India is pushing ahead with plans to build 100 Smart Cities in an effort to drive development and improve living standards across the emerging nation. However, last month’s devastating flooding in Chennai has raised an intriguing debate; Should nations who are largely developing, be focusing on smart development in cities, rather than creating basic protection and services for all their citizens?
The government of India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a vision of developing 100 smart cities as satellite towns of larger cities and by modernising the existing mid-sized cities. A total of ₹98000 crore (US$15 billion) has been approved by the Indian Cabinet to finance the strategy, which is said to bring more digitisation to 100 of the cities nominated by all the nation’s states and union territories.
However, almost one third of the country’s 1.1 billion population continues to live below the poverty line, and a large proportion of poor people live in rural areas. The number of poor people in India, according to the country’s Eleventh National Development Plan, amounts to more than 300 million. Many rural people lack access to good education, adequate health care, social services and basic utilities.
“We see that nowadays the investments for the poor, for helping the poor, for services for the poor, for even giving opportunities for the poor, have been reduced. The investments are going to creating this market upscale for the new middle class that the neoliberal policy wants to expand now. So, ‘Smart cities’ are part of the same [policy]”, suggested Sujata Patel, Professor at the Department of Sociology, University of Hyderabad, India.
The key question is; does smart city development impede the development of basic services? And in terms of national budgets, surely it does. When limited finances are available, however vast, the first priority of a modern nation would surely be to provide access to essential services throughout its population.
In the official Indian government’s manifesto, core infrastructure elements in a smart city include:
- Adequate water supply,
- Assured electricity supply,
- Sanitation, including solid waste management,
- Efficient urban mobility and public transport,
- Affordable housing, especially for the poor,
- Robust IT connectivity and digitalization,
- Good governance, especially e-Governance and citizen participation,
- Sustainable environment,
- Safety and security of citizens, particularly women, children and the elderly,
- Improved healthcare and education.
This list includes an abundance of “basic services”. In India, might the term “Smart City” be just a tag word, policy marketing, or PR slogan for the strategy of improving cities with basic services and digitisation? And is that really so far from the use of the term “Smart City” anywhere else in the world?
There is no agreed definition of a Smart City. Very loosely it is seen as a settlement where technology is used to bring about efficiency in resource use and improvement in the level of services. It has been envisaged that a Smart City could be one with technology based governance that enables efficient public services and has 24x7 water and power supply, 100% sewerage, drainage and solid waste management facilities besides top class infrastructure of international standards.
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To build new settlements or to convert the existing ones into Smart Cities, in a country like India, which is ranked at a lowly 136 of the 186 countries on Human Development Index (HDI), the models of Western world should not be blindly copied.
Rather more emphasis should be given to affordable and inclusive smart services like pure drinking water, scientific sewerage systems, waste management, power supply, pollution free environments and infrastructure, transport facilities etc. without affecting the livelihood of people or by way of improving it at the same time.
Amitabh Kant is chief executive of the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor Development Corporation, a project to link up the two cities and effectively create seven new greenfield cities in the process. "Our challenge is very different – India is going to see a huge urbanisation, the latest McKinsey study says by the year 2030 we will have 350 million [more] Indians getting into the process of urbanisation, by 2050, 700 million", Kant said. "Therefore the challenge is not to repeat the mistakes of what has been done in America – cities like Atlanta where the majority of people travel by car – it is important that countries like India set the example of compact, dense cities which are sustainable for the people."
"A better use of technology could help countries such as India make a quantum jump forward", Kant added. "An advantage the developing world has over the developed world is being unencumbered by aging infrastructure that needs to be rebuilt – a lot can be built from scratch, and built better”. With strong arguments on both sides, the debate will likely continue for some time, in India and across much of the developing world.