How Smart is Smart City Paradigm of Development?

Tikender Singh Panwar

WITH the advent of the BJP in power, Indian cities too got integrated to the overall development of capitalism in the country. There is a changed scenario where the cities are facing a different role in the name of sustainability, apparently is otherwise, for more appropriation of capital. But one thing is universal in the changing paradigm of development in cities and that is the neo-liberal framework in which the cities are being assigned the task. To quote David Harvey, the cities are now changing from just being city managers to city entrepreneurs. So, the task of the cities will be to attract more investment, compete with each other and provide favourable space for the business/capital to invest. Another interesting feature of the era happens to be the role of the main state actor to withdraw from the essential task of providing services to the people and hand it over to the private players or to the city government which will then decide the best actor to deliver such services. The changed role of present-day capitalism where the primitive form of accumulation of wealth is starkly and sharply taking place is visible in the cities. Quite eloquently has this been expressed by Ursula Hews when she writes about the use value objects being metamorphosised into exchange value and thus commodification of them. This happens at an unprecedented pace with the essential services, considered to be of use value for the society such as education, health, sanitation and water, being commoditised rapidly. This is happening at an alarming rate in Indian cities.

The flagship programme of the Modi government to build 100 smart cities speaks volumes about this paradigm of development which essentially is neo-liberal and inherently wedded to the present-day form of capitalist development. There are many experts in the field who have commented on this programme but recently some research scholars, with empirical data, have come out with interesting facts about the promises, proposals and actual reality when it comes to its implementation and goals. To quote one of the scholar, whom I interviewed, “the ministry (UD) wants to wean it off from the urban infrastructure and the whole meaning of self-sustaining cities is nothing more than that”. “The global cities concept proves that they will not deliver the services themselves but some other player will rule the domain and this is essentially the finance capital paradigm of development,” she said. Ursula Hews gives a macro-level empirical data showing how big transnational corporations have shifted their operation from various sectors to the services in cities which is quite lucrative and appropriative. Another scholar who did a review of two years of the smart city project stated similar alarming features: “The basic formulation of the smart city is faulty as the area based development is usurping 80% of the investment which may be just 3 square km which will lead to various kinds of inequality in essential services like water, sanitation, etc.”

The study focuses on the 60 smart city proposals, their smart city plans, actual implementation, direction of the development strategies, the flow of money, the target for investment and the generalisation in the whole concept of development. Why is it that almost all the cities want to focus on transport, is it bottom-top demand or is it more of consultant driven development trajectory which has its roots elsewhere? It also reviews the ambiguity in between the power structure existing in the cities and the contradiction imminent to brew in between the elected body of a city and the special purpose vehicle designed to take the smart city plan forward.

What Two Years’ Experience Reveals

If one goes through the structure of finances of the smart city proposals, then there is a large ambiguity over the way these plans are to be implemented. For example, in some cities the money being funnelled through smart cities mission is much larger than the existing budget and even the gross domestic product of the city. Will such an investment ever take place and will it be replicable in other parts of the country as well? Data on finances of one of the cities in North India revealed alarming figures -- of the total smart city plan, nearly Rs 134 crore is to be mobilised through user charges and other fees which would mean Rs 53,600 per capita will be mobilised from the people. This would mean mounting burden on the people and is practically impossible. But this is how the plan will be implemented.

An overview of the smart city mission budget reveals that there is over Rs 1,31,507.9 crore for the 60 cities to be shared in area based development (ABD) and pan city development. But interestingly the share for ABD is Rs 1,05,353.9 crore and for pan city Rs 26,154.3 crore. This shows that 80.1 per cent of the budget is proposed to be consumed for a select area which may be not more than 3 per cent of the total city network and just 19.9 per cent for the pan city which may be for 97 per cent of the area. It speaks of the exclusivity of the plan and the reality. It will further increase inequity in the city with respect to trunk infrastructure and essential services such as water and sanitation.

60 cities’ plan for generating money also reveals an interesting picture which is quite far away from reality. Unlike the JNNURM where 80 per cent of the money was to flow from the centre which too did not show remarkable results for housing, social infrastructure, etc, the centre’s share in the smart city mission is paltry. The rest is to be managed by the city and hence, this changed role of the cities to city entrepreneurs. A large chunk of the money is to come from public-private partnership (PPP), followed by central and state governments assistance through convergence of various schemes and projects. A little percentage is also there from loans. For the larger cities where the budget is huge this contribution or even participation of the private sector may not be a challenge, but for small and medium cities that are grappling with some of the basic elements of financial governance like timely disbursement or complete incapacity to pay wages to its employees etc., the challenge to contribute and attract private capital is massive. This further shows the plan and design of the smart city mission are not need based, but otherwise.

Another important feature is regarding the trail of the money that will be utilised for different set of priorities in the cities. It is believed that such priorities have been set through the citizens engagement where the people through various mediums participated and decided through a poll the bunch of priorities that the residents think, demands urgent intervention. The smart city plans were to be drawn accordingly. Whether that has happened or not is a big question mark as many of the consultants who were responsible for scripting these plans were more top-bottom driven and the citizens engagement was a mere formality. The largest share of money to be invested happens to be in transport Rs 31,613 crore, followed by housing (Rs 16,226 crore), energy (Rs 14,686 crore) and surprisingly water remains quite low as a priority in the cities, when providing potable water remains a big challenge. Even the INDC of the Indian government in COP 21 focused on the provision to provide potable water as a firm priority.

Writing an obituary of the 74th constitutional amendment, the driver for the smart mission in the cities is to be a special purpose vehicle (SPV), to be registered under the Companies Act, and the participation of the elected representative too is ambiguous. The data reveals that of the 60 cities, the percentage of local body representatives is negligible and is dominated by bureaucrats and some of them are even headed by World Bank officials. Not even 15 per cent of the total local body representative are part of the SPV and which is not headed by the mayor but by some bureaucrat or even officials from the private domain. This has led to some friction in urban governance in a few cities such as Panjim, Dharamshala and a few in Maharashtra where the elected body has come in direct conflict with the SPV.

Lastly, to quote from the Smart City Paradigm in India, “smart city initiative and the digital technologies for management and monitoring of urban systems are being promoted by the world’s largest hardware and software companies to ensure a world class living and working experience for the emerging rich and neo-middle class “. This is quite evident from the data of 60 cities selected by the government. But this also gives the opportunity to intervene for various stakeholders especially the Left to work out alternatives even in the field of information and communications technology and for inclusive cities and certain citizens’ initiative such as the Cities for People and the Water Forum Gurgaon, where alternatives are being built and championed in the form of movement.

 

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