India’s ambitious ‘Smart Cities Mission’ embraces one hundred participating cities

In June, three years after its launch, India’s ‘Smart Cities Mission’ welcomed its one hundredth participating city, Shillong. The Mission, an ambitious five-year program, aims to transform urban development, improve quality of life and stimulate economic growth in cities across India. It’s been a flagship policy for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

The Mission reflects India’s rapid urbanization: one in three Indians now live in an urban environment. The Indian government offers funding to cities that successfully apply to become part of the Mission, though it has not provided a definition of a ‘smart city’.

This is a deliberate move, based on the view that a smart city can differ depending on the city. But, the Mission guidelines list core elements, including sustainable environment, robust IT connectivity, and security for citizens.

‘The Mission aims at developing the entire urban ecosystem institutionally, physically, socially, and economically,’ says Sajai Singh, partner at J. Sagar Associates and Vice Chair of the IBA Technology Law Committee. ‘The Mission aims to apply smart solutions, which involve the use of technology, information and data.’

“The Mission aims at developing the entire urban ecosystem institutionally, physically, socially, and economically

Sajai Singh, Partner, J. Sagar Associates and Vice Chair, IBA Technology Law Committee

Conceptual smart cities

Smart solutions include energy efficient buildings, the use of surveillance technology to monitor crime, and smart meters to help manage energy and water usage. How each city is going about becoming ‘smart’ varies markedly. The city of Jabalpur has placed a focus on waste management, utilising GPS-enabled trucks and installing heat sensors on landfill sites. A project in Bhubaneswar involves smart debit cards.

The Mission has come in for criticism, from concerns about social exclusion and forced evictions to fears that India’s regulatory environment can’t support the project. Shivani Chaudhry is Executive Director at the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), a think-tank based in New Delhi, which recently published India’s Smart Cities Mission: Smart for Whom? Cities for Whom? ‘Its architects, probably, did not design or envision it as a scheme to promote exclusion,’ says Chaudhry. ‘Some of the projects, such as those aimed at improving accessibility for persons with disabilities, developing renewable energy and sustainable public transport, are noteworthy and will have positive outcomes. At the same time, given the many concerns people have and the potential detrimental impacts of this model of restrictive development, the Mission requires some introspection and critical evaluation.’

HLRN’s report focuses on human rights and social justice, particularly findings that forced evictions and demolitions of homes have been documented in 32 of the cities. While not all forced evictions or demolitions are a direct consequence of the Mission, none of the selected cities have recognised housing as a human right, and the HLRN expresses further concern that eight of the cities involved have included greenfield development in their proposals, which could cause displacement of rural communities. ‘We do not believe that forced evictions can be justified, especially when the Mission talks about creating sustainable and inclusive cities,’ says Chaudhry. ‘Improved housing can be provided in situ, where people live, and by developing plans in consultation with them. Their free, prior, and informed consent is imperative.’

There is still time to find a way forward that avoids human rights being neglected. ‘Steps can be taken to develop a human rights-based monitoring and implementation mechanism, with clearly defined indicators and benchmarks to track progress in cities’, says Chaudhry. ‘Non-displacing options should be explored and, where people need to be relocated for their health and safety, human rights standards and guidelines, such as the UN Basic Principles and Guidelines on Development-based Evictions and Displacement, should be complied with.’

For many Indians, the problem may not be how they will be affected by the Mission, but rather that they will simply be left out. The Indian government has calculated that 99.5 million Indians will be covered by the Mission, which amounts to just eight per cent of India’s total population and 22 percent of its urban population. Within the chosen cities, often it is only certain areas that have been identified for urban development, rather than proposals being pan-city in nature.

The decision to invest significantly in urban development, even if it is restricted only to certain areas, has also led to warnings that the Mission will widen India’s much-reported rural-urban ‘divide’. Singh expresses concern that while the cities involved in the project will have their ecosystems developed, rural areas will not get comparable treatment. Some state governments have already set up ‘smart village’ projects to develop rural areas with the assistance of digital technology, and these projects often mirror some of the solutions put forward by the Mission. ‘Probably, in addition to the Mission - if not as a part of the Mission - the Federal Government may consider taking proactive steps to make the rural areas “smart,” which would accelerate the growth of many rural sectors, thereby reducing poverty, unemployment, and large scale (rural to urban) migration,’ believes Singh. ‘Since State governments are better placed to understand the local rural-urban divide, they may play a greater role in making “smart villages”’.

However, Singh believes that ‘the current regime is not equipped to deal with the new security challenges posed by Big Data with respect to personal data and privacy.’ Furthermore, he highlights lack of sound ICT infrastructure, within the country - such as insecure hardware – and increased vulnerability of the systems. ‘Therefore, the National Cyber Security policy may need to be revamped to address the cyber safety issues by enabling the data processing entities to increase their security and resilience against any attack or invasion,’ he says.

Beyond these specific concerns, the three-year anniversary has prompted reviews of progress. This isn’t necessarily an easy process. ‘Three years after the launch of the Mission, it is difficult to gauge its progress or its achievements, especially as there are no benchmarks or indicators for implementation and assessment,’ says Chaudhry.

Els Reynaers Kini is a partner at MV Kini, Mumbai, and Senior Vice-Chair of the IBA Environment, Health and Safety Law Committee. ‘The Indian public shares the view that a smart city project must connect people with their environment and city to create more efficient and optimal relationships between available resources,’ she says. ‘But given that so many proposals under the Mission are still at the project stage, the actual results of these projects have not been as significant yet at this stage.’

Singh adds that other factors are slowing down the implementation of the Mission including a lack of local experience, inadequacy of resources, and lack of streamlined financing. ‘Despite these troubles, the Mission has been attracting global investments on a large scale, which are capable of helping the Government to achieve the objectives,’ he says.