Smart Cities Mission: Does it echoes the voice of the people?

PM Modi along with current Vice President Venkaiah Naidu during the launch of SCM

Smart Cities Mission (SCM) was launched in the first tenure (2015) of the incumbent Modi government in India with a total budget outlay of Rs. 48,000 cr. Realizing the potential of the untapped and unplanned urban sector in India, the idea of creating world-class and tech-enabled smart cities struck the bureaucracy class and political leadership of BJP based in New Delhi. Being anchored with Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA), SCM was rolled out with the objective of driving the economic growth and improving the living standards of the people living in the urban areas of our country. (For detailed info on SCM, click here)

Historically, the smart city as a concept was first developed by IBM. On 4 November 2011, the US Office for Patent and Trademark granted the ‘Smarter Cities’ patent to IBM. The global IT and tech giant shared six core components for building a smart city viz., citizens, business, water, energy, communication and transport. Hence, the conceptual and service delivery framework of SCM by Government of India (GoI) was based on the same components. The SCM provided for the establishment of an Integrated Control and Command Centre (ICCC), Smart Street Lighting System, Integrated Public Transport System, Smart Streets, Smart Schools and much more.

Public participation remains the foundation for creating a smart city. As per MoHUA, the SCM encourages more than just ceremonial public participation in the governance processes. The mission tries to create aware and active citizens who engage with the planning and decision-making process. GoI decided to engage citizens with SCM via the creation of Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) – a government body – at the city level, using ICT based forums and deploying mobile-based tools and applications for generating public awareness and feedback on the mission.

Despite all of this, the real question has been, whether the project really echoes the voice of the people? Does it reflect on opinions and comments of the commons? Does a project under the mission represent the views of the general public?

Bhopal, the capital city of Madhya Pradesh, is one of the 100 smart cities which was selected in the first round of SCM. Bhopal is also one of the twenty lighthouse cities, opting out for implementing a ‘redevelopment’ model. The city’s SPV constituted by the Government of MP identified various projects to be implemented across the city like the Bicycle Sharing System, Intelligent Poles and Street Lightening System, Biogas Plant, Integrated Control and Command Center etc.

A commercial complex built under smart city ABD project by Gammon India Ltd. in TT Nagar, Bhopal

However one of the most controversial projects has been the Area Based Development of TT Nagar which was earlier proposed to be implemented in the Tulsi and Shivaji Nagar, respectively. Residents of the area protested against the project as it sought to demolish around 500 homes and raze off thousands of trees. As a result of which the project was then shifted to TT Nagar. However, the issue of cutting down trees and forceful eviction still remains an issue in the new locality (TT Nagar) too.

Similar concerns for greenery have been reported in other cities of Dehradun, Chandigarh, Faridabad, and Hyderabad. Despite the protests from local citizenry, the capital city of Patna reported for the demolition of the age-old heritage market – Gole Market – under the smart city project.

Inclusivity remains one of the major cause of concern for the SCM. For the marginalized sections of society living in slums and other underdeveloped areas, SCM has proved to be a fatal policy program. As per the census of 2011, India recorded 1.3 crore urban slum households. As per a trend that has been spotted by the experts in the data of 2011 census, the percentage of people living in slums in smaller cities (with a population of less than a million) is rising. Delhi, Mumbai, Chennai are some of the major metropolitan hubs, harboring the largest chunk of slum population in India.

(Just to give you a background) Without a doubt, most of the slums in India are illegal in nature but not to be forgotten, these are also the most valuable vote banks for the local politicians. As a result of which most of the slums are strongly harbored by a local leader having enough muscle and money power to avert all the developmental risks falling upon the physical area where the slums are located. As soon as the leader is able to secure a deal (in which he will get a handsome cut) regarding the redevelopment of the same area, he abandons all the space, public and leaves them to suffer and fight in misery.

The demolition and eviction drive by municipality officials in different cities can be questioned for being conducted in a hasty and unplanned manner, oppressing the rights of the marginalized.

For instance, the case of Meena Bazaar and Amu Kuda slums in Patna. The demolitions have been carried out in an ad-hoc manner without any prior warning along with deployment of riot control force and police battalions to control the resentment in the crowd. As per the research conducted by Sujeet Kumar, Senior Fellow at Centre for Study of Law and Governance, JNU, the urban poor class has been the worst sufferers. In his words ” The usual arguments for demolition include: beautification of the city, construction of a government building or enterprise, extension of the airport, crime locations, governance, illegality, encroachment etc. ” and there is no one to speak about it. “These reports of struggle and forced evictions contradict the statements by Modi when he said smart cities development would strictly follow large-scale public participation in preparing these plans,” writes Sujeet.

