Urban Planning

Not so smart idea

Print edition : August 22, 2014

A view of the Lavasa project near Pune. At the core of a city are the people who harness their energies, creativity, intelligence and requirements to build the city with the bottom-up approach. But under the smart city concept, the pyramid is upturned, where first the infrastructure is built and then people are invited to come and adapt to those spaces.

A line of chalets at Aamby Valley near Pune. Photo: PAUL NORONHA

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley. The Budget has earmarked Rs.7,060 crore to brainstorm the creation of a 100 “'new”' smart cities. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

At Gujarat International Finance Tec-City(GIFT) near Ahmedabad on January 10, 2013, Chief Minister Narendra Modi after inaugurating a 28-floor, 122-metre high-rise, the tallest in the State. Most of the smart cities in India are being envisaged as business and IT hubs. Photo: Ajit Solanki/AP

Songdo in South Korea.

A view of PlanIT Valley in Portugal.

A view of Barcelona. Cisco plans to develop Barcelona into a smart city that will be a global benchmark.

The smart city, a 100 of which the NDA government has planned, is a utopian concept that excludes completely the urban poor and promises infrastructure systems to control urban living and that has the capitalist rather than the state as the custodian of citizens.

THE utopian concept of smart cities that gripped parts of the world for a decade and captured Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s imagination seems to have finally broken ground in India. Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley has earmarked Rs.7,060 crore in the Union Budget to brainstorm the creation of a 100 “new” smart cities. While the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) reached its cul-de-sac, it will be replaced by a new mission, to be named after a “national icon”, according to Union Urban Development Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu. While greenfield cities promising world-class facilities is the central idea, mid-sized cities will also be modernised and satellite towns developed around larger cities.

India’s urban population was 27.8 per cent in 2001 and is projected to increase to 38.2 per cent by 2026, said Naidu. Census 2011 put the figure at 31.6 per cent. Unless new cities were developed to accommodate the burgeoning masses, the existing cities would soon become unliveable, Jaitley declared.

The buzz among architects, bureaucrats, engineers and planners is palpable with the expectation that India will finally have its own version of Barcelona of Spain, Songdo of South Korea, PlanIT Valley of Portugal and Masdar City of the United Arab Emirates soon.

The blueprint of each one of these smart cities, including India’s own Lavasa, Aamby Valley and Dholera, is fascinating, to say the least. Clean skies, tall buildings, swanky roads, zero pollution, driverless cars, new-age lighting and smart homes with smarter appliances. All connected and networked in real time via supercomputers and sensors that offer completely automated traffic decongestion, smart parking systems, energy-efficient power grids, better civic facilities and garbage bins that send an alarm when full. Basically, what is promised is infrastructure systems that can manage and control urban lives.

In a bid to re-engineer cityscapes, the emphasis is clearly on infrastructure, but is that enough to create liveable spaces? At the core of a city are the people who harness their energies, creativity, intelligence and requirements to build the city with the bottom-up approach. But under the smart city concept, the pyramid is upturned, where first the infrastructure is built and then people are invited to come and adapt to those spaces. This top-down heavy-investment-driven process typifies a city-in-a-box approach and throws up two important questions: who is going to build these cities? And who is going to live in them?

Slice of the pie

At the forefront of the development of smart cities worldwide are international conglomerates which, along with government functionaries, ideate, design and deliver smart cities to citizens. While Nasdaq-listed information technology firm Cisco Systems is a major player in the area, American conglomerate General Electric, Germany’s Siemens, multinational Hewlett Packard, the Dutch diversified technology major Philips, Korean steel giant Posco and real estate developer Gale International are also majority stakeholders in the urbanising revolution. The New York Police Department’s Real Time Computer Complex has been created by IBM. The urban command centre built in Rio de Janeiro for the FIFA World Cup 2014 and the 2016 Summer Olympics has been executed by IBM. Back home, the Lodha group has tied up with IBM to create Palava, Mumbai’s “sister city” and a “city of opportunity”.

