If Smart Cities Exclude the Vulnerable, Who are They Smart For?

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The Thread offers context to news through EPW Archives.
12 July 2018

A series of articles examine the Smart Cities Mission as well as how city-dwellers living in informal settlements are affected by related evictions.


A recent report released by the Housing and Land Rights Network (HRLN) on the Smart Cities Mission poses the question: “Smart for whom?” 

According to the same report, in 2017, forced evictions and demolitions of homes were documented in 32 of the cities participating in the Smart Cities Mission. While many of those evictions were related to the mission, demolishing slums so that cities conform to the aesthetic norms of a “world-class” city, without taking into account the paucity of formal housing that cities offer, has been a long-standing practice.  At least six homes are destroyed and 30 people forcibly evicted each hour in India as authorities modernise cities and build highways, as reported here

A series of articles examine the Smart Cities Missions as well as how city-dwellers living in informal settlements are affected by evictions. 

1) What’s So Smart about Smart Cities?

Himanshu Burte writes that the "smart city" idea is extremely attractive, especially to the middle and upper classes who experience Indian cities as being anything but smart. It is a concept frequently thrown about but lacking a clear definition, though at heart it has emerged mainly as an instrument to make cities more competitive in economic terms. 

Evidently, across the different invocations of the concept in different ways a wide range of urban issues are routinely referenced: business innovation, governance, sustainability, community participation (Caragliu et al 2011). What is missing is equally clear: any sense of the various conflicts and contradictions that smartening up would imply across these very dimensions, or in the larger socio-political context of cities. A smart city, in other words, is a city without politics. It is obvious that the lack of a fixed meaning can be useful in building consensus around an aspirational buzzword. As with “green” and “sustainable”, definitional ambiguity allows convenient and often paradoxical interpretations. It is worth noting that industry has already identified smart cities as a promising new “line”, and invested in policy and intra-industry advocacy by building platforms like Smart Cities Council and spun slogans like “smart is the new green” (Smart Cities Council 2014).  Not surprisingly, the “smart city talk” has also been interrogated as a form of corporate storytelling. 

2) How Would Focusing on Villages augment the Smart Cities Mission?

Shailaja Fennell, John Holmes and Bernie Jones discuss that the current Smart Cities Mission needs to be linked to India’s villages. The lacuna in the current mission mandate can be filled by directly addressing the opportunities provided by renewable off-grid production to increase employment and diversification in the rural economy, with a particular focus on India’s rural youth.

The Smart Cities Mission focuses on smart grids and devices to generate economic growth, create wealth and sizeable demand for rural and agricultural products, thereby enabling the shift from subsistence to commercial agriculture (Government of India 2016). The smart villages concept set out by the Smart Villages Initiative argues that the use of renewable energy as a development intervention would be a catalyst for education, health and empowerment programmes, utilising both human and technical networks, to sustain growth and to promote the convergence of living standards between rural and urban locations.

3) Are Our Cities Emulating Outdated Models of Urbanisation?

Romi Khosla writes that the new Indian urban landscape is being designed around grand concepts such as smart cities and export-oriented industrial corridors. He argues that in our desire to be global, we are emulating outdated models of urbanisation and economic progress borrowed from nations that have grown rich through questionable means. 

The future is becoming dangerous because increasingly, government policies and investors are driving the grand concept of a country awaiting the Big Bang take-off by turning the existing multinodal urban sector into centralised industrial corridors punctuated with lumps of smart macro cities and satellites. This is assumed to be one way of beating a modern identity into shape. By investing the international currency of debt in new urban infrastructure, the government hopes that national income will rise and a smart, supranational identity will emerge to show off to the developed world.  It seems diffi cult for the planners to realise that since the beginning of the last century, despite the spectacular growth of urban populations, the poorest half of the world has received just 1% of the total increase in global wealth (Oxfam 2016). Simply complying with investor directives and accelerating urbanisation to zoom ahead seems to be illusory and dangerous because that is the way to debt slavery.

4) Do Smart Cities Fit into a Pattern of Urban Exclusion?

Himanshu Burte and Lalitha Kamath’s paper argues that  over the last two decades, the state-led production of space, as part of worlding cities, has introduced new structural violences into the lives of poor groups. While they do not mention Smart Cities, the three main mechanisms they claim have been adopted to produce space—infrastructure and mega-projects, redevelopment, and creating exception regimes for “slums” are applicable to the implementation of the Mission. 

Their argument that the state that enacts structural violence through worlding processes is strong in its bid to open up new spaces for capital accumulation that integrate specific economic circuits, classes and groups “globally,” while weak in its responsibility to protect and strengthen the life chances and claims of poor groups/spaces, is also one that can be used as a framework to understand how Smart Cities might not translate into inclusion. 

Infrastructure and mega projects like road projects, the Olympics, and port expansion and revitalisation reveal two spatial characteristics. On the one hand, they seek to insert cities into a global space of trade and tourism circuits and associated spatial practices, and thereby alter and produce a new space at multiple scales. They may be voluntarily undertaken by cities and states to address real economic challenges and deficits (for instance, new roads in Mumbai), or as speculative attempts to enter privileged circuits of visibility and receive the economic benefits it promises.

5) Is There No Place for the Poor in Dharamshala "Smart" City?

Manshi Asher writes that Dharamshala is one more example of urbanisation where people were rendered homeless in the wake of the city being declared “smart.” The demolition of the Charan Khad settlement in Dharamshala on 16 and 17 June 2016, is a classic story of slum demolition and the ongoing struggle of displaced people. 

The smart city proposal actually does little to streamline any policies towards inclusion. In fact, it does exactly the opposite. “In the lobbying efforts with the Dharamshala Municipal Corporation our interaction with the mayor who gave repeated assurances while stating that she was helpless, revealed her lack of power to intervene,” says Sumit Mahar of the Kangra Citizens Rights Group, supporting the community. The urban local bodies (ULBs) seem to have been severely compromised by the Smart City Mission. The special purpose vehicle (SPV) has centralised power into the hands of the bureaucratic officials within the corporation.



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The Thread offers context to news through EPW Archives.
12 July 2018