Demystifying the Indian Smart City – Introduction

The newly elected federal Government of India launched the Smart Cities Mission in 2015 with the stated purpose of improving the governance and infrastructural deficiencies that plague Indian cities. Missing, however, in the new programme was a cohesive understanding of a smart city. While the government documentation repeatedly implies infinite liberty for cities to self-define their understanding of ‘smartness’, the actions demonstrate that there is a larger idea of ‘smartness’ that the federal government seeks to implement. It is at this disjunction, between the rhetoric and practice of the Mission, that I will be sharing a series of blogs on the core research question – ‘What constitutes a smart city in India?’

The following blogs argues that it is imperative to understand the mechanics of the Mission in order to ensure clarity, accountability and to question whether the current structure of the Mission will achieve its stated goal of improving the governance and infrastructural deficiencies of urban India.The Smart Cities Mission stands at a proposed budget of over INR 200,000 Crore (INR 2,000 billion) for 99 cities with a combined population of almost 100 million people and could have a significant impact on the lives of Indians.

Rounds of SCM and No. of Cities selected
No Round Date No. of Cities Selected
1 I January 2016 20
2 Fast Track May 2016 13
3 II September 2016 27
4 III June 2017 30
5 IV January 2018 9
Total 99

The magnitude of the project and its potential to affect the lives of citizens as well as the governance and financial structures that regulate municipal life necessitate that the concept of the smart city in India be illuminated. Given the sheer vagueness of the Mission, the core of the paper focuses on providing an empirical reading of the Mission, singularly through government documentation, and delineates the following trends – 1) that the project categories are similar to former urban renewal programmes however individual projects in the Mission are more likely to focus on revenue generation; 2) sources of finances move rapidly from ambitious market-oriented processes back to more traditional state-sponsored urban regeneration plans; 3) the Mission claims to bolster local government but in practice seems to recentralise power away from municipal bodies to state-level bureaucrats; and 4) the Mission claims to represent the voice of its citizenry however the Mission utilises processes of participation that are deeply problematic and benefit privileged sections of society.

I will edit this blog to add the links to relevant posts as I write them up over the next two weeks. It is important to note that the data collected for these blogs has been sourced from a database of 60 cities and evaluates the proposed plans for 2851 projects in these cities. These plans are the basis on which cities were accepted into the Smart Cities Mission (see table 1) between 2016 and 2018. It is important to note that these projects can (and probably will change) by the time cities implement the proposals. The aim of making the projects and finance as the primary fulcrum of data collection was one entry point into making an amorphous project into a more tangible entity that can be analysed. This data is based on a working paper from my previous life as a policy wonk and draws completely from a database created by Ashwathy Anand, Ajai Sreevatsan and myself when we were associated with the urban team at the Centre for Policy Research. I look forward to slowly enunciate these policy documents in my new avatar as an MPhil/PhD candidate at the geography department at King’s College London!

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