Reflections on The Smart City Mission in India

Each city in India can capitalize on its diversity and uniqueness in its quest to smartness rather than following a unilinear path determined by smart technologies only. A shift in thinking from technology driven solutions to people centric solutions could help us work towards more inclusive smart cities.

Dr. Biniti Singh, Urban Sociologist

The Smart City Mission (SCM), launched in 2014, is the new urban regime that is currently guiding urban policy and practice in India. The Mission that charts out new path of area based development for cities of India through green field, redevelopment or retrofitting solutions calls for each city to prepare specific Smart City Plans (SCPs) based on its particular context. The pan city solutions address basic service provision (solid waste management, sanitation, water supply), traffic and transport management, safety among other things through rapid and efficient use of Information Technology (IT). Once approved from the Centre, such SCPs acquire funding from the central Government in New Delhi to implement their desired strategies for urban development. 

Smart city, as an idea is open to myriad interpretations. It is with this understanding that the Government of India (GoI) has allowed each of the 100 smart cities (so far enlisted) to chart out its own path towards becoming a smart city based on its own specific context. The vision and plan of smart cities currently operational in India is an eventual process tied to procedures, sanctions, funding and implementation engaging various agencies and institutions. These institutions overlap the terrain of the state and market and include Government, public, semi pubic agencies, private companies, civil society, organizations, and citizens at large. In this article, I discuss the SCP of Lucknow and highlight certain fundamental aspects that have been grossly over-looked (or simply ignored) in the over enthusiasm of creating smart cities.

Lucknow’s SCP is based on the following vision: ‘Lucknow Smart City aspires to leverage its culture and heritage by investing in inclusive and transformative solutions that enhance the quality of life for its citizens’. There are two kinds of smart city solutions that are planned for Lucknow - Area based development and the pan city development. The area based development with retrofitting solutions as is currently operational in 200 acres of Qaiserbagh in the inner city of old Lucknow. Pan city solutions include various areas of the urban economy like waste management, transport and traffic, water, sanitation and e governance.

Challenges to Indian Smart Cities

Capacity building of local institutions like the municipal authorities is a mandate since the enforcement of the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act 1992. Municipal authorities including Corporations, Councils and Nagar Panchayats suffer from lack of human and sometimes financial resources, inefficiency and sluggishness. The mandatory city functions still remain the constitutional duties of the municipal authorities in our cities, yet not much has been done to increase the capacity of these basic institutions. Besides, the widespread use of IT and digital technologies in the day to day functioning of governance requires training of the existing staff. Vesting planning, appraisal, approval, release of funds, and overall management of projects in the hands of a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) as proposed in Smart City Plans further undermines the powers and capacities of the third tier of governance, i.e the municipalities.

Urban Governance- A Fuzzy, Chaotic Terrain

The entry and presence of several institutions and agencies including international ones has been a permanent feature of urban governance in India since the late 1990s. The urban sector in India has been a melting point of several policies and programmes since then. Besides, institutional innovations like public private partnerships and outsourcing of services have been in vogue with varied outcomes. Institutions also traverse the areas of informal networks and politics that have significant impacts on decision-making and outcomes.

For instance, the revitalization of Qaiserbagh Heritage Precinct comes under the Area Based Development of the Smart City Plan in Lucknow. Like in the case of Smart City Plans in other cities of India, this plan will also have a similar institutionalized set up comprising parastatals, a project management consultant firm, centrally funded schemes like Atal Mis-sion for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and the municipal authority (Nagar Nigam) of Lucknow. After the initial draft was floated it has taken about a year or so to finalise the project team and engage with various agencies. According to the official estimates, it will take another four years to translate the Plan into reality. With so many agencies involved in implementation, the question of accountability always remains. In a situation where the municipal authority is not adequately capable, this poses a bigger challenge. Vesting all powers of urban management to centrally appointed bureaucrats manning the SPVs raises questions on democratic, transparent and equitable governance. In this scenario, the elected representatives, at the city level are completely disempowered while international firms decide the destiny of cities.