In his Budget, Jaitley relaxed the area and capital conditions for foreign direct investment (FDI) from 50,000 square metres to 20,000 square metres and from $10 million to $5 million respectively with a three-year post-completion lock-in. Clearly, these global companies are going to make a beeline for investing in building the infrastructure and providing information and communication technologies to India’s smart cities.

In Bangalore, Cisco, in association with the Electronics City Industries Association, announced the transformation of Bangalore’s Electronics City, spread across 320 hectares, into a smart city. It houses 186 companies, including Wipro and Infosys, with a combined turnover of Rs.40,000 crore. Cisco believes “this will serve as a replicable model for the rest of Bangalore as well as other cities in India, across the region and other emerging markets”.

A smart city project is being implemented in Surat by Microsoft Corp. The Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT City) is being put together by a consortium led by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) and a joint entity of Cisco and Korean telecom player KT Corp along with Newgen ITeS Pvt Ltd and Newgen Holdings Pvt Ltd. SmartCity Kochi, an IT Special Economic Zone being built on the model of SmartCity Malta, is owned 84 per cent by TECOM Investments, a subsidiary of Dubai Holding.

Clearly, too much is at stake for big businesses as far as smart cities are concerned. Most of the smart cities in India are being envisaged as business and IT hubs which will invite Fortune 500 companies from all over the world to set up shop. The entry of international banks and insurance companies is expected to boost the economy, while goods and services pushed by fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) companies will feed consumerism and drive retail growth. The large-scale presence of foreign investment may render the Indian economy vulnerable in the long run. Public-private partnership is the magic wand for making these projects viable. The urban poor constitute a significant percentage of a city’s population. But based on the plans on the drawing board, the smart cities have not created space for them at all. Jaitley clarified that smart cities were being envisaged for the neo middle class. “As the fruits of development reach an increasingly large number of people, the pace of migration from the rural areas to the cities is increasing. A neo middle class is emerging which has the aspiration of better living standards,” Jaitley said in his Budget speech. Venkaiah Naidu said there was a rush of people from rural to urban centres for three reasons: education, employment and entertainment, and added that this put a burden on the metropolitan cities. In order to divert this migration from the existing metros, new cities are being imagined.

Keeping out the poor

Let us look at the under-construction Lavasa, a megalopolis of five planned cities, being built near Pune. Constructed on 10,000 hectares of purchased land, this artificial city is being developed by Hindustan Construction Company (HCC). One of its townships, Dasve, is modelled on the Italian Portofino and boasts world-class facilities. Lavasa seems like an island of affluence in the middle of an India that is struggling to put together two meals a day. For a majority of Indians who can never afford the “smartness” of Lavasa, it appears like a dystopia come true.

In 2010, the Union Ministry of Environment and Forests ordered a stay on further construction in lieu of violations of environmental norms. In November 2011, the order was rescinded.

There are still 18 villages inside Lavasa whose residents have not sold their land, but the management says it does not intend to remove them and promises coexistence. When the project first began, some farmers sold off an acre for as low as Rs.5,000 (one acre equals 0.4 hectare). Now, they get much better prices. How long will the 18 villages be able to or willing to hold off a sell-off is the million dollar question. According to Lavasa, many absentee landlords, who had travelled to Mumbai and Pune in search of livelihood, have returned to Lavasa and are prospering. A pharmacy, a school, a factory for bamboo products, a police station and a post office cater to their needs. Free water is provided to all the villagers, as benevolence, not as a right.

A former employee, on condition of anonymity, says that while it is the responsibility of the state to take care of its citizens, and people can demand their rights from a government and hope for redress of their problems, a capitalist system is under no obligation to uplift the people. Here is a situation where the capitalist has replaced the states as the custodian of the citizens.

While many have bought property in Lavasa, very few have actually migrated there, as facilities remain incomplete. According to the former employee, most of these people are well-heeled and count among the who’s who of the country, including film stars, cricketers, bank chairpersons and bureaucrats.

