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Smart city ahead: democracy and the poor not allowed

Tom Thomas | Updated on: 13 February 2017, 10:23 IST

The hoopla

  • Smart cities have caught people\'s imagination
  • Already 48 firms are readying proposals for smart cities

The loopholes

  • The urban poor have so far been excluded from consultation process
  • There are over 50 million urban poor, by conservative estimate

More in the story

  • Are those drawing up plans for smart cities equipped enough
  • Will the smart cities an euphamism for private townships

India, especially its middle class, is pretty gung-ho about smart cities. But, really, how smart are they going to be?

As 48 consulting firms chosen to prepare proposals for a hundred 'to-be smart' cities get down to business, let us take stock.

A concern has arisen out of the discourse so far on the subject: Will these smart cities uphold the letter and spirit of the Constitution of India?

Indications suggest the contrary!

Also read - The upsides and downsides of Modi's smart cities

Let's start with the fundamental right to equality and non-discrimination.

A quick look around the cities gearing up for smart-city proposals, including Chennai and Delhi, show that most of them haven't even bothered to gather opinions from the urban poor. Exceptions are those places where non-government organisations are significantly involved.

smart cities embed graph shoumik

Graphic: Shoumik Biswas/Catch News

According to the 2011 Census, 377.1 million people live in Indian cities. Using the Tendulkar Commission's conservative estimate, the number of urban poor was 52.8 million in 2011-12. Can smart cities leave them out of the reckoning? This is what the trend seems to be.

In Chennai recently, the city corporation invited suggestions on smart cities online. While it was a platform for those digitally connected, those on the other side of the digital divide were overlooked.

Vexed by this apathy, Chennai's urban poor, sexual minorities and children, voiced their concerns and aspirations at a press conference supported by Praxis, an NGO that works to facilitate participation of the poor in governance.

Their message was loud and clear: "We are the city makers, give us our fundamental right to equality and non-discrimination and create an enabling environment for a dignified life as smart citizens in a smart city," they said in unison.

Where is the will

The city administration assured a television channel covering the event, that consultations would be held with the city's poor.

More than a month after that commitment, the people are yet to be intimated about any such event.

This raises questions about the political will of the leadership and the capacity of the administrators and consulting firms to include the cities' poor in planning smart cities.

Planners for smart cities include Crisil and Mahindra. Are they up to the mark for the job?

In most cities, the poor have been ghettoised into slums, often retained as vote banks by different political parties. The parties often cultivate, even patronise a small section of opinion leaders in each of these slums to drive the residents to polling booths and vote for them.

Even if there are consultations, they will likely be with such opinion leaders.

Whom to talk to

Anyone who has worked on inclusion of people's voices would know it is a complex process. The views and priorities of people differ, based on a host of factors such as gender, age, ability, even sexual orientation.

The most common mistake in participation is to listen to the most vocal and forceful in the group. The voice of the meek and those unheard come to the fore only when they are specifically sought.

Also read - Urban dream: India has many miles to go

Only that will give us the opportunity to build cities from the perspective of children, girls and the differently abled, rather than from the perspective of only able-bodied men.

In one of our interactions with children, a group of girls said they would prefer a foot overbridge across a busy road rather than a subway. Probing further, half wondering if they lacked good aesthetic sense, their reason made us realise how blind we were to realities that stare at us. The girls, and even boys, said they preferred the foot overbridge as it put them in full public view and made them feel safe!

Similarly, girls across cities pointed out that unless they had their own play areas, they would grow up confined at homes because the boys dominated common play areas.

Who are we entrusting

Can the smart cities afford to miss out on the richness of such inputs? Are those tasked with creating project proposals equipped to engage the communities, particularly the poor and the disadvantaged?

Even a cursory look at the list of consultants suggests their expertise lies elsewhere. Take the domestic consultants e.g. Crisil and Mahindra. They are known for rating businesses and engineering, not for inclusive consultations with the poor, let alone for designing smart cities with them.

Democracy may turn subsurvient in smart cities. And that needs to be contested - @tom_t

The fact that the likes of Crisil, Mahindra and a host of foreign consulting firms are leading the planning process clearly suggests that the priority does not lie in participatory planning, but more in rehashing some imported notions of 'smart' cities - dominated by information and communication technology.

The urban poor's right to equality and non-discrimination is likely to be given a miss, yet again.

What's up ahead?

The second-most worrying constitutional concern is about smart cities and the 74th Constitutional amendment. Will smart cities circumvent that amendment in the name of efficiency?

What started as one of the possibilities of setting up smart cities under the administrative control of a CEO, now looks like the favoured way forward - at least going by the apparent rush among IAS officers eyeing such positions.

Are smart cities a euphemism for private townships headed by an IAS officer or a corporate CEO? If the meagre amounts committed by the central government are any indication, it is headed down the privatisation pathway, rife with its incumbent miseries.

We have failed models such as Gurgaon staring us in the face. What the likes of Gurgaon have managed is to build the coffers of a few individuals and leave the tax payers to fund all public goods and conveniences.

While this can no doubt be the preferred option for the ruling elite and their financiers, this will do no good to the cities' poor, or its vast majority of working class.

How does an executive-led model fit with the 74th amendment that gives people the right to be the supreme decision makers, through their elected representatives?

While it can be argued that this has not always been effective, in a democracy, alienating the supremacy of the people is downright unconstitutional.

Experience the world over has taught us that the remedy for bad decentralisation is not re-centralisation, but more decentralisation.

The possibility of a hundred cities likely to be erected on capitalist models making democracy subservient to it, should certainly be contested at all levels - starting with how the plans for such cities are made, giving the voices of all its citizens their rightful place.

The dialogue needs to widen and deepen among community groups, civil society organisations, and academia and definitely among the administrators and political parties for more inclusive cities to be conceived.

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First published: 26 November 2015, 12:57 IST
Tom Thomas @tom_t

Tom Thomas is the chief executive of Praxis Institute for Participatory Practices.