The un-smart city


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Citizens: ‘True. The people are the city.

– William Shakespeare, Coriolanus, Act 3, Scene 1.

THERE is a rich city in our country that turns one of our major rivers into a sewage canal, but uses less than two-thirds of the sewerage treatment capacity it has installed.1 It sucks in water from distant hills, but still cannot provide water to even its planned settlements which, in any case, are home to less than one-fourth of its population.2 More is spent on connecting this city than on the national highway network that connects the five other major cities of the country – yet, the city cannot find depot space for its public bus service. While Mumbai spent its Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) money largely on water and sanitation, this city used it to build flyovers.

This city can demolish inhabited dwellings ‘illegally occupying’ land, but its car owners can prevent vehicles that occupy land in a similarly illegal manner – indeed, even more land than the dwellings in question – from being towed away.3 It can afford not to worry about economic activity, and relocate not just people, but also industries to the periphery. Not surprisingly, over 2001 to 2011, population growth fell dramatically from over 4% per year to below 2% annually, but growth in the neighbouring districts rose as noticeably.

It is this city that serves as an aspiration for many Indians and other cities. Flyovers proliferate and other large cities, especially state capitals, taking cue, have been laying claim to their own metro rail systems, each kilometre of which could fund a thousand buses. This city has cunningly exploited its position as the national capital to appropriate a disproportionate share of national resources. But, do we want all our cities to be like Delhi? Is this a smart thing to do?


The discourse on smart cities revolves around information and communication technology (ICT), but a computer is seen as fundamentally un-smart, since it can only do what someone else has programmed it to do. To be judged as smart, a basic prerequisite is the ability to decide and act independently; to have, what philosophers call ‘agency’. Smartness requires the people in a city – the citizens – to first, be able to establish institutions to choose among alternatives, and second, to pick a path towards a goal of their choice. If a city is able to proceed on such a path, it should be considered smart, else not.

Cities in India have very limited freedom of action. They do not have agency and can decide precious little for themselves. No city can shape the use of the land on which it is built; that right is kept by the state or the Union government for itself. They are also responsible for the cities’ security. The other aspect of smartness is the ability to move towards a goal. But what are the goals of a city? I would argue that it is to provide sustainable economic progress, social emancipation and political participation.

It is hard to contend that our cities have done so in full measure, or even substantially. Where there is economic progress, it has rarely been sustainable. This sinks in, perhaps most starkly, as one travels from Vatva, near Ahmedabad to Vapi, beyond Surat, where economic growth goes hand in hand with environmental degradation of even a resource as basic as groundwater, one that is almost impossible to remediate.

If one judges by the protests in our cities against discrimination by caste, gender, and now sexual orientation, one can argue that a modicum of social emancipation has been achieved – more perhaps than in our villages, but there is still a long road to travel. Segregation of housing by religion appears common, but does not seem to arouse much ire.

It is in political participation, however, that cities seem to be falling behind. There are many politicians, but little politics in terms of debates over choices – in part, as noted earlier, because cities do not choose. Apart from examples like the Shiv Sena and now the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), there are few parties that have a distinctively urban flavour.

In this situation, can we decide whether a city is smart?


Along with this lack of agency, until the JNNURM came along, resources for cities were very limited. Nevertheless, even with these constraints, though they look rather unkempt, positively a-swachh, Indian cities have, arguably, done rather well. If the government’s concept note on smart cities (more on that below) is to be believed, the urban share of GDP in India rose from 37.7% in 1970-71 to 63% in 2009-10, reflecting a relatively strong economic environment.4 How do they do this?

Primarily by ‘outsourcing’. They ‘outsource’ public transport services to paratransit operators. Few cities in India before JNNURM had a public bus service (even now, not too many do). But, people still need to get around. This essential service is provided by paratransit operators, largely by some form of three-wheel transport, and now, small eight-seater buses. Fares are customary, rather than regulated and service frequency is decided by forces of supply and demand.


A significant share of education and health is also ‘outsourced’ to the private sector, which provides services at various price (and hopefully, quality) combinations – from your one-teacher ‘English-medium’ private school5 and friendly neighbourhood ‘Bangali daktar’ to air-conditioned schools offering an International Baccalaureate programme and super-speciality hospitals.

