By Karthik Shankar:
The Modi led government has been eager to prove its neoteric credentials by leveraging on middle class Indians’ love for anything tech related – from paper free bureaucracy, the Digital India initiative and once again putting the Aadhaar card back into our wallets. However, the smart cities plan is likely to have the most far reaching impact for a range of reasons. At the end of the day, like almost everything the Modi government has promised, the result here too sounds dazzling, but the process requires a lot more fine tuning.
But what exactly is ‘smart’? That is likely to be a point of contention for months if not years when it comes to the hundred planned smart cities in the country. The NDA government sadly seems to have no well-defined blueprint. Is it simply technology in the forms of surveillance systems and swanky metro rails that define a smart city? What about waste disposal, energy management or sustainable growth? The official website plays lip service to such concepts but as any urban planner knows, these are not incidental, but key elements of any city. A smart city uses technology as a backbone; technology is not the only reason for its existence. The failure of our metropolitan cities haven’t been in the fact that buses don’t have GPS systems (although it doesn’t hurt), but the rampant population growth, poor sanitation and energy deficits. Those are deeper intrinsic problems that will require old-fashioned problem and solution approaches.
There’s also the concern of gentrification. A note from the Ministry of Urban Development promises “a very high quality of life comparable with any developed European city”. Is there any place in such a city for our hordes of poor? A smart city doesn’t necessarily mean one that caters to our upper middle class. The government made clear where its alliances lie when Venkaiah Naidu announced that 300,000 houses would be built to redevelop slums. However, that is unlikely to work. As seen in the case of Dharavi, people will most likely rent out their new accommodation and continue living in ramshackle residences.
The only way to reduce the number of urban poor is to integrate them into the economic plan for smart cities. How technology will be used to provide economic opportunities and enhance the freedoms of people who are yoked to poverty, is an important question the government needs to answer.
Finally the elephant in the room needs to be addressed. The government’s recent ordinance on the Land Acquisition Act is a clear attempt by the NDA to bring in China style expedition with regards to infrastructure projects. However, this will only increase the incidences of land grabbing and unjust compensation for land that will most likely be acquired from poor farmers. That is a dangerous precedent to set in a democracy like ours.
The very idea of smart cities is to create a more egalitarian society. Such moves counteract the very philosophy of this initiative. A little more than a year ago in Delhi, a neophyte political party rode anti-incumbent sentiment and united the urban poor and the middle class on a campaign promising better access to services such as electricity and water. The AAP may no longer exists at that peak, but it’s still a reminder that even in an urban area like Delhi, people just want the necessities. There’s no need to dress it up in a shiny technological garb.