'Smart Cities': Erosion of Urban Democracy

Twenty cities have been selected by the ministry of Urban Development for the Smart Cities ‘Mission’. Another 80 cities will be included in next two rounds of this endeavour in next two years. The ‘selection’ was done through a ‘smart city challenge’ which was based on some arbitrarily set criteria and lack of transparency. Some states are seemingly unhappy because none of their proposed cities could appear in first twenty selected cities’ list. The central government of India has earmarked Rs. 48,000 crore ($7.5 billion) over five years to “promote progressive urban planning, improve governance, and strengthen the economic, social and physical infrastructure of 100 cities” and an equal amount will be contributed by state governments/local urban bodies.

The ‘smart city challenge’ was designed and administered by the Bloomberg Philanthropies, affiliated to American billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s Foundation. They assisted municipal officials in assessing and preparing Smart City projects as per the given guidelines. The MoUD had also supplied lists of consulting firms in order to help states making proposals for the smart cities. Each potential smart city had to prepare its proposal with the assistance of the ‘consultant’ firm. A ‘handholding’ agency for preparation of smart city mission can be selected for which a number of foreign Governments and other agencies including World Bank, ADB, JICA, USTDA, AFD, KfW, DFID, UN Habitat, UNIDO, etc. have offered to provide Technical Assistance support.

Can Urban Governance Be Based on Builders’ Vision?

Smart City, Eco-city, Green City, etc. are not unheard-of phrases for the country’s urbanites ever since the real estate boom became a major component of India’s growth story. But these have been construction/builder lobby’s catch phrases for branding their commercial products for their chosen clientele. Now, however, the Modi Government has embraced the same Smart City real-estate brand and elevated it to an inherent component of urban policy and developmental model, claiming it is a ‘Mission’ or a ‘philanthropic’ venture!

However, the term Smart City doesn’t have any significant technical meaning or specific definition; ‘smart’ may mean different things to different people. Still, the popular notion is that a city would be ‘smart’ if basic amenities and services were more accessible and available round the clock, intelligent usage of resources, intelligent waste management and recycling, e-governance, e-grievance and public redressal mechanism, smart modernisation of services, eco-friendliness, zero pollution, safety, security, special attention to vulnerable sections, highly networked and interconnectedness - Internet of Things (IoT), etc. and any other thing one may like to add to this list. Anyway, robust use of information and communication technology (ICT) is one most desirable trait for a city to look smart and what is promised is that any smart city plan should be made by consultation with its dwellers.

India’s Urban Woes

India’s urban population is bursting at the seams of highly inadequate and outdated infrastructure availability, a situation aggravated by the unending agrarian crisis and high rate of unemployment. The last two decades have witnessed various schemes and plans for modernising infrastructure in urban areas. A particular reference can be made for JNNURM which was meant mainly for developing basic urban infrastructure, and is not in operation since 2012. Huge funds were spent through this urban renewal mission although it miserably failed in providing any solace to the overcrowded urban population. Have any lessons been drawn from earlier experiences before jumping over to the Smart City Mission?

Undermining Urban Democratic Structures of Governance

On the contrary, there seems to be an attempt to bypass or override the existing legal-constitutional framework by institutionalizing special mechanisms which can prove to be exclusionary and undermine even the so-far available democratic aspects of city life.

The 74th amendment of the Constitution is aimed at revitalizing and strengthening the urban governments to make them function as effective units of democratically elected municipal bodies. The very purpose of this amendment was to address the growing needs of urban India through wider possible democratic approach.

Instead of taking appropriate measures to provide equal opportunity to every urbanite, particularly the marginalised and excluded sections which constitute a numerical majority in the city, in urban decision making and governance, the Smart City Mission primarily kills the basic spirit of the 74th amendment by imposing a special purpose vehicle (SPV) that will plan, appraise, approve, release funds, implement, manage, operate, monitor and evaluate the Smart City development projects.

The SPV will be established as a Limited Company under the Companies Act, 2013 and will be promoted by the State/UT and the ULB jointly, both having 50:50 equity shareholding. The decision making powers available to the Urban Local Bodies under the municipal act/ Government rules will now be delegated to the Chief Executive Officer of the SPV. Henceforth, the SPV will determine and collect user charges and also collect taxes, surcharges etc. as authorised by the ULB. This is justified as to ensure operational independence and autonomy in decision making and mission implementation. Does this mean that a limited company is a better instrument for the city development than an elected body?

This Smart Mission also requires the state governments to enable some ‘flexibility’ in land use and building bye-laws ‘to adapt to change’ and for an efficient land use! This clause will have far reaching implications as the land is a state subject and elected local bodies will have no right on the already scarce urban lands. Will these lands now be free to be handed over to the developers through the SPVs?

Already a neoliberal shift in mode of urban governance is underway which also involves a form of managing various kinds of consultations and so called conflict managements. There are studies which tell us of the discriminatory roles of RWAs (resident welfare associations, registered associations of voluntary nature) which fail to represent the wider interests of marginalised sections. Instead, sometimes they are seen in conflict with the interests of the poor who serve in their areas. The smart city mission envisages participation of citizenry in project development as well as monitoring but this is provisioned only through representing registered RWA, registered Tax Payers Association / Rate Payers Association, President / Secretary of Slum Level Federation, and members of a NGO or Mahila Mandali / Chamber of Commerce / Youth Associations. All the stakeholders mentioned in here represent a certain kind of limited interest groups and cannot be representative voices for all sections or interest groups of urban people. This process excludes the huge but less empowered population residing in urban centres, hence turns it to be limited to more privileged and vocal sections of the cities.

The fact that the smart city project will be monitored directly by the MoUD through a range of bureaucratic hierarchies, limits the scope of divesting powers to the local bodies and will result in an increased centralisation of power in a whole.

Moreover, by taking a compact area of the city for a detailed project and, simultaneously taking some pan-city component too in it so that ‘all residents feel there is something in it for them also’, makes it clear that such mode of urban planning while excludes the larger population of the city, also excludes larger areas of the city out of its purview, at least for the time being.

Since its main focus is on ICT and e-governance (including health, education, payment of bills, etc.) the issue of citizens’ privacy is already has become a major concern globally in the smart cities’ discourse.

Smart cities have been conceived as self-revenue generating profit-making ventures on a PPP-model involving low costs through technological innovations – and this model already has private corporations in its thrall worldwide, with a huge ‘smart-city’ market having emerged internationally. But at the same time it is also clear that at least to begin with, it is the Government and public money which along with urban resources will be used to swell profits of private corporate and MNC ventures. New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) is one among the twenty Smart Cities. This already enjoys a special status with one of the best available infrastructures and comprises only a small portion of the national capital city. Here eighty five per cent of the Smart City Project’s total cost is through public funding and less than 15% of the costs will be generated through PPP. But ultimately the private corporations and a bunch of bureaucrats will control the city, and the people at large will be denied any right to a voice in decision-making or planning.

A truly ‘smart’ modern city would be one in which its poor and marginalised people are not excluded, rather their democratic participation in governance would be increased and their basic rights, dignity and amenities would be guaranteed, including the rights to housing, water, sanitation, education, transport and so on. Instead, what is being proposed in the name of the Smart City initiative is a corporate mode of governance which will only tighten the stranglehold of the elites over the city. Smart city initiative is fundamentally flawed and biased.

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