Inadequate Focus on People and their Enterprise 

In conversation with officials, it became evident that the current projects focus more on places rather than on people. According to Srikant Jain, Official, Smart City Project, Nagar Nigam Lucknow interviewed on March 2017:

The revitalization of the Qaiserbagh heritage precinct comes under the category of Area Based Development. But, we do not believe only in retrofitting solutions and restoring the old monuments in the precinct. Rather than focussing on the spot solutions only, we are aiming at creating greater mobility and linkages of the larger precinct which symbolizes Lucknow’s historical and cultural legacy. This place represents 500 years of history, from the times of the Mughals, Nawabs, French and British colonial rule when Awadh reached its pinnacle and evolved as the high seat of culture in the East. The idea is to recreate the Oriental experience complete with cobbled pathways, facade upliftment, landscaping, widening roads, better lighting, garbage disposal, sewage and drainage, greater connectivity through roads and public transport. There are separate plans for cultural centres like the Ameeradullah library and Bhatkhande which is a music institute and now a Deemed University, one of its kind in the country.

The above narrative is heavily focused on place with no mention of the people who live and work in these areas. This comes as a surprise when Lucknow is seeking to reposition itself as the cultural capital of India and trying to brand itself as a tourist hub on the global map capitalizing on its cultural heritage and historical legacy. These goals cannot reach fruition without adequate attention to local communities and their enterprises. Globally cities have used culture generators such as museums and cultural events, revitalization of public spaces, transforming declining urban peripheries or erstwhile industrial districts in ways that solved many functions-employment generation for the locales, conservation of historical cities and boosting the tourism industry.

Urban heritage, crafts and arts, intangible heritage related to symbolic culture peculiar to the place are central in this approach, widely popularized in European countries like France, Slovenia, Croatia and Denmark. Such strategies have helped regenerate marginalized areas (eg. Balkans and inner Calabria in Italy) less exposed to the tourism industry. All of this has helped in building the country’s global image. Innovative, place-based and integrated approaches have influenced most national policies and have often involved local communities.

Further, culture and creative industries based on immaterial labor are increasingly replacing other forms of work characteristic of erstwhile industrial, manufacturing based societies. The dispersed and flexible nature of production has actually changed the way cities function with a wide range of employment opportunities in the production of entertainment, advertising, fashion, tourism, hospitality industry, finance, banking and insurance, academia, research and development, information, and communication. A city like Lucknow which seeks to leverage on its cultural capital must rethink ways and means of engaging local communities, adept in local arts and crafts in such newly emerging creative industries.

Need for Integrated Development

Culture and Heritage based development always calls for an integrated approach linking local, often poor communities, basic services and infrastructure with a corresponding rise in tourist footfalls. When these components are integrated through a set of carefully laid out plans and strategies using the knowledge and skill sets of the locals, real development is possible. Integrating the local community by first mapping their skill sets, the possibilities of livelihoods and improving their habitats via connecting roads and basic services like water, sewage and waste disposal is the need of the hour. This assumes even more significance for cities whose economy thrive on tourism. Merely calculating tourist footfalls is not enough. Smart cities capitalizing on tourism can do a lot better from global learnings that have successfully built revenue models by integrating planning and development of entire cities around heritage structures.

The Smart City paradigm along with a spate of urban policies like AMRUT and HRIDAY has laid out the future pathways of urban India. However, city Governments are too stressed over the performance benchmarks which often remain as mere checklists. In addition, cities are fiercely competing to avail central funds. While all cities are striving to become technologically efficient they also have ample opportunities to tap on their unique potentialities and their context specificities. Given the diverse and impossible heterogeneity of our cities, this comes as a welcome relief. It is this diversity and uniqueness that each city in India can capitalize on in its quest to smartness rather than following a unilinear path determined by smart technologies only. A shift in thinking from technology driven solutions to people centric solutions could help us work towards more inclusive smart cities. 

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house