In September 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi affirmed India’s pledge to implement the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) at the UN General Assembly in New York. He made a commitment to “make our cities smart, sustainable and engines of progress” by 2030. This builds on earlier promises of ending poverty, providing housing and basic services to all by the early 2020s.
The Digital India mission is a missing link that could help connect the Smart Cities mission to these high-level SDG outcomes, especially the Sustainable Cities goal to “make cities inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”. Smart cities are best seen as one of many mechanisms to operationalise this link, rather than an all-encompassing framework whose internal contradictions can make implementation tough.
As the NITI Aayog prepares to implement the SDGs nationwide, a key question is whether core SDG priorities—poverty, employment, basic services, Make in India and sustainable infrastructure—take precedence in both investment and phasing over Smart cities or whether we can build a complementary narrative, where one strengthens the other.
To do that effectively, we have to examine the many origins of the idea of smart cities, which is certainly not a swadeshi concept. The idea developed somewhat independently in the 2000s in high income countries of Europe, East and South-east Asia. All have well-established physical and digital infrastructure, high levels of urbanisation and were seeking to consolidate their position as advanced markets and innovation-led economies.
This state-led policy drive was given additional fillip by transnational corporations, seeking to reinvent themselves around the fourth industrial revolution, based on the Internet of Things (IoTs) that they believe could form a new digital substrate for 21st century cities. Much of the hype around smart cities in India is led by these firms seeking state support and possibly subsidies to expand market opportunities, in an era of uncertain growth in economies belonging to the Organisation for Economic Development and Cooperation (OECD).
The challenge is that India is far from being a high-income country with well-established infrastructure, markets and responsive public institutions. It would therefore be difficult for us to draw upon examples of ‘smart urbanism’ ranging from Seoul and Singapore to Masdar and Barcelona. Most Indian cities continue to struggle with poverty; weak infrastructure and poor services; dysfunctional land and informal labour markets; fragmented governance; and feeble public participation in everyday governance, in what is otherwise an active, vigorous and contested democracy.
A central question, therefore, is whether these developmental processes have to be addressed first, or if many swadeshi city-wide smart initiatives can help our cities leapfrog to a more sustainable development pathway defined by the SDGs. Further, can local greenfield and brownfield initiatives that form the backbone of the current Smart Cities Mission enable city-wide impact, rather than creating pockets of privilege or affluence?
The SDGs provide a wide and holistic development framework to encompass India’s urban challenges. This ranges from ending poverty and hunger, to the provision of universal health care and education, housing and basic services, jobs and industrialisation. All within local and global ecological limits and the strong commitment to reduce inequality and enable gender equality. Taken together, they are what we need.
As important, the SDGs are universal, targeted at all people, everywhere. They also include a strong commitment to not leave anybody behind. This implies placing the poor and vulnerable at the forefront of development and investment priorities, as demonstrated effectively in Latin America. Really smart city governance implies putting the citizen at the heart of the process of change, reforming and strengthening city and state government institutions and re-imagining local finances and decentralisation. The good news is that some prospective Indian smart cities are experimenting with these ideas. But, as multiple examples from high-income countries demonstrate, not all smart cities will be sustainable, unless they embrace the SDGs, including those on inequality, participatory governance and climate change.
What do we need to be cautious about?
First, the naive hope that greenfield and even brownfield smart city development in small pockets, could help spur city-wide or larger urban changes. There is little evidence of this from other parts of the world. The propensity of the Indian middle class to favour gated communities and developers to create commercial enclaves provides limited incentives to deliver city-wide innovation in most Indian cities.
Second, the current design of the smart cities mission leverages three sources of finance: property markets, public finances and implicit government guarantees. This is expected to stimulate depressed local real estate prices and thus help raise resources for development. This is a key driver of real estate and political interest in the mission, but has the potential to create local real estate bubbles, and accompanying regulatory and judicial difficulties.
How can we use the Digital India platform to connect the dots between smart cities and the SDGs?
Access to universal public services, using digital platforms and citizen awareness to improve infrastructure planning, management and services, leading to improved quality of urban life. Some headway is being made in a few cities. More buoyant informal and formal labour markets by better digital matching of skills with work opportunities, wages and social protection; leading to more opportunities for decent work and in time, lower poverty. Little progress has been made in this, especially in smaller cities and towns.
Enable sweeping digital reforms around land records and management that cut across rural, peri-urban and urban areas. This should lead to greater access to land, reduced speculation, increased tenure security and, hence, more affordable housing. Pilot action is underway but is fragmented and needs to be scaled up.
Universal coverage of JAM (Jan Dhan-Aadhaar-Mobile) and moving to digital cash, lowering transaction costs and greater productivity of informal and formal enterprises. This can be accelerated, but is still largely disconnected from smart city initiatives. Bringing together these forms of citizen-centric development; inclusive, responsive and smart institutions and digital infrastructure; strategic e-governance to deliver the SDGs is a win-win for most stakeholders.
The challenge in India is rarely in this promise, but in the smartness of the implementation.