first’ district cooling system, first smart fire station, first 24/7 supply of drinking water straight to domestic taps, first smart service tunnel carrying all the fibre optics the city would need, first on-site data-centre storing byte-size pieces of information that might potentially add up to the advantages of ‘big data’ once the city was occupied by its projected population of 3.2 million.

GIFT however did not start out as a smart city. Like the concept of ‘smart city’ itself, GIFT’s chequered career has undergone several breaks and identity changes. It was initially conceived in 2006 as a city that catered to the finance sector, with a view towards attracting global IT sector workers, relocating from global cities like London, New York and Mumbai, attracted by the prospect of capitalising on low rents and service costs GIFT would offer them. Unsurprisingly, GIFT did not receive any mention in the State of the Union Budget in 2013 and 2014 when its counterparts Dholera and Shendra-Bidkin smart cities were announced as federal state priorities. Indeed while Dholera smart city was described on several occasions as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘pet project’ – the city that got him the job and the precursor to the 100 smart cities initiative in India, GIFT did not receive much mention during the election campaigning in 2014. It was only after the elections that the media began to report on various  ‘first’ smart cities across the country. It was then that being the ‘first’ one to stake claims to smartness was in itself seen as an achievement for any Indian city – new or existing. In late 2014, the media began to report on GIFT too as the ‘first’ smart city.

Spread over of 886 acres, GIFT is the ‘first’ mega-scale enclosure taking shape in India – a space of exception with over 400 acres of its land under SEZ regulations. The SEZ is a misnomer since the primary service economy in this space with be financial, but its logics will apply as a different taxation system from other parts of GIFT. It will have 110 buildings with at least 2 ‘landmark buildings’, 2 schools, a 150 bed hospital and a hotels accommodating a total of 5000 rooms. The crowning glory of its ‘smartness’ will be the ‘Samruddhi Sarovar’ [translated as Lake of Progress] which will hold water from the Narmada Dam and sustain the city’s water demands for upto 15 days . Samruddhi Sarovar will also be the heart of the city’s leisure and recreation space, producing high value real estate for lake front development. Yet it it will only have 30,000 residential units in the city. In other words it will be a giant CBD with a daytime economy akin to a ‘Company town’. Only the extractive industries of 19th cent. company towns have been replaced here with the business of capital extraction and accumulation. GIFT will be the first to capture and direct the aspirations and disposable income of young professional middle class Indians towards a form of ICT based urbanism that has so far remained invisible in Indian public life.

GIFT CBD model with Samruddhi Sarovar in the foreground.

The hubris of technotopia

GIFT compares its parameters to global cities such as London, Paris, New York and so on, even as ‘global cities’ as an organizing hierarchy for cities in the world has become increasingly unpopular among urban scholars. GIFT also capitalises on the travelling concept of a ‘smart city’ – on the ideology of manufacturing and transporting a city in a box, to be packaged and then dismantled on site, making the site fit its exacting conditions. This, claim the GIFT senior management staff, is not just the smart way of doing new cities but also a fast way of dealing with the impending urban age.

Everything about GIFT characterizes speed – and speed is one of its markers of success. It takes its cues from China while endeavoring to surpass it. It gets frustrated with Indian planning structures which ‘slow things down’. Speed is also evident in its aim to provide ‘single window clearance’ for all its development plans as well as in its claim to give planning permission to buildings within 15 days. Once completed it claims to provide the fastest public wifi speed in the world, one touch control systems, fibre-optic connected homes,  smart transport, smart waste systems, smart surveillance, e-governance and so on – all monitored from a central command and control room. It refuses to acknowledge the challenges of ICT enabled urbanism and learn from the lessons of those other smart cities which it cites and seeks to emulate – Masdar, Songdo and so on.  This is GIFT’s technotopia.

GIFT’s hubris of technotopia refuses to acknowledge the challenges of ICT enabled urbanism and learn from the lessons of those other smart cities which it cites and seeks to emulate – Masdar, Songdo, Singapore and so on.  The technotopia that GIFT loudly and unapologetically aspires to is a menacing urbanism where every aspect of public and often private life will be visible, recorded and monitored. In the words of their senior management during the presentation, ‘ You are welcome to come to GIFT, but we will be watching you’.

This resonates with a recent statement made by Laveesh Bhandari, the chief economist of Indicus Analytics who said,

“When we build these smart cities, we will be faced with a massive surge of people who will desire to enter these cities. We will be forced to keep them out. This is the natural way of things, for if we do not keep them out they will override our ability to maintain such infrastructure. There are only two ways to keep people out of any space – prices and policing”.

GIFT is a hyper entrepreneurial enclosure that will require pricing and policing to keep the ‘dirt’ (both material and metaphorical) away, the ‘dirt’ that currently plague the streets of existing megacities. While every person is theoretically allowed entry into GIFT, they will also have to pay a price for this ‘privilege’. Each visitor entering GIFT will have to provide their biometric data, and expect to be accosted by security if they diverge from the expected route to their destination. This privilege comes from a close alignment with business interests where instilling confidence in global investors around prickly question of security is more important that adhering to existing legal and democratic planning instruments which ensure a modicum of rights to all.

‘Land is not an issue’

To our questions of how land was acquired for building GIFT, the senior management repeated several times – ‘Land is not an issue’. This was paired with another claim – ‘land is our primary resource’. We were told that GIFT land was not fertile or cultivable, that it was wasteland and ravinous, and  that it was already acquired by the Gujarat state when it was transferred. These claims were made to legitimise another important claim that GIFT has not seen the same level of protests and resistance as its counterpart in Gujarat – Dholera smart city. Taken together these claims attempt to legitimise an argument around GIFT smart city as both a networked city and a ‘just city’ – a city built without large scale land dispossession. This was also claimed to be its USP against other proposed smart cities such as Dholera – it could be built faster since there were no ‘urban politics’ and thus no roadblocks in its materialization.

