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Mainstream, VOL LV No 11 New Delhi March 4, 2017

Smart City: A Failed Approach to Urban Regeneration for Indian Cities

Sunday 5 March 2017


by Pradeep Nair and Sandeep Sharma

City is not a new phenomenon. Civilisations like Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Indus Valley had a rich culture of urban life. However, not more than ten per cent of the population of these civilisations used to live in cities. (Modelski, 1997) Cities were dependent on villages to meet their everyday needs. They were geographically small and less populated as compared to the modern cities. Urban life was not much different in the cities of these civilisations than that of the cities of pre-industrialisation.

Industrialisation first happened in the 16th century in North-West Europe, specifically in Britain and Denmark. Later on it spread to other parts of Europe and America. By the 20th century it had spread its legs to the African and Asian continents in the form of colonisation. New modes of social and economic life became evident in all parts of the world and this marked the onset of the new age called ‘modernisation’.

Modernisation redefined urban life and urbanisation became a mandatory precondition to modernisation. The urban-rural relationship experienced a paradigm shift. The new socio-politico environment put villages at the back-stage. Village resources were drained out to support urban life. A dependency of rural upon urban was created. As a result urbanisation increased rapidly. At present there are such countries in the world where urbanisation has reached to more than 90 per cent. (Geoffrey, 2005) India has 31 per cent of her population living in urban areas with a growth rate of 2.3 per cent per year. (Mani, 2016)

In contrast, Lewis Mumford perceives urban development in a more human perspective by defining it as an integral component of human culture and personality. He consistently argued that the physical design of cities and their economic functions were secondary to their relationship to the natural environment and to the spiritual values of the human community. While arguing on ‘what is a city?’ Mumford laid out his fundamental propositions about city planning and the human potential, both individual and social, or urban life. He questioned: what shall be the size of a city and how much it shall grow? He opined that the city is like a theatre of social action and everything else—art, politics, education, commerce—only serves to make the ‘social drama’ more richly significant, as a stage-set, well-designed, intensifies and underlines the gestures of the actors and the action of the play (Mumford, 1937)

Thus the size, density and area of a city are important to effective social intercourse, and they are therefore the most important instru-ments of rational economic and civic planning. But unfortunately during urban planning, in most parts of the world, both geographical and physical limitations were not worked out properly with the assumption that all upward changes in magnitude were signs of progress and thus are good for business. This led modernisation as an approach (to development) less successful to bring about desirable socio-economic changes in the so-called Third World countries.

The Urban Slums

The Smart City Project has nothing special for the urban slums to offer. This project is exclusionary in the sense that it majorly focuses on the technological aspects of urban life. According to the Census of India 2011, about 17 per cent of Indian’s urban population (13.75 million) lives in slums. Since 2001, the slum population has registered a decadal growth of 37 per cent. These informal settlements are typically considered to be the bad pages of the good book of urban utopia, specifically incongruent with the idea of a smarty city. The current proposal document of the Smart City Project finds meagre mention of the urban slum. It scantly talks about the upgradation of the slum settlements and straightaway fails to explain how and when this upgradation will be carried out. (Chandrashekhar and Venkatesh, 2014) Morpho-logically speaking, for two reasons the slums have to be clustered out if the ‘smart areas’ have to be built, as promised in the policy documents. First, the Smart City Project has nothing extra to offer; and second, there have been several instances of the government’s failure in dealing with land allotment, rehabilitation and providing basic amenities to the slum dwellers. (Aranya and Vaidya, 2014) The Government of Indian’s policy interventions like the National Slum Development Programme (1997), Valmiki Ambedkar Awas Yojna (2001), some provisions of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, Rajiv Awas Yojana (2011) and the latest Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) have substantially failed to produce the desired results. In such a situation, the Smart City Project has also to be understood in the light of these flagship programmes.

The city slums are majorly inhabited by the migrated population. They leave their rural hinterland not out of will but because of neo-capitalistic compulsions. These neo-capitalistic compulsions are going to become more serious in the coming time, resulting in increased flux of people from the rural to urban and ultimately making cities more crowded which will put more stress on urban resources and pose challenges to the urban planner. (Plumb, Leverman and McGray, 2007) According to an estimate, the rural-urban migration accounts roughly for a 20 per cent increase in the urban population. But the question is: will the Smart City Project help us to deal with these challenges? Definitely not! The reason being the Smart City Project is not going to create new urban centres. It also is not going to rebuild the small towns which otherwise could have proved to be small check-posts to stop the migration toward big cities; hence the need to solve the problem. (Ranjan, 2014) We cannot stop slums from sprouting with this Smart City Project. This project seems to be a superficial panacea for a real malady. The requirement is to change our mindset toward slums. They are not an instance of deviant behaviour of the urban poor, but expression of a rational response to market realities. They are constructively contributing to the GDP of the city. Their right to shelter and right to basic amenities should be guaranteed constitutionally. The Government of India with other stake-holders at the State and regional levels should assure its implementation; only then can we hope to realise the dream of a slum-free India.



There is a slight difference between technological determinism and techno-utopianism. The first focuses on the machine’s capability to bring positive and negative changes in human life while the latter paints only a rosy picture of human life surrounded by technologies. The Smart City Project is a case of extreme optimism about technology solving all the problems faced by the urban masses. Arguing against this extreme optimism, Holland (2008) observed that ‘the authenticity of any city’s claim to be smart has to be based on something more than its use of information and communication technologies (ICTs)’. He makes this observation because cities all over the world are beginning to claim that they are “smart” as they employ ICTs in their day-to-day operations.

He termed this a blind faith on ICTs and suggested that to retain such a lofty title (‘smart’) cities will have to take much risk with technology, devolve power, tackle inequalities, redefine what they mean by ‘smart’ and empower their citizens so that they can become members of the society capable of engaging in debate about their own environment. The real Smart City might use ICTs to enhance a democratic debate about the kind of city it wants to be and what kind of city people want to live in. (Holland, 2008: 316) He was never in opposition to the use of ICTs; instead he advocated for their more inclusive use.

Techno-utopianism cannot serve the urban poor as promised; instead it will push them to the brink of digital exclusion and social, political and economic marginalisation. The reasons for this could be that the urban slums and poor habitats may hardly get the ‘smart’ cover at first and secondly the majority of technologies (employed in the smart city) will be out of reach of the urban poor or may have no meaning for them at all. For example, ‘Internet of things’ is an important ingredient of the Smart City Project in which the gadgets around us communicate to each other through the internet to help us do our everyday chores. Mobile phones, refrigerators, ACs, televisions, motor vehicles, cooking stoves and other household things will be internet-enabled and connected to each other to facilitate our daily life. For better illustration, take the case of how the smart electricity metre will work. The smart electricity metre (internet-enabled) will auto-matically generate an electricity bill and send it to the consumer’s e-mail address with a link to ‘pay here’. The smart electricity metre will be connected to a server and the consumer can check his/her electricity usage online by logging into his/her account. It means that lots of physical infrastructure has to go if this technology is to be opted. But a million dollar question is: how is this technology going to make sense to the urban poor and what strategy is the government going to employ to bring these people into the bracket of digital inclusion?

With all the previously mentioned reasons, the Smart City Project in India will be a failed approach to urban regeneration additionally because the present Smart City Project is mostly based on a top-down approach of making cities smart by ignoring the local needs, requirements and knowledge. In the process of modernising cities, policy-makers and development-planners are literally reliving the dominant paradigm of development. Local