Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s assertion that India needs “to think big and focus on skill, scale and speed to revive its growth story” is something that is different from what the people have been hearing in the past six decades.
His new business model for urbanisation – the Smart City Mission –aims to transform a hundred small and medium–sized settlements into Smart Cities.
Ayona Datta, an academic at University of Leeds, recently wrote that India is rising. In cities across the nation, the pace of construction is reaching frenzied heights. Each city, each district, each regional state is reinventing itself: one smartphone, one flyover, one superhighway, one mega-project at a time.
He noted that the highlight of this programme marks a new trend: Local governments consult citizens to come up with proposals to make their city smart. The central government will then select the hundred cities – based on past record and future potential – to receive recognition and resources for their plans.
This is a trend that Modi has set rolling under which grassroots democracy is encouraged to grow their towns and cities.
The focus of the current trend is to use urbanisation as an opportunity to generate wealth and prosperity. It’s also hoped that new Smart cities will bypass the developmental “crises” (such as crime, poverty, energy shortages and slums), which grip mega-cities in the global south.
With this outlook, India’s investment in Smart Cities seems to be a win-win situation for the governments and citizens alike. But there is a flip side that India should take note of.
The Smart Cities mission is promoting rapid regional urbanisation by speculating and monetising on the commons – land which belongs formally or informally to farmers and tribes people, who have used it for generations – and transforming it into real estate. Crucially, this transformation excludes those who do not fit into the vision of a Smart City.
There are fears that corporate interests would get promoted more than many other issues. This could lead to private takeover of public space. These new developments are largely privately owned, and sometimes even privately managed and governed. They run the risk of becoming enclaves of privileges.
The fact of the matter is that the Modi government has factored into the programme several governance issues to ensure inclusive growth. However, for the rightful implementation of the programme the government has to remove bureaucratic hurdles.
Government has initiated actionable programmes to protect the interest of farmers, tribes people and indigenous groups. It ensures that their constitutional rights to land, livelihoods and local cultures are protected. The success of Smart Cities should ensure this basic right.