These smart cities should have the capacity to absorb, adapt and provide opportunities for both the poor rural migrants as well as the educated professionals, say Sujit K Pruseth & Sachi Satapathy.
The Government of India has identified 98 urban locations to be converted as smart cities, covering 13 crore people (out of 1.2 billion population) and accounting for over 35 per cent of the country’s total urban population. The idea is to ensure high quality of life comparable with any developed European city and fulfilling the aspiration of the vast middle-class city dwellers to avail the best quality urban life.
To build smart cities, India allocated Rs 6,000 crore ($962 million), and this huge investment is expected to transform existing cities into high-class urban areas, with adequate clean water supply, 24/7 electricity supply, proper sanitation system, efficient mobility and public transport, affordable housing for the poor, robust IT connectivity and digitalisation, besides good governance and citizen participation.
However, the key question and debate, making headlines in the country is whether the vast poor or lower middle-class population in the country would be able to afford to stay in these smart cities. So, what should the government do to make these new smart cities more inclusive so that all classes, irrespective of their financial status will afford to stay and enjoy quality services?
It is thus extremely crucial to carry forward the objectives of smart cities along with crafting public policy to retain the distinct socio-cultural identity of the marginalised and deprived groups by ensuring dignified living space along with sustained source of income.
As a first step, the government should take a cue from a country like Brazil, which has the experience in slum upgradation and municipal governments, and recognise informal settlements as special zones of social interest. This would provide the much-needed legal protection, prevent forced eviction and stop deterioration of living conditions.
Subsequently, customised inclusive development plans can follow and these informal areas can be integrated with the mainstream urban planning process. The policymakers should not lose sight of what makes cities successful: their capacity to absorb, efficiency, adaptability, and the opportunities they provide for both the poor rural migrants as well as the educated professionals.
While developing the concept of inclusiveness in the smart city projects, the government must look into the factors such as how businesses are embedded in communities and spaces are intensively used for transit, commerce and socialisation.
India has a massive low-skilled workforce with limited prospects in formal industry or modern services. So, a smart strategy for city-building should factor in employment generation, incorporating and upgrading small-scale construction and the real estate sector. It is also necessary to accommodate the largely informal small, medium and micro-enterprises that form the backbone of India’s urban economy.
Rather than making huge investments on building eight-lane roads, in a country where less than five per cent of households own a car, 21 per cent own a two-wheeler and where, even public transportation is unaffordable for the poor, the government's focus should be on how all existing city dwellers get a house and quality healthcare.
The government should also ensure that such cities get a proper sanitation facility, and its people breath clean air and get clean drinking water with 24/7 power supply at an affordable price. This will make more sense for smart cities to be inclusive.
Sujit K Pruseth (Ph D), a faculty at Government of India’s premier policy institute, Indian Institute of Public Administration (IIPA), New Delhi, served as a visiting faculty at theIndian Institute of Management, Indore.
Sachi Satapathy is a New Delhi based lead policy and development professional, who worked extensively on policy, poverty alleviation, public health projects with bilateral and UN agencies in poorest states in India and authored 3 books on development issues.