It is almost impossible to criticise the basic imperatives that are driving the operationalisation of the Smart City Mission. Over the past two decades, serious concerns had been expressed about the deficiency of infrastructure and delivery of quality services, mis-governance and inadequacy of funds, particularly in large cities. A consensus has emerged that something major, something massive needs to be done as far as the urban sector is concerned. And that is why we find a large number of administrators, policy makers and researchers strongly supporting this Mission without knowing exactly what its contents are and what its roadmap is. The strong support and welcoming attitude towards Smart Cities Mission is primarily because of the serious deficiencies that exist in our urban system. Understandably, there are huge expectations of diverse kinds from the Mission.
The visions of the smart cities of different segments of population, who are associated and would be affected by the mission, are very different. Technologists and engineers hold that a smart city would essentially be a technological phenomenon. We shall drive our cars to the airport, leave them there and the cars will drive themselves automatically to the parking place. We shall have water supply, sewerage and sanitation systems managed within a digital space with utmost efficiency. This would guarantee smooth movement of the traffic within and across the cities. Economists or the people from the business, however, look at smart cities as purely investment propositions. Massive investment possibilities exist in these cities and a large number of companies in different parts of the world have already shown interest in making investments and participating in smart city projects. This would help in boosting the profit rate which has fallen globally to alarmingly low levels due to American and Euro zone crises. Administrators are welcoming smart cities for enablement of e-governance, smooth delivery of services, efficient monitoring and grievance redressal machinery. Environmentalists, however, believe that a smart city has to be a resilient entity —it has to have adaptive measures built into the system. And finally, the urban middle class thinks that all their day-to-day problems of deficiency of basic infrastructure and civic amenities would be solved if their city is included in the list of smart cities.
These diverse expectations and concerns find place in one or the other policy documents brought out into public domain by the government. A few of these may not be formally included in these documents but are reflected in the policy statements made by political leaders, senior administrators and more, from time to time. All the concerns of the stakeholders and the affected people have, thus, been mentioned or referred to in some way or the other. Understandably, all that is desirable and good about the urban centres is being associated with smart cities. If somebody says, these cities would not address the problems of, say the migrant population or may not disseminate growth impulse in the hinterland, the protagonist will invariably protest and dismiss this as nonsense. Of course, smart cities would be inclusive and definitely allow the migrants avail all the facilities.
If all the desired characteristics of cities are posited in a smart city, the latter becomes a grand vision. It becomes a dream, but not a tool for intervention. It can neither propose instruments for policy implementation that can be operationalised nor help in building a roadmap for future course of action. Here lies the basic problem. In order to build the roadmap, the operational strategy for smart cities should be able to state unambiguously that it would achieve X, Y and Z but not A, B and C. Unfortunately, it gives no such clear-cut message.
One line of criticism of the Mission is focussed on the adjective ‘smartness’ which is attached to the cities. The smartness means improvement in the level and quality of the services and the efficiency in their delivery. It may be noted that smart cities, maximum cities or global cities, mostly focus on civic amenities and basic urban services. Critics argue that this Mission does not address the issue of citizenship or meet the expectations of the citizens, particularly those at the lowest rung of economic and social development and apparently negates the idea of a city that ensures citizenship to all people.
The smartest definition of smart cities comes from Prime Minister’s speech, while launching of the Mission on the 25 June, 2014. He did not talk of import of high technology, massive foreign assistance or e-governance, nor talked about large companies being invited or different cities being assigned to different countries for providing a development perspective or making investment. His emphasis was on tackling major problems and the key concerns of the city dwellers. He stressed about rural-urban inequality, about poor migrants coming in and accessing basic amenities and about water supply, sewerage and sanitation. He talked about slum population having access to these. These are the basic objectives and the first task of the smart cities would be to work out a strategy to achieve them. He observed that a participatory process at the state and local levels, involving the common citizens, should be designed to operationalise the roadmap. According to the Prime Minister, a smart city is one which can anticipate in advance and meet the needs of the common people. Planners and policy makers must design smart cities such that they anticipate the requirements of the citizens and meet these in a time bound manner. This in fact settles many of the current controversies on the subject and brings clarity with regard to its strategy for implementation.
What are the things that are required by the citizens? The Report of the Committee on Housing Shortage, set up by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation for the Twelfth Five Year Plan exhibits housing shortage in urban areas placed at about 18 million, most of this concentrated in the economically weaker section and the low income category. For drinking water facility, (taps and bottled water as constituting the category of safe drinking water), the percentage figure, as per the National Sample Survey (NSS), has gone down from 77 per cent to 74 per cent over the past one and a half decade. Furthermore, the percentage of urban households accessing drinking water source at a distance of more than 200 metres has gone up from 2.3 to 4.7 per cent, once again according to the NSS data. Understandably, drinking water has to be recognised as one of the things which the citizens want. Similarly, the percentage of households that are reporting no solid waste disposal facility has gone up from 21 per cent to 24 per cent. A segment of planners and policy makers in the country, therefore, quite legitimately, is talking about citizenship in terms of access to basic amenities within the framework of human rights as a priority in the context of smart cities (NBO, 2013).
How do you operationalise this vision of smart cities? This can be done in a participatory framework with the state government, local body and citizens groups playing key roles. The basic concerns of water supply, sewerage, sanitation, electricity and housing shortage must, however, be addressed. The road traffic must be managed efficiently and environment be protected. A city government must provide access to basic amenities, long before it starts delivering green vegetables and groceries from the drones right onto the rooftop of our houses and the cars drive us around the city and into parking without a human driver.
A couple of other issues have been raised with regard to smart cities in the current policy linked to research and media. It is argued that the smart cities will have to be the engines for growth. Everybody agrees on this point, right from the Prime Minister to the Minister of urban development and the senior officials of the concerned ministries. Several attempts are made to woo the financial and infrastructural companies in the United States of America, Germany, France and Japan etc. to invest in these cities in order to meet this objective. But the government is also putting forward a perspective of inclusive development. The critical question, therefore, is whether the smart cities are able to absorb the migrants, provide the basic facilities to the poor and also in the marginalised areas and slums in the cities.
Also, the design of the Pan City component has been considered to be not very pro-poor, in providing access to basic amenities to slums and low income colonies. Understandably, the electoral politics in the country, powerful lobbies, possible alliances etc. would play a major role. Unless a real participatory approach evolves, it is difficult to change the thrust to delivery of basic amenities to meet the current deficiencies with a strong pro-poor bias. A shift towards this is possible, if the poor among the urban voters can get organised and exert pressure. This would be a positive factor in India’s vote bank politics.
There is no reason to believe that the pronouncement for the smart cities at the highest level – from the launching pad of the Mission will be the guiding principles in its implementation. The detailed project documents have already been prepared, schemes have been worked out, selecting a small designated locality under the areal development component in the selected smart cites. Not that the implementation of Smart City mission has gone a long way, as evident from the strong criticism by the Lok Sabha Standing Committee Report on the Demands for Grants (2018-19) of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. It would, however, be difficult to change the scope and coverage at this stage. Nonetheless a pro-poor participatory approach along with support from active urban voters may alter the situation.
National Building Organisation, 2013. State of Housing in India a Statistical 2013, Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation: NBO Available at: http://nbo.nic.in/Images/PDF/Housing_in_India_Compendium_English_Version.pdf