Land use planning, de facto, is left to private and occasionally public developers, and perhaps, as a consequence, affordable housing is available mostly in informal settlements. These are not slums, just areas built without proper documentation, such as the unauthorized colonies of Delhi.6 Employment generation is ‘outsourced’ to the informal sector;7 if necessary as in Delhi, by uprooting formal industry from its location. Finally, households are ‘encouraged’ to make their own arrangements for water supply and sanitation, e.g., through household storage, individual wells or pumps and septic tanks.8

Are these outsourced cities not smart, for being able to do so much with so little and for crowding in so much private initiative?


Certainly not, going by the Government of India’s concept note that quotes the finance minister stating that ‘the pace of migration from the rural areas to the cities is increasing [and unless] …new cities are developed to accommodate the burgeoning number of people, the existing cities would soon become unliveable’ (p. 2).

This claim is not supported by either the Census or the National Sample Survey. Of the 90 million new urban people between 2001 and 2011, only about 20 million were migrants from rural areas. Of the rest, about 40 million were born in existing urban areas, while the remaining 30 million became urban because of a change in their occupations, their settlements were reclassified from villages to census towns. Till this time, such morphing of places has had a larger role in India’s urbanization than the movement of people. This concept paper, based on the notion of teeming hordes at a city’s gates, is thus born in fallacy.

Against this backdrop, the note says: ‘The prime minister has a vision of developing "one hundred smart cities", as satellite towns of larger cities and by modernizing the existing mid-sized cities’ (p. 2). ‘Institutional infrastructure (including governance), physical infrastructure, social infrastructure and economic infrastructure constitute the four pillars’ (p. 5) which support smart cities, if they are to sustainably deliver employment and quality of life.

The institutional infrastructure (including governance) includes ‘participatory systems of governance, e-governance, inclusive governance, the sense of safety and security and the opportunities for creativity’ (p. 6). Elsewhere, it states that ‘current governance structures do not focus on citizen participation. People do not get the feel of ownership of city (sic)’ (p. 7). Finally, as a key principle of the reference framework, the concept note enunciates the need for ‘strong political and administrative leaders’ (p. 43). Despite this celebration of participation, the note is silent on a democratic representative local government. Indeed, the word ‘mayor’ does not once appear in the note.

One could say that this needs no emphasis in a country like India, but oddly, unlike at the Union and state level, representative government cannot be taken for granted at the local level. It is only in 1992 that the 74th amendment gave local governments a constitutional existence. Since then, not only has municipal government been denied by not granting settlements statutory urban status, the Union has on occasion encouraged states to take recourse to the proviso to Article 243Q, which allows industrial townships to not have a municipal government. In Gujarat, for example, special economic zones (SEZ) are administered by a triumvirate comprising one representative each from the Union and state governments, and one from the private developer of the SEZ.


Physical infrastructure such as the ‘urban mobility system, the housing stock, the energy system, the water supply system, sewerage system, sanitation facilities, solid waste management system, drainage system, etc. which are all integrated through the use of technology’ (p. 6, emphasis added) is the major focus of the note. To reinforce this, it lays out detailed service-level benchmarks and planning norms for twelve such services (Annex 3, p. 33-35). Indeed, it would appear that the GoI visualizes smart cities mostly as a set of physical characteristics.

The choice of these characteristics can also be indiscriminate. An emphasis on ‘walk-ability and cycling in the city [giving] the pedestrian a place of prominence’ coexists with ‘removing bottlenecks of road/rail networks… and wherever required, underpasses, elevated roads, additional rail networks’ (p. 8). Curiously, while ‘improvements in public transport’ refer to ‘metro rail, BRT, LRT, monorail, trams etc.’ (p. 8), a dependable and simple bus network is conspicuously absent.


Social infrastructure, which includes ‘those components that work towards developing the human and social capital, such as the educational, healthcare, entertainment, etc.’ (p. 6), is also not spared this obsession with physicality. Along with open spaces and parks [and] ‘structures that proactively bring disadvantaged sections – SCs, STs, socially and financially backwards, minorities, disabled and women into the mainstream of development’ (p. 6), ‘e-education and digital content [and] … telemedicine in every neighbourhood’ (p. 12), there is also ‘the need of the hour… to develop a medi-city in every smart city …of 50-100 acres’ (p. 12).

