India’s experiments with smart urban futures

This is a longer version of article published in The Conversation on 27th January 2016.

If you were to visit any Indian city today there is one thing that would strike out immediately. It is not poverty – the clichéd lens with which westerners approach the global south. To an eye fatigued by austerity images in the west, the continuous and frenzied construction activity across Indian cities would be a lasting memory of your visit. The bottom line is – India is rising. Each city, each district, each regional state is reinventing itself. From steel girder to fibre optic cable, from buses to BRT, from rail to monorail, from roads to expressways, from ethernet to wifi. One smartphone, one flyover, one superhighway, one mega-project, one smart city at a time.

In a recent speech, the Indian Prime Minister noted that the ‘nation needs to think big and focus on skill, scale and speed to revive India’s growth story’. Indeed Indian catch-up with Chinese urbanization has been on the back of investing in cities as the ‘engines of economic growth’ at a scale and speed never seen before. While construction has been a theme of Indian liberalisation since the 1990s, India’s ‘leapfrog’ to smart urban futures when the new government came to power in 2014 takes a proactive approach towards a new model of regional urbanization. India’s new ambitious national Smart Cities Mission aims to makeover 100 small and medium sized cities in the image of a smart city. This is a national competition for recognition and resources – each city is expected to consult with its citizens and come up with the proposals they will implement to make their city smart. The federal state will then chose the final list based upon a set of criteria which include past record as well as future potential. Indian smart cities challenge aim to use urbanization as an opportunity to generate wealth and prosperity as well as bypass the developmental ‘crises’ (such as crime, poverty, energy shortages, slums) that grip megacities in the global south.

While smart cities in the west rely upon the mining and analysis of big data to create networked cities, the smart city in India has a distinctly national flavour. The Indian smart city brief is an open and fluid definition that aims to first and foremost address the provision of urban basic services – water, sanitation, electricity, housing and so on. Provision of e-governance, fibre-optic cables and superfast connectivity are other aspects of smart cities to attract investment. The Indian smart city is driven by innovation, entrepreneurship and business needs. Indian smart cities, it can be argued are win-win situations.

Beneath the rhetoric

Scratch under the surface and there emerges a very different picture. First, attracting investment to fund these makeovers is a major challenge. Public investment in these cities is inadequate. The National smart cities mission aims to do this through public-private partnerships, which many argue will not be in the interests of marginal urban citizens. But global IT consultancies such as Cisco, Siemens, Samsung; global land holding companies such as AECOM; and global knowledge coalitions of planning, architecture and management companies have been lining up to provide smart city skills, technology and knowledge. At a price, and often under negotiated terms that bypass deliberative processes of democratic planning and governance.

Second, and related to the above is the transformation of the legal mechanism for materialising these smart cities. New legislation set up by the government gives powers to the federal state to decide which features of the smart city proposal submitted by the city will be implemented. Several local authorities have now resisted the smart cities mission arguing that this is against the spirit of decentralisation and in fact takes away constitutional powers granted to them in urban decision-making and investment. A range of other new and proposed laws sanctioning FDI in construction, the proposed relaxing of land acquisition, speeding up of environmental clearances for major projects and so on have further served to highlight how the Indian state is now working in partnership with corporate interests to promote smart cities.

Third, these 100 smart cities hide behind them one of the biggest corporate takeovers of the commons. India’s smart city mission encourages the exponential growth of small and medium towns by making the availability of at least 250 acres of land as mandatory for any smart city project. Thus a new corporate makeover of small and medium towns through large scale manipulation of territory is currently in progress. India’s urban future now includes not just 100 smart cities randomly strewn around different regional states, but a coordinated smart urbanization whereby each of these smart cities would become city clusters along new industrial and economic corridors. This includes the construction of new towns, satellite cities, industrial cities, knowledge cities, aerotropolis and port cities in and around proposed smart cities. These new developments are largely privately owned and sometimes even privately managed and governed. They run the risk of becoming enclaves of privilege with the private sector representatives already advocating the exclusion of the poor and marginalised through ‘prices and policing’. All together they produce a regional urbanization through the meme of a smart city. A mega-urbanization on overdrive through the large scale speculation of the commons and the transformation of ‘land’ into ‘real estate’.

Who gains?

The question remains. Who gains from these smart city ventures? The last year has seen has seen an unprecedented number of foreign visits by the Indian Prime Minister to the UK, US, and European countries where he put up spectacular shows to seduce the Indian diaspora. Since 2014, David Cameron, Obama, Hollande and several other national leaders have visited India offering the knowledge, skills and investment India needs for its 100 smart cities makeover. This overzealous global jostling for a share of India’s smart city sector conceals the need to provide a much needed boost to the austerity economies of the West in the form of millions of pounds of contracts for British, American, French and other consultancies and construction firms. Middle-eastern, Chinese and Singaporean experiments with smart cities are now the model of India’s urbanization with consultants in these countries receiving generous contracts towards the construction and masterplanning of new smart cities. The global north and south are now equally complicit in a large scale corporate takeover of India’s commons from its rural, marginalised, poor and already dispossessed citizens. India has launched a fast faced urbanization and everyone wants a slice of it before it reveals its true colours. The question of whether Indians really need smart cities does not arise since this question will cast doubt on the legitimacy of the global smart city sector.

Fast urbanism does not necessarily mean fast cities though. The scale and speed in India’s smart urbanization is coded with inertia. One of the key road blocks has been the bureaucratic processes of investment and approvals for smart city contracts. Despite the Indian Prime Minister’s promise of ‘laying a red carpet and not red tape’ for foreign investors, the process has been anything but fast. Recently under severe nationwide protests and petitions, the government had to withdraw its proposals for relaxing land acquisition laws. Across the country farmers have been protesting the corporate takeover of their land in new smart city projects and consequently their expulsion from India’s urban future.

In Dholera, Shendra-Bidkin, Rajarhat, Amravati, Krishnapatnam, Haolenphai, Dehradun and several other new townships which plan to expand India’s smart city sector, farmers, tribals and indigenous groups are campaigning for their constitutional rights to land, livelihoods and local cultures. They are resisting their exclusion from the vision of the smart city and well as their forceful transformation into citizens in the service of the smart city. They struggles have so far highlighted that the Indian state or its allies in the corporate world have not yet had the last word. India’s experiments with smart urban futures is contested and still evolving.

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