Children sleeping out in open in Patna. Credits: Surjeet Kumar

A similar problem was highlighted by Nimisha Jaiswal in her report on SCM in Bhubaneswar. She writes ” The communication gap between city administrators and slum-dwellers (coupled with rallying cries of activist groups across the political spectrum) has led Bhubaneswar’s poor to believe that the city wants to be rid of them because they don’t fit in the picture of rapid development.” The slum dwellers have resisted several slum redevelopment schemes in the state capital. In fact, some slums which have been based for a long time now pursued a legal course of action against the forceful eviction and demolition policy of the state government. In the case of Narayan Slums (one of the oldest slum), dwellers moved to Odisha High Court and got the decision in their favor. Though it was in the year 2010 before the SCM was rolled out by the central government. Now, with more than 24 slums coming under the SCM, the process of rehabilitation is becoming a challenge for the authorities.

Citizens carrying out protests against the clearing of Tea Estate under SCM in Dehradun. Credits: AAP Uttarakhand/Facebook

Similar reports of conflict have been reported from Chandigarh, Delhi, Mumbai. As per a report by Housing and Land Rights Network India (HLRN), government bodies (both center and state) have forcefully evicted a minimum of 2.6 lakh people and demolished 53,700 homes in the year 2017 across urban and rural areas of India. It was 41,700 homes and more than 2 lakh people in 2018. After analyzing a total of 213 reported cases of forceful eviction in the year 2017, it was found that 46% of them related to slum free and smart city projects. In the year 2018, it was 47%.

As per some of the experts, the idea of creating smart is nothing but dystopic and inequitable. Some even hint that smart cities may turn into social apartheid cities, governed by powerful corporate entities that could override local laws and governments to “keep out” the poor. This gets substantiated by the research work of Ram Krishna Reddy at Politecnico di Milano, Italy. His report highlights the fact that SCM is nothing but a big corporate project. All the private sector heavyweights are involved and engaged in developing smart city projects for different cities.

“France offers its expertise to Nagpur, Puducherry and Nagaland, Japan assists Agra and Varanasi, Dubai is negotiating with the Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh governments,” writes Ram. Mckinsey, KPMG, Accenture, HP are some the giant private corporates helping the government in developing smart city projects. The involvement of big private players into the policy has “sidelined the role of local knowledge”, “most technology-based solutions are force fitted by technology firms” are some of the observations and comments by Reddy regarding the SCM, the brainchild of PM Narendra Modi.

Sarabha Nagar in Ludhiana is the only area in the city having greenery, which has been marked to be razed off under the SCM. Citizens are carrying protests against it. Credits: Ludhiana cares/Facebook

Ignored voices yet people’s policy!

There’s no doubt that SCM tends to engage more and more private players in the development and execution of the projects. Also, in the name of equipping our cities with better, tech and data-driven facilities, rights of the marginalized are being overridden and environmental balance is being compromised. The fact that the cases are not being reported in the mainstream media nor being pursued or challenged by civil society has made all of this a minor or ignorant issue, in front of Modi’s PR game for his pet policies. Rich and the middle class have remained silent, simply because they are not the ones getting affected. Most probably, they will end up getting advantages of these ‘fancy enclaves’ – smart cities. From chopping green cover to forcefully evicting and conducting demolition drive in slums, it’s difficult to see SCM as a policy having a sustainable vision.

A report on smart city prepare by Mckinsey, a global private consultancy assisting Indian government with SCM. Credits: Mckinsey

Involvement of bigger private players in SCM discourages the local youth to pursue innovative entrepreneurship models. The project preparation by consultancies like E&Y or Mckinsey leaves no scope for citizen engagement, which according to PM Modi is the core of the SCM. Communication regarding the policy remains a major obstacle. Civil society, citizen groups and women leaders must be taken into account, trust building exercise should be undertaken, the robust feedback mechanism should be in place and most importantly, willingness to accept or reflect upon the feedback should be present. Communication gap seems to be a major flaw in the policy framework of SCM.

Till the time these measures are not adopted, the policy cannot be said to have a voice of the citizens or the ‘one’ in the interest of the citizenry at large!

Rishabh Shrivastava Author

Author is the Founder-Editor at TA.