Jobs for the local people have pulled some of them out of poverty, but opportunities remain limited and mainly for the purposes of serving the rich inhabitants. Some of them are construction labour but stay in labour colonies, away from the rich residents. Petty shop and contract work are other options. This form of segregation in the social re-engineering of habitats is discrimination in a capitalist setting. This violates the very norms on which Lavasa has been built: those of new urbanism, where everybody from pedestrians to common inhabitants have equal rights. But in practice, buffaloes of the nomadic Koli, Dhangar tribes are not allowed to roam freely inside, according to the former employee.

That brings us to the question, who are these cities built for? Are we moving towards a paradigm where only the affluent have a right to better lives and citizenship in smart cities, and are regulated cities in the hands of corporates socially or economically plural? While major Indian festivals are celebrated with pomp inside Lavasa, festivals and culture of the indigenous people are slowly fading away. What is the kind of political amalgamation or cultural fabric that is being created? Organic cities have histories, people feel a sense of belonging, they have stories to share. By contrast, the new cities levitate in a plastic culture with colourless perfection. In view of Lavasa’s initial public offering and draft red herring prospectus, HCC chose not to respond to Frontline’s questions.

Driving “smartness”

While the details of the smart city project are still being chalked out, it is rumoured that the National Institute of Urban Affairs, an autonomous institution under the Urban Development Ministry, might be the implementing agency. Its director, Prof Jagan Shah, however, says nothing has been concretised yet. A self-professed “chief evangelist” of smart cities, Shah feels they are potential game changers and he rubbishes the myth that technology drives smartness.

“How has the Bombay local functioned to the minute all these years without digital technology driving it? A cadre of people ran it on time because the city demanded it,” he says. Surat uses smart technology for garbage clearance, while Jabalpur and Visakhapatnam use e-governance. These are aspects of smartness, but what is important is whether they compel integration or different functionaries work in silos, he says. If municipalities are smart and human intermediaries are few, then rent-seeking can also be reduced, making things transparent, he says.

There is a sea of data at our disposal which is lying unstructured, which should be harnessed for making lives better. But he cautions against greenfield cities that might end up as Chinese ghost towns. “It is a low-hanging fruit and doesn’t take a lot of imagination.” The idea of smart cities is here to stay, but he is quick to add that hopefully the exercise will not dissolve into flashy, feel-good kinds of moves by various players since a lot more is at stake here.

Somayya Madakam, research scholar with the National Institute of Industrial Engineering (NITIE), whose research is based on smart cities, welcomes the idea of smart cities. He says they provide quality of life to urban inhabitants, especially the rich, but they may benefit the poor, too, in many ways. For instance, they may assist health interventions in rural areas where doctors are not available with technology such as videoconferencing. “Why should a child travel 10 kilometres daily to go to school? And people need not migrate in search of employment,” he adds.

As per the Budget announcement, to coordinate the development of industrial corridors, and link smart cities to transport connectivity, a fund of Rs.100 crore has been provided for a National Industrial Corridor Authority, to be headquartered in Pune. Smart cities lining the industrial corridors of Amritsar-Kolkata (seven smart cities in seven States) and Chennai-Bangalore (Ponneri in Tamil Nadu, Krishnapatnam in Andhra Pradesh and Tumkur in Karnataka) are in the pipeline.

While people chase the smart city dream on paper, it is no secret that implementation is a weak spot for the state, no matter which government is in power. Under the JNNURM, 65 big cities were identified to create urban infrastructure but States and Union Territories could avail themselves of only 73.50 per cent of Central assistance, forfeiting Rs.12,397 crore, which is 49 per cent utilisation of the committed Central assistance, according to Venkaiah Naidu. A total of 668 small and medium towns reported better utilisation of JNNURM funds with an overall utilisation of 76 per cent of Central assistance.

For now, the smart city dream exists only on promotional papers of the marketing teams of big corporates and government. Smart cities hardly seem like a turnkey solution to solve the problems of Indian cities as they exist. As Siddharth Murthy, somebody who belongs to a small town in south India and has travelled much, sums it up, “Rather than promising bullet trains and smart cities, if the resources are properly utilised to improve the infrastructure for all the people, for example, basic things such as cleaner toilets in trains, it would make more sense.”