By Devika Kohli:
Mr. Modi’s Smart Cities project has been applauded by many for its sheer grandeur and ambition. The Smart City idea developed into a grand urban strategy during the 2014 national elections where the party promised to ‘initiate building 100 new cities’. Soon these words found way into Narendra Modi’s election speeches, where he promised to get rid of Indian urban problems by building 100 Smart Cities.
However, majority of Indians are still clueless about what these smart cities are and what constitutes as their ‘raison d’etre’? The urban development minister Venkaiah Naidu explains them as “smart (intelligent) physical, social, institutional and economic infrastructure”, guaranteeing their residents employment opportunities and “a very high quality of life, comparable with any developed European city”.
A recipe for increased inequality and social exclusion?
The emphasis on high end technology and infrastructure has raised questions about the intended inhabitants of the smart cities. Given the fact that a large majority of our population is denied access to basic amenities such as electricity and water, smart cities, at least on paper, seem to offer an improved quality of life. However, critics are of the opinion that smart cities would in reality exclude those who are most in need of what they offer.
A journalist, Shruti Ravindran, tweeted and brought attention to a shocking quote from the brochure (handed out to the attendees)-‘Smart Cities in India: Reality in the Making’, released during an interactive panel discussion in Mumbai WTC on the 29th of January 2015, organized by World Trade Centre (WTC) and All India Association of Industries (AIAI) in collaboration with the Indo-France Chamber of Commerce and Industries (IFCCI).
“There are only two ways to keep people out of any space – prices and policing. In other words, the prices will automatically be higher in such cities – the notion that they will be low cost is flawed. Even if possible from a cost provision perspective, they cannot be low cost from a demand supply perspective.
Even with high prices, the conventional laws in India will not enable us to exclude millions of poor Indians from enjoying the privileges of such great infrastructure. Hence the police will need to physically exclude people from such cities, and they will need a different set of laws from those operating in the rest of India, for them to be able to do so. Creating special enclaves is the only method of doing so. And therefore GIFT is an SEZ and so will each of these 100 smart cities have to be.” (Excerpt from an article by Laveesh Bhandari, Founder and Chief Economist at Indicus Analytics Pvt Ltd)
‘Laws’ that cater to the rich may trigger a politically volatile situation
The Smart Cities project is also being used as a key justification for a controversial land-acquisition ordinance the government plans to enact. This ordinance would equip the government to do away with mandatory consent and social safeguards for those whose lands are forcibly acquired, leaving the poor, especially the farmers, extremely vulnerable. For very often fertile farmland also is forcibly acquired by the government.
According to Sai Balakrishnan, an urban scholar at Rutgers, studying land conflicts and urbanization in India, “If the government does succeed in building these premium 100 smart cities, but does nothing to alleviate poverty and poor services in the surrounding areas, it could well lead to a politically volatile situation. These visible forms of spatial inequalities engender social mistrust and even violence.” Here we are reminded of May 2011, wherein the project involving an expressway and the country’s first Formula 1 racetrack – resulted in protests spanning over months among farmers from 10 villages. The rally descended into violence when villagers clashed with armed police, leading to the deaths of two farmers and two policemen.
Progress for a few
In the words of Sanjay Srivastava, the author of Entangled Urbanism, “if one section of the urban population lives well it’s welfare might be at the cost of another section; we speak of building ‘global cities’, but what does it mean if this is sought to be achieved through removing the poor from its key parts, rather than providing them with decent housing and other resources? That is to say, if cities are to become truly inclusive, then we need to think of them as being made of interconnected spaces such that actions in one sphere have effects in another.”
Many critics thus rightly fear that the smart cities may turn into gated cities, governed by powerful corporate entities that would override local laws and governments to “keep out” the poor. Thus ensuring a ‘smart’ life for the rich, and a life of alienation, misery and exclusion for the poor.