In a country where land is the primary source of livelihoods for millions of agricultural workers, it is significant that India’s ‘first’ smart city will be built without a ‘land issue’. Elsewhere in other proposed greenfield smart cities such as Dholera, Shendra-Bidkin, and several new townships, struggles over land is the key marker of 21st century urbanization. Indeed as a pilot project in smart cities GIFT sets the trend. As the answer to India’s urbanization, it cannot be seen to grapple with the land issue. Indeed, this might be behind the reason why GIFT has superseded Dholera as India’s first smart city. But if smart cities are made by ICT, then why do they have such a primal need for land? Surely if becoming smart in other aspects of life (smartphones, smart tvs, smart watch, tablets) also means that sizes of things are decreasing, why are smart cities in contrast being conceived as bigger than existing (presumably unsmart) cities?

These questions can be answered by finding the links between two major moments currently unfolding in India’s political and social landscape – the 100 smart cities programme and the new Land Bill. While the two have been reported separately with no obvious links drawn between them, it is the land question ie ‘is land a public commons or a public good?’ that is makes this tenuous link. While the smart cities programme seeks to create 100 new brownfield and greenfield cities across India’s territory, the new land bill seeks to revise a colonial Land Acquisition Law (which has seen a number of revisions already) to remove the consent clause before acquiring cultivable fertile land while providing market values for this land to the farmer. The implications are huge – land is now at the service of ‘development’ – read industrialization, urbanization and foreign investment. Enter smart cities.

The idea that land acquisition needs to be smoothened before smart cities can be built has been floated several times in the policy and governance circles. While the Indian state will not be able to invest financially in its smart cities, the biggest ‘resource’ they can provide smart cities is land. It is no wonder then that the state is involved in the process of acquiring more and more territory under ‘public land’. Gujarat has been leading this process – acquiring huge swathes of land across the state over the past few decades. Idiculla suggests that this is driven by the demands of foreign investors to who might be skeptical of ‘politics’ (read social resistance from local farmers) which could present roadblocks to investment. Gujarat’s answer to investors has been ‘land is not an issue’ and ‘land is the biggest resource we will give you’. Once land is available to the investor, everything else can follow.

The state then is now actively involved in the manufacture of territory through new laws and policies which will dismantle most democratic planning and regulatory structures for the sake of urbanization and economic growth. Farming is not an occupation that Indian middle class youth aspire to, rather it is at the cost of farming that urbanization will flourish in India. As a recent article in the Guardian observed, increased farmer suicides and the proposed land bill implies that ”We’re losing not just land, but a whole generation of farmers’. India might claim to be turning towards a new urban age and hence has to be prepared for this, but the Indian state is also actively manufacturing urban territory to legitimise these claims. Thus neoliberalisation of land has been the top priority of elected governments for some time now. And with it follows the redrawing the lines between city and countryside, centre and periphery, inside and outside, farmer and urban citizen, smart and dumb.

Where are the smart citizens?

A recent article in the Guardian asks whether India’s 100 smart cities will be a recipe for social apartheid. There are already contrasting views to this question. There is a strong technophile lobby which believes that smart cities will produce smart citizens who will get empowered through open data in order to take the right decisions in their daily lives, which will avoid them getting stuck in traffic jams, paying bills online, accessing health information and even preventing rape. The other lobby believes that despite its aims to control and digitize every space, the smart city in India will have its own urban leaks, that it will be hacked from the bottom up to be appropriated in its own terms. Yet both scenarios rest on a core assumption that every citizen in the smart city is literate and has access to ICT. The reality is somewhat different.

Every citizen who occupies space in the smart city will be selected on the basis of their capability to do all of the above. This does not imply an active selection, rather this selection will be implicit by virtue of the city catering to a ‘target’ citizen. In this process, citizenship will be reduced to the use value of the city’s inhabitants, ie they will be citizens in so far as they can be useful in aiding data capture and a silent capitalisation of their privacy. The seduction of digital citizenships will sustain in so far as citizenship can be reduced to byte size pieces of information about each individual that can be processed and mined for economic value to the city. This is the technotopia of digital citizenship, a make believe world where everyone is deemed to be equal on account of their access to digital space.

This is also the image that GIFT represents. To one our questions about how the ordinary Indian might identify with this city, the answer was, ‘we are not building this for the ordinary Indian. We have to promote facilities which people are affiliated to. Since our competition is with Dubai, Shanghai Singapore and so on, we have to give them the comfort of doing business in the same environment.’ GIFT thus unapologetically promotes its privilege, the manufacture of citizenship via data and real estate. As already highlighted about smart cities elsewhere, in this smart city too there might be little space for those on the margins. This is evident in GIFT’s ambiguous identity.

GIFT city has four simultaneous roles. It is a developer, a corporator, a power company, and a law and order machine rolled in  one. On one hand it transforms ‘undeveloped’ land into developed real estate with infrastructure, collects service tax from the development rights it transfers to different leaseholders in return for infrastructure services, and on the other hand provides private surveillance and crime prevention services as a city corporation. All this in a city with a population but no citizens. Although GIFT will theoretically have a Mayoral office and corporators, given the nature of industries it will be a city which is largely employment based. Its employment base is expected to travel to GIFT from neighbouring cities and villages to work each day.With only 30,000 residential units planned for GIFT, the Mayor will not need to be unduly worried about local elections. In the words of the senior management, ‘the beauty of this lies in the fact that the city will have no voters’.


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