Smart cities no panacea for urban future

Smart cities no panacea for urban future

For an urban geographer working in the domain of Indian urban development, the Budget speech was surprising. Being the first full Budget of the Modi government, one expected much more, especially because of the hype regarding building 100 smart cities from this year. In fact, the term “urban” appears only once in the transcript of the minister’s speech in the form of announcing the allocation of more than Rs 22,000 crore for housing and urban development.

India is in the middle of a huge urban transformation. Much of the success of visions like “Make in India” and the overall progress of the country will depend on the sustainable development of the urban sector, so this ‘stepmotherly’ treatment of the “urban” in one of the most eagerly awaited Budget speeches is disappointing. Future projected developments underscore the urgency to specifically focus on the urban sector now.

According to UN estimates, the share of urbanites in India’s total population will reach around 50 per cent in 2050 by adding 450 million new urban dwellers. Given the current living conditions and backlog in basic infrastructure, services, housing and amenities in India’s thousands of cities and towns, the urgency becomes ever more pressing.

It is now that India has to start setting the course for an overall urban transformation that is environmentally sustainable, economically productive and efficient, and socio-economically and spatially inclusive. The role of India’s numerous cities and towns goes beyond the simple arithmetic notion of being engines of growth. They will be the key players in India’s social transformation, its economic transformation to a services- and industry-based society, its sustainable use of natural resources, and last but not least, in India’s efforts to cope with, adapt to and mitigate the effects of global climate change.

This importance of the urban sector cannot be stressed enough. Visions like “Make in India” and providing gainful employment to India’s “demographic dividend” as well as managing the above listed transformations will not happen without the necessary, sustainable, efficient and well-functioning urban sector and its well-planned development and well-managed governance.

Given the current backlog in, especially, housing and infrastructure and likely future trajectories, the scale of required investments in the urban sector is staggering. The McKinsey Global Institute estimated an additional capital investment requirement of nearly $1.2 trillion by 2030, and the High Powered Expert Committee (HPEC) calculated necessary investments in urban infrastructure to be around Rs 39.2 lakh crore by 2031.

Of course, a large part of the funding will (have to) come from the private sector, either in the form of a reformed and rebalanced PPP model or in the shape of the ongoing exclusionary process of so-called private-sector urbanisation, e.g. gated communities and industrial and educational campuses. However, increases in public spending for the current urban sector and “rurban” future-urban settlements are inevitable.

So what do we know about the Modi government’s approach for India’s urban landscape? As of now, very little seems to have changed. We hear about the herculean task of providing “Housing for all by 2022” with the envisaged construction of 20 million urban housing units. And as what can be seen as a continuation of the major urban development programme of the previous government (JNNURM), it is planned to rejuvenate around 500 cities through infrastructure provision and urban renewal projects.

However, even though not much is as yet known about the location, structure, role and governance of the proposed “100 Smart Cities” project, the corporate excitement and public discourse about its open questions have certainly put India’s urban sector and its importance and problems back into the public limelight. Yet much of these programmes and projects seem like a more-of-the-same approach. A comprehensive policy framework and strategy of how India’s urbanisation process should unfold is still lacking.

National Urbanisation Policy

Given India’s current state of urbanisation, characterised by disparities between states, within states, between different size classes of cities and towns as well as intra-urban inequalities, and the fact that India’s positive economic prospects will make more necessary funding available, now might be the time to think of a holistic, inter-ministerial and inter-departmental “National Urbanisation Policy”.

Apart from all the known issues of urban governance and financing, the following broad points – though not new – would seem necessary to be elaborated upon in a fresh public discourse on India’s Urban Future:

• Develop an overall holistic vision of how India’s Urban System should look like, encompassing economic, environmental and social components in a well-known single sustainable urban development framework.

• Develop a vision for India’s developing spatial economy between economies of scale and agglomeration diseconomies, considering the ongoing top-heavy metropolitan dynamics and efforts for a more balanced urban system which recognise the important role of small and medium towns for e.g. non-agricultural employment growth and as incubators of developmental change in peripheral areas.

• This would require a renewed focus on prospective-strategic interstate, regional, mega-urban and metropolitan planning and governance, integrating national and regional development, transportation, land, labour and economic policy, cutting across state-boundaries, ministerial lines and administrative-institutional levels.

To sum it up, how can we steer India’s process of urbanisation in such a way as to create a truly enabling framework, both for the economy as well as the growing urban population in a sustainable environment?

“Building 100 Smart Cities” might serve as an example of a technology-driven sustainable urban development. However, one hundred smart cities, towns or townships will not change India’s urban landscape much. India needs an overall smart, well-discussed, thought-out, and lastly effective and efficiently implemented urban development strategy in a holistic urban policy framework. India’s future will be urban, now is the time to shape it.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)