Poor neglected in India’s ‘smart cities’ plan, housing advocates say

Jaipur, India – one of now 90 cities selected for upgrade as part of the Smart Cities Mission (Credit: Dimitry B. / Flickr)

As part of the Indian government’s plan to ensure the nation’s rapid urbanization leads to improved quality of life, rather than just contribute to more slum growth, officials announced today that they have added 30 more cities to its select Smart Cities Mission.

Critics of the $7.5 billion initiative say the plan ignores the needs of the urban poor.

Since it was adopted two years ago, 90 cities have now been short listed for the mission, which aims to create 100 so-called “smart cities” across India by 2020.

These development proposals are being promoted by Bloomberg Philanthropies and others as designed to establish an “ideal way of life in a city.” But according to a recent study by an Indian land rights organization, the ambitious mission is far from equitable and raises serious human rights concerns.

The study, India’s Smart Cities Mission: Smart for Whom? Cities for Whom?, was published this month by the Housing and Land Rights Network. The report says 31 percent of India’s population – about 380 million people – resides in urban areas, per data from the 2011 census. However, by 2030, that number is expected to reach 600 million.

Adequate urban housing is already in short supply throughout India, especially for the urban poor. Nearly 14 million urban households currently live in “inadequate settlements” – otherwise known as slums. Another 3 million households exist furtively on the streets, according to census data, and about one-third of the urban population lacks access to running water; an estimated 84 percent of the urban poor do not have access to a toilet.

With half of the world’s 20 most polluted cities in India, the population projected to grow and rural-to-urban migration expected to continue, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government launched the mission in June 2015 as a means to address urban squalor and create these 100 “smart cities” within a five-year period.

The official plan is for these cities to have: adequate water supply; assured electricity; sanitation; efficient urban mobility and public transport; affordable housing, especially for the poor; robust information technology connectivity and digitalization; good governance, especially citizen participation; sustainable environment; safety and security of citizens as well as health and education.

RELATED  Women in India marched to protest mass molestation in public spaces

However, after analyzing the first 60 smart city proposals, the Housing and Land Rights Network concluded that a heavy emphasis on technological solutions as well as a dependence on foreign and corporate investment will serve to neglect the needs of the urban poor.

“The mission profile doesn’t appear to have been very balanced,” Shivani Chaudhry, executive director of Housing and Land Rights Network, told Humanosphere. “That’s why we undertook this analysis, because there’s a lot of hype and a lot of rhetoric, but we wanted to see what it really means for the poor living in cities. Is there any space for them in the smart cities? Are they going to benefit really from these missions?”

In short, Chaudhry says, the analysis supports the conclusion that officials simply assume the poor will not exist in an Indian “smart city.” Already, slum residents in at least four of the cities targeted for this initiative have reported being forcibly evicted or threatened with eviction to make way for improvement projects.

The evicted have been promised improved housing, but these are outside the smart city. “That’s the whole irony,” Chaudhry said. “Who is this city being built for?”

The government denies knowledge of any evictions.

“The mission provides the choice to those who live in squalor to live with dignity, in a more hospitable environment with basic infrastructure,” A. A. Rao, a spokesman for the housing ministry which is overseeing the plan, told Reuters. “In every instance, people are taken on board, and there have been no forced evictions to my knowledge.”

But Chaudhry counters that definitions, targets and indicators are conveniently “ambiguous.” Therefore, “affordable housing” for the poor, is actually priced for the middle class and is way above the means of the poor. The lack of clear definitions, indicators and standards means there’s no way to accurately evaluate whether quality of life for the majority of urban residents has improved or not.

With only 100 cities out of India’s more than 4,000 cities winning makeovers, development is far from inclusionary. But local media have also reported that 80 percent of funding for the mission is only going to 3 percent of city areas.

RELATED  India says it's time to seriously consider universal basic income

“So you’re not even going to have 100 smart cities. You’re going to have 100 smart enclaves within cities around the country,” Chaudhry said.

The study raises additional concerns of the privatization of urban governance through the designated implementation body and privacy breaches because of corporate oversight.

Additionally, it says the plan fails to address the structural causes of urbanization, including rural distress, lack of lands and agrarian crises forcing people to move to cities for survival. By pushing the poor back out of cities and without adequate development efforts in rural areas, India risks further entrenching itself in poverty, the study warned.

Instead, the government needs to recognize the stage of development it’s in and adopt inclusive, equitable plans accordingly, the study said. And who better to ask what the people need than the people themselves? That, according to Chaudhry, is the study’s main critique: Citizens should have a say in the decisions that most impact their lives.

It’s already been two years, and as of today, only 90 cities have been selected. With only three years until 2020, is the mission achievable, even according to the government’s loosely defined standards?

“Yeah, I don’t think so,” Chaudhry said. “The problem is that they may just implement one or two projects and say, ‘Yes, we have a smart city.’ But again, how do you say that a city is smart? What are going to be criteria?”

Still, Housing and Land Rights Network is hopeful that there is time to right the course, assuming there is enough political will to do so.

“It’s been two years – they’re not going to go back and cancel the mission, of course,” Chaudhry said. “But I really feel that there’s still time to come up with standards, to come up with indicators and to have an alternative vision proposed by the people themselves to ensure … an equitable development model.”

Share.

About Author

Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.