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Crafting “smart cities”: India’s new urban vision

With a new government in Delhi, India’s urban agenda is now focused on the creation of “Smart Cities” in industrial corridors.  Such an initiative is driven by the demand of foreign investors to find sanitized spaces in developing countries in which they can operate easily – unhampered by politics. 

On 16 May, 2014, the results to the sixteenth general elections were declared, in which the  Narendra Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) secured a clear majority in India’s otherwise fractured Parliament. With the news that Modi was set to become the Prime Minister streaming in, India’s stock markets rose to record heights. After 10 years under the Congress Party-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, culminating in a few years which saw India’s economic growth slide down, investors were thrilled to have Modi at the helm.

Modi had made his economic conservative vision clear when he campaigned with the slogan “Minimum Government, Maximum Governance”. Big business, which had largely backed Modi, was keen to have a ‘strong leader’ who would help private enterprise tackle India’s regulatory regime that is often difficult to navigate. As the Chief Minister of the State of Gujarat for 12 years, Modi had obtained a pro-business image, since he had provided corporate houses with basic resources like land at very low rates.

The new urban agenda

The urban agenda of the Modi government is inextricably linked to the economic vision of creating centres of investment for private capital. In the Election Manifesto of the BJP, the section urban policy was titled “Urban Areas – High Growth Centres” with an explanatory note which states, “our cities should no longer remain a reflection of poverty and bottlenecks. Rather they should become symbols of efficiency, speed and scale.”

A Mask of Narendra Modi is seen among the Hindu deities in a shop at Varanasi. Paromita Chatterjee/Demotix. All rights reserved.These aims are to be achieved by the formation of “Smart Cities”. The manifesto hence promised that “100 new cities; enabled with the latest in technology and infrastructure” would be built. This manifesto intention was swiftly followed by action. In the Union Budget of 2014-15, Finance Minister Arun Jaitely in his Budget speech announced that a sum of Rs. 70 billion (around $1.2 billion) will be provided to fulfil Modi’s vision of “developing ‘one hundred Smart Cities’, as satellite towns of larger cities and by modernizing the existing mid-sized cities.” In order to allow foreign investors to have a larger role in the development of Smart Cities, the entry requirements for Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) in terms of minimum built up area and capital conditions were substantially reduced.

But what are these “Smart Cities” and where would they be created? While the meaning of the term has been quite hazy and contested, the presence of high-end infrastructure and technology-enabled city governance seems to be a prerequisite. Smart Cities may refer to entirely new cities (greenfield projects) built from scratch or existing cities (brownfield project) made “smart” by investing in technology and infrastructure. Smart Cities emerged as a buzzword in the last decade or so when technology firms like IBM and Cisco started to market themselves on how they are “building smarter cities” through technology. In Gujarat, when he was the state’s Chief Minister, Modi had already initiated two smart city projects - the Dholera Special Investment Region (SIR) and Gujarat International Financial Tec (GIFT) City.  GIFT City is a greenfield project spread over 886 acres which is being built as a financial centre, while Dholera SIR is a much bigger brownfield project spread across 903 sq.km which designates a large industrial area.

The nodes of industrial corridors

Modi’s Smart City plan is part of a larger agenda of creating Industrial Corridors between India’s big metropolitan cities in India. These include the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor, the Chennai-Bangalore Industrial Corridor and the Bangalore-Mumbai Economic Corridor. It is hoped that many industrial and commercial centres will be recreated as “Smart Cities” along these corridors. The Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC), which is spread across six states, seeks to create seven new smart cities as the nodes of the corridor in its first phase.

Interestingly, these corridors are developed by the Indian Government in collaboration with foreign governments who are keen to find their domestic private enterprises new avenues of investment. Japan is helping India develop its smart cities by investing $4.5 billion in the first phase of the DMIC project through lending from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). JICA has also taken up master planning for 3 “smart cities”- Ponneri in Tamil Nadu, Krishnapatnam in Andhra Pradesh and Tumkur in Karnataka - in the Chennai-Bangalore Industrial Corridor. The United Kingdom (UK) is collaborating with India for developing the Bangalore-Mumbai Economic Corridor project with the help of private companies from Britain. India has also got into an agreement with Singapore to use its expertise in smart cities and urban planning for developing the 100 Smart Cities.

Also instrumental in the development of Smart Cities are partnerships with technology firms like IBM and Cisco. IBM prepared the Integrated Communication Technology (ICT) Master Plan for Dighi Port Industrial Area in the DMIC that also provides for the establishment of an Intelligent Operations Center which uses IBM’s Smarter Cities software to integrate data from various agencies at one command centre. Meanwhile, Cisco has already prepared the ICT Master plan of four smart cities under the DMIC project- Dholera in Gujarat, Shendra in Maharashtra, Manesar in Haryana and Khushkera in Rajasthan.

In Bangalore, Cisco is converting a 5 sq. km area around Electronics City, the IT-Hub in the city’s peripheries, into a Smart City. Cisco has entered into a partnership with the Electronic City Industrial Association (ELCIA) to establish an Internet of Things (IoT) innovation hub that would help companies develop software applications that can be deployed in the 100 smart cities. While the first phase of the project at Electronics City is expected to be rolled out in January 2015, user trials may start in October this year. Cisco aims to leverage the experiments it carries out in the “Living Lab” in Electronics City for its projects in other Smart Cities.

Technology’s territories

The very idea of Smart Cities seems to be based on the assumption that there are technocratic solutions for the routine problems that citizen face. Technology is heralded as the “apolitical” means by which governance can be fixed and saved from the operation of “politics”. Problems of inefficiency that are seen to dominate the old bureaucratic-political order are hence given a “smart” solution by employing “Big Data”. However such a vision does not take into consideration the fallibility of technology or the fact that the technology-centric governance that Smart Cities promote can further exclude the people at the margins of power.

What is driving the Smart City agenda is the need for foreign capital to enter into new territories in the developing world by avoiding some of the regulatory hurdles it otherwise faces. To ease the entry of large foreign investments into such projects, the government provides for a single-window clearance system. Also, many of the proposed Smart Cities are either designated as Special Economic Zones (SEZs) or will house SEZs in them.  SEZs are geographical enclaves which have many exemptions from the regular tax laws, customs and excise duties and labour laws.

Hence the promotion of initiatives like Smart Cities can be seen as an effort to allow international corporations to invest and operate in sanitized spaces, bypassing the multiple complexities that otherwise characterize urban India. 

About the author

Mathew Idiculla is a writer, researcher and lawyer. He works as a fellow at the School of Policy and Governance at Azim Premji University, Bangalore.


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