The Problem with Smart Cities Mission

The Union Ministry of Urban Development has released its fourth list under the Smart City Mission, taking the total number of cities picked under the Centre’s flagship project to 90 — 10 more cities will be included in the project.

The most defining feature of the Smart City mission in India: It not only looks at application of technology but also ensures that physical infrastructure of cities, which owing to considerations of social equity, were until now serviced almost entirely by local governments, are redesigned to create space for domestic and international capital.

Important concern relating to the project

A lion’s share of the Centre’s investment in the Smart City Mission will flow to well-developed pockets that account for less than 3 per cent of the cumulative area of the cities.

  • One of the stated objectives of the Smart City Mission was to act as a corrective to a lopsided developmental pattern.
  • The mission intended to “create employment and enhance incomes for all, especially the poor and disadvantaged leading to inclusive cities”.

  • This emphasis on inclusive development has been diluted. Only 26 of the cities selected last week have plans to provide affordable housing, education and medical facilities.
  • The government does have plans to promote start-ups and infrastructure projects. But these projects are concentrated in tiny pockets in the selected cities — nearly 80 per cent of the Centre’s funds are skewed towards them.
  • Smart city plans have also not found a way to deal with recurring problems. For instance, Aizawl, which found a place in the urban development ministry’s latest list, was in the grip of a severe water crisis in the third week of this month. The shortage was caused by damages to water pipelines by floods — a problem which the city has not yet addressed effectively. Guwahati, amongst the earliest to be included in the smart city list, also has no effective plan to deal with floods that ravage it every year.
  • The issue is not only the parachuting of consulting firms and vendors for local IT and infrastructure solutions, but that such private partnerships would necessitate a return on investments unconstrained by concerns of social equity or justice.
  • The abolition of octroi, the once largest source of municipal revenue for many cities, has had a debilitating impact on the fiscal sovereignty of urban local bodies.
  • The Smart City mission further bypasses democratic processes by executing projects through Special Purpose Vehicles wherein private corporations can have up to 40 per cent share-holding.
  • As a corollary, the Union government has made it clear that increased user charges on essential services are the only way forward. Unlike octroi, this hits every citizen irrespective of their income level.
  • Official data shows that merely half of the urban households have water connections, a third have no toilets, the national average for sewage network coverage is a low 12 per cent, and on an average only about 10 per cent of the municipal solid waste is segregated. Public transportation and public schools and hospitals are woefully disproportionate to the population densities within cities.

Way forward

Unless this urban entropy is addressed first, an overbearing emphasis on application of digital technology or developing smaller areas in an attempt at instant urbanism can have disastrous socio-spatial consequences.

 

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