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How beneficial has India’s 2014 Smart City programme been?

By Elsa Bauer, University of Bristol Politics Society

The objective of a smart city is to harness data and technology for the construction of high-end infrastructure, resource allocation, and service provision to its citizens. These cities, such as Dubai, Singapore, Amsterdam, and Tokyo, employ initiatives like analysing data from transport fare cards to meet commuter demand and reduce overcrowding. Their city planning revolves around the provision of social areas, high-rise apartment complexes with top-end security and efficient public transport. Today, over half of the world's population lives in urban areas (United Nations, 2018), notably with countries like India's urban population projected to reach 600 million this decade. These numbers pose an urgent question of how best to organise towns and cities for an increase in the urban citizenry. Is it wise to assume that a one-size-fits-all approach would suit the cultural and political differences across countries? Should the goal of a redesigned city be to achieve maximum technological efficiency?

Despite India appearing to be the antithesis of this degree of meticulous planning, in May of 2014 the Bharatiya Janata Party ambitiously set up the 'Smart Cities Mission' to build 100 smart cities throughout the country. Leadership posits that they will be internationally attractive engines of economic growth, given that urban India's contribution to the national GDP is estimated to reach 75% by the next decade (Roy, 2016). The draft concept-note prepared by the Ministry of Urban Development outlined that this smart city initiative will be comprised of 9 satellite cities with a population of 4 million or more, 44 cities with a population of 1-4 million, 17 state/Union Territory capitals, 10 cities of tourist and religious importance and 20 cities ranging from 0.5-1 million people (Ibid). They intended to grant at least INR 1 billion per city per annum for the first five years, which forms the government's share of equity capital with a corresponding share coming from each state (Sharma, Ghosh, 2015) as well as plans to attract funding from private-public partnerships.

One such city, Magarpatta, is at first glance a proof of the Smart Cities Mission's success. Over 430 acres of land has been transformed from an agricultural zone to a smart business hub with an emphasis on green development, high-quality facilities, and robust security systems. Nearly a third of the city is reserved for greenery, and its Aditi Gardens covers an impressive 25 acres (Nair, 2010). A notable feature of Magarpatta is that its manager and investor Satish Magar managed to acquire terrain from 70 agricultural landowners b guaranteeing them a share of his company proportionate to the value of their share of land. In this way, farmers whose skills are not transferable to the urbanised smart city have a source of income after losing their land. Several former landowners have managed to start businesses and restaurants in the city thanks to this model. However, the general situation of the Smart Cities Mission across India is not as favourable as Magarpatta. The new-age city of Dholera, with its international airport, has still not been built (Dholera Metro City, 2020) and 95,000 people in 22 villages have had to leave their homes (DW, 2018) to make way for the Dream City, as coined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

While Dholera is meant to compete with the world's most advanced urban cities, the land which it is projected to be built on is currently the home and source of livelihood for farming families. They have little to no formal education or transferable skills to offer the new modern city and are thus reluctant to give up their ancestral land. They remain afraid that with no land to their name, their sons will not marry. The strife within these rural communities indeed marks the difference in priorities for Indian labourers and their government. Pouring funds into world-class technological hubs, provided they are built on time, will elevate the living standards of those living within the gated walls but do little to address the periphery of workers it displaces. With less than half of India's 6 to 14-year-olds attending school and an average of fewer than three teachers per primary school (Smile Foundation India, 2019), the mission to increase India's global competitiveness may be best fulfilled by addressing issues like these before aiming for techno-managerially advanced systems. Moreover, the concentration of highly educated workers in Smart Cities to attract investors inevitably results in a small, affluent and gated off workforce, which functions almost separately from the rest of India. Following this idea, Diganta Das, an associate professor of geography at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore argued that "with such a top-down approach to the planning of "smart cities", cities tend towards becoming more elitist, primarily serving the needs of the digerati and neglecting the care for actual residents' needs that were initially hoped for" (Das, 2020)’.

Finally, these new-age cities are meant to be somewhat free of politics, with urban problems framed as ones that smart technology can solve. Companies' services become passage points through which solutions can be reached. This approach may work on a small scale, but as soon as the project is scaled up to larger cities, the interference of social norms and political disagreement inevitably clash with the dream of an apolitical, smoothly run a smart city. Even cultural phenomena like India's colourful bazaars can get stamped out in such a city, so much so that there are proponents for artificial bazaars with actors to recreate the buzz of an Indian market. It becomes evident that while smart cities can remedy things like road congestion, overcrowding, and excess pollution, gated communities cannot mimic the vibrancy of a bazaar or the authenticity of a historic temple square. More pressingly, increasing the power that private stakeholders have in Indian cities risks creating a for-profit incentive that could be harmful to rural citizen's interests.

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Das, Diganta (2020) In pursuit of being smart? A critical analysis of India's smart cities endeavor, Urban Geography,41:1, 55-78, DOI: 10.1080/02723638.2019.1646049

DMC/ Dholera Metro City (2020). When Will Dholera Smart City Complete?. Available at: https://www.dholerametrocity.com/when-will-dholera-smart-city-complete.php

Dw Documentary (2018). India's smart city plan and what it means for Indians | DW Documentary - YouTube . Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5yFmbKIgE_U

Nair, R. (2010). Magarpatta: building a city with rural-urban partnership. Available at: https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/magarpatta-building-a-city-with-ruralurban-partnership/

Roy, S. (2016). The Smart City Paradigm in India: Issues and Challenges of Sustainability and Inclusiveness. Social Scientist. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/24890283?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents

Sharma, M. and Ghosh, A. (2015). Imagining smart cities in India. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep21664.15seq=4#metadata_info_tab_contents

Smile Foundation India (2019). Child Education In India | Statistics On Child Labour - Smile Foundation. Available at: https://www.smilefoundationindia.org/ourchildren.html.

United Nations (2018). 68% of the World Population Projected to Live in Urban Areas by 2050, Says UN | UN DESA | United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs. Available at: https://www.un.org/development/desa/en/news/population/201revision-of-world-urbanization-prospects.html.


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