India’ s “Smart Cities Mission’, a program launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to develop 100 smart cities by modernizing existing cities is under way, with 90 cities already selected for the upgrade and set to benefit from an estimated investment of $29 billion.
This massive initiative, however, raises the questions of “whether the path it has chosen to leapfrog to the level of urbanization in the developed nations entails creation of uneven geographies, and whether Indian cities, lacking in the most basic infrastructure, are ready to be restructured by technology.’
Smart Cities raise several concerns. A common one, often mentioned in “the West’, is that big data can provide a goldmine for potential data thieves and an excellent surveillance tool for both private firms and governments. Another is that an urbanization process that places such a great emphasis on technology, a field in which the private sector has an unchallenged monopoly, can prioritize technology over the basic needs of a city.
A central feature of the Indian smart city program is not just an examination of technological applications but ensuring that the physical infrastructure of cities, which until now was serviced by local governments, is redesigned to create a space for the investment of local and international capital. This space, though, will be extremely concentrated. Almost 80% of the current funds for the smart city program are invested in less than 3% of the area of the 59 cities that are currently receiving these smart upgrades. The target spaces are mostly well-off areas that already have decent infrastructure in place and can pose an attractive target for investors.
Consulting firms and vendors for local IT and infrastructure solutions are in effect being parachuted into the smart areas and a major issue is that such private partnerships would necessitate a return on investments unconstrained by concerns of social equity or justice. In essence, “the Smart Cities Mission bypasses democratic processes by executing projects through Special Purpose Vehicles wherein private corporations can have up to 40 per cent share-holding.’
While adding technology to a city infrastructure is indeed beneficial, it is first essential for adequate infrastructure to exist on a city-wide level. This is not the case in India where official data shows that only half of urban households have water connections, a third have no toilets, the coverage of the sewage network is around 12% and only 10% of the municipal solid waste is segregated, while public transportation, public schools and public hospitals are inadequate for the poplation densities of urban centers.
In such an environment, the application of smart technology on small and privileged areas in an attempt at “instant urbanism’ that will draw investments can have disastrous socio-spatial consequences.
The original article can be found in the Indian Express.