Economic infrastructure, as per the note, has to be preceded by identifying ‘its core competence, comparative advantages and analyzing its potential for generating economic activities’ (p. 6). Immediately after this, however, physicality returns. The ‘gaps in required economic infrastructure… would generally comprise the following: industrial parks and export processing zones/IT/BT parks/trade centres/service centres/skill development centres/financial centres and services/logistics hubs, warehousing and freight terminals/mentoring and counselling services’ (p. 6). It is as if such interventions by themselves can lead to job creation, regardless of other aspects of the city.


The GoI’s concept note seems to be the product of marrying an aspiration for the physical form and infrastructure of cities in developed countries, with the wider discourse on the use of technology and big data in city governance. In an ‘un-smart city’, the government acts without information, often based on preconceptions. In many cities today, information technology is being used to generate such information. Some of these rely on centralized control, e.g., Rio de Janerio’s Intelligent Operations Centre, based on extensive use of automatic data collection, the internet of things (IoT). This seems to be the approach of the GoI. But, even this kind of ‘data-analytics smartness’ can be decentralized by crowdsourcing information, by combining citizens’ devices and allowing them to respond, by exercising agency.

The difference between the two is illustrated by During heavy rains, in many cities, including New York, where storm water and sewage systems are common, the overflow outfall is a mixture of sewerage and water. If people knew when this is happening and either reduced their use of toilets or did not flush, less sewerage would flow into rivers. uses micro-controllers at outfalls to signal devices in people’s bathrooms when this is happening. If enough people use it, the need to build new separate storm water and sewerage systems would reduce. Instead of ‘remote monitoring and management… IoT could become a platform for local citizen micro-control of the physical world.’9

This approach is more city dependent, attuned to the goals of the city. The ways of meeting these goals will differ from one city to another. India is a naturally bottom-up society. Instead of using technology to centralize, if one uses it to democratise, things can happen.

Even a city like Delhi, given a little space, can think of crowdsourcing and connecting. The Pooch-O app, developed by DIMTS (a joint venture of the Delhi government and a private infrastructure financing firm), lever-ages the fact that autorickshaws have GPS devices and each vehicle is linked to a driver and his cellphone. Using this, it is possible to let users know which autorickshaws are nearby to let the users decide whom to call. The same DIMTS also monitors Delhi Jal Board (DJB)’s GPS equipped water tankers that supply water to informal settlements. A Pooch-O like app for these tankers? It can’t be far away.


Another app uses the same autorickshaw GPS and also GPS devices on buses (yes, they exist!) to estimate congestion on major road segments, using the vehicles’ travel speeds. It also allows users to send in geo-referenced data about the speed of the traffic they are in. Similarly, when is the next bus going to arrive? Will it have seats, standing room only, or be chock-full of passengers? There can be automatic data gatherers, e.g., ticket machines, but these systems work best when people themselves choose to become sensors, to contribute information for the common good.

People’s grievances and requests are a prime source for gathering information about what is not working in a city. Cities like Rajkot in India have tried to bootstrap their own variety of New York’s one-stop 311 number. Building on local talent, they have created both push applications, which alert people to vaccinate their children and register births (and deaths), and pull applications that let people report on service failures, such as overflowing drains or nonfunctional streetlights. But, given the absence of concomitant process re-engineering, such initiatives go only so far in improving services.


Many of these examples use data analytics and smart cities have become synonymous with big data. But, data and its analysis is just one part, even of service delivery. Response to the information generated by data analysis requires governance, process redesign and political will. Service level agreements (SLAs) with a private service delivery provider are poor substitutes. Contracts, like computers, are essentially dumb, a feature of their preprogrammed nature. A governance system where all ‘project[s] first will be offered to the private sector (PPP etc.) for implementation and O&M (operations and maintenance)’ (p. 23) is unlikely to lead to a governance environment that can leverage the lessons from data analytics substantively.

Besides, there are a number of experiences that cities provide which are outside the data analytics narrative. True, ICT makes it possible to share experiences, both positive and negative. Apps like ‘Four square’ are a force multiplier for old fashioned word of mouth, but the generation of those experiences requires a spontaneity that is not generated in controlled environments. Nor do all solutions have to rely on ICT. Kolkata’s autorickshaw network is an example of self-organizing systems (assisted by a little help from organized labour). Autorickshaws in Kolkata run as a shared point-to-point service, identified by routes, which combine to become a city-wide public transport system that is all-seating high-occupancy and high-frequency, all at a cost only slightly higher than bus fares. Yet, it operates in a regulatory penumbra and, in many other cities, shared use of taxis and autorickshaws is prohibited.

