How India’s Smart Cities Can Write a New Chapter in 21st-Century Development
Uniting technology and democratic governance can chart a course for a future of inclusive economic growth in India
En route to his historic win in the 2014 elections, Narendra Modi put forth a vision for driving India’s long-term economic growth: build 100 smart cities in a decade.
It’s a vision premised on tapping the potential of urban India’s continued ascent: By 2030, the population of India’s cities is expected to leap from 375 million to 590 million, and India’s cities’ share of national GDP from 60% today to 70%.
To do this, the smart cities vision combines proposals familiar to urban planning with new thinking on how technology can help power the productivity that cities make possible. Benchmarks for Modi’s smart cities vision include a maximum travel time on public transportation of 30 minutes in small and medium-size cities and 45 minutes in metropolitan areas and 100% household access to Wi-Fi. Smart cities will also be equipped with smart sensors and communication technology that enable infrastructure to efficiently respond to the needs of residents.
Development has already started, with projects like Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT), Dholera, and the Delhi-Mumbai Integrated Corridor breaking ground in 2014. Some urban centers, like Amanora Park township in Pune, have been integrating technology into urban infrastructure for years, using smart meters, ICT and data analytics to optimize power, gas and water consumption and water treatment.
Ensuring that these cities deliver not just growth, but inclusive growth, starts with addressing one of the criticisms of the smart cities initiative: that its ambitions for growth overlook basic needs.
With the right focus, the data that make cities smart can also make them more inclusive—as the work of India-based NGO Shelter Associates shows. “We use GIS and Google Earth to map services in slum pockets in order to ascertain what the gaps in delivery are that need to be addressed,” says Pratima Joshi, Director of Shelter Associates. “In Pune, for instance, there are around 65,000 households that could get individual sanitation as our data established that over 90% of the cities slums have sewerage networks to which the hutments could plug into. As the city was not aware of this, they continued to provide community toilets across slums which were expensive and a huge maintenance burden year after year.”
Sai Swarna Balakrishnan, Assistant Professor in Urban Planning at Harvard University, stresses the importance of accountability to ensure that data-driven initiatives deliver inclusive outcomes: “In all these high-technology smart-city solutions, urgent questions remain of who controls these technologies, how much access does the public have to them and how can these cities be governed in open and inclusive ways. India has made many strides recently in democratizing urban governance—the Right to Information Act is a key example; these democratic innovations have to be brought to bear on the smart cities policy.”
Balakrishnan also highlights the need for considering how these cities function in broader networks of Indian economic life: “The recent rounds of census data show clearly that some of the rapid urban growth is happening in large villages and census towns which are not classified as cities. If India wants to be smart in guiding its urbanization, our urban planners and policymakers need a better grasp of how the urban economy works—where are urban firms locating, where is urban labor commuting from.”
The Indian government’s smart cities guidelines include the goal of driving citizen involvement beyond ceremonial participation in governance. As part of his advisory agenda, Prime Minister Modi has been quoted as saying, “Good governance is putting people at the center of the development process.”
These words are key to unlocking India’s cities’ opportunity for inclusive growth.