There are many other smart things that cities do. Delhi has a tradition of free concerts in its parks. Vienna, has its stehplatz, standing tickets for opera performances at one-thirtieth (or less) the price of regular seats, which makes ‘high culture’ accessible to all. The essence of these initiatives is the creation of a ‘public space’, and not just in the virtual world. Eventually, cities are about people, and their attraction and indeed, economic productivity, flows from the potential to generate unstructured interactions, agglomeration benefits, as it were. The essence of smart cities is not just to provide better services, but to facilitate this social interaction, to make living interesting for its citizens.

Smartness in a city is not a set of projects, a long list of which can be found in the concept note. Instead, it is a set of community attributes that can only be experienced by living in it. A smart city is one that people want and like to live in. It is this ‘buzz’, the je ne sais quoi, a relatively indefinable quality that makes cities successful, economically and socially. Yes, there is only so much that buzz can compensate for traffic jams and lack of water, sanitation electricity, etc., and these aspects do need work, but fixing these can also only go so far.


The current minister for urban development and housing and urban poverty alleviation (not elimination yet) is fond of stating publicly that Members of Parliament are now requesting him for smart cities. It is much like manna from heaven, like asking for a flyover or a Metro, a 24x7 water supply project, hospitals, public Wi-Fi, TOD (transit oriented development) zones, among others, never mind whether they actually are of help to the citizen.

This kind of thinking is flawed. China has many Ordos-like ghost towns, unoccupied buildings with all this infrastructure but only one Shanghai so far. One should perhaps accept with good grace that symbols will dominate in a culture that accords great respect to symbolism. Even so, one wishes not to be overcome by a sense of déjà vu, of watching a rerun of Satyajit Ray’s Jalsaghar – a zamindar spending what is left of his wealth to stage a final dance performance, an act of false pride.


True thinking about smart cities would focus instead on city governance, on giving citizens agency and resources. Cities need to be able to decide and act for themselves – make their own mistakes, celebrate their own successes. For this, they need to have their own financial resources, i.e., a buoyant tax base, like a share of the goods and services tax (GST) and human resources, the ability to hire and, if necessary, fire their own staff, without being bound by a state cadre.

Instead, the vision about smart cities in the world’s largest democracy seems to be about avoiding the messiness of political representation and a belief, naïve or motivated, that smart cities are about symbols; about pipes and wires, glass and steel, and apps and Wi-Fi, providing packaged solutions to perceived problems, rather than about enabling the power of citizens to find the financial and intellectual resources to address the problems they perceive. That, given what we have learnt from cities around the world, is not just sad, but also very un-smart.



1. On a typical day, 28 November 2014, the Delhi Jal Board treated 389.8 million gallons of water, when its treatment capacity is 603 MGD (million gallons per day)

2. Government of the National Capital Territory of Delhi (GNCTD), Economic Survey of Delhi 2007-2008, p. 178

3. According to the Department of Transport, GNCTD, there were 2,516,200 registered cars in Delhi as of June 2014. The Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB) currently estimates that 672 JJ clusters (with 3,04,188 jhuggis) in Delhi occupy 8.86 million sq metres. If each car occupies 10 sq metres, it implies that if only a bit over a third of the cars were parked illegally, the land occupied by them would exceed the land occupied by all the JJ clusters of Delhi.

4. AND_LATEST_.pdf (accessed 9 December 2014).

5. An outcome that the recently legislated Right to Education (RTE) Act is trying to grapple with.

6. See, Shahana Sheikh and Subhadra Banda, The Thin Line Between Legitimate and Illegal: Regularising Unauthorised Colonies in Delhi. A report of the Cities of Delhi project, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, April 2014. http://citiesofdelhi. cprindia. org/wp-content/uploads/2014/12/Regularising-Unauthorised-Colonies-in-Delhi.pdf

7. In the 2009-10 NSS survey of employment, only one-fourth of urban employment was not in the informal or proprietary sector, and a little less than this share had access to benefits.

8. As of the 2011 Census, less than half the urban households in the country had treated tap water supply within the premises and less than a third were connected to a piped sewer system.

9. Anthony M. Townsend, Smart Cities. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2014, p. 140. Here, the GoI concept note states: ‘Many times storm water drains are connected to sewerage network which makes sewerage system ineffective. This needs to be checked meticulously’ (p. 11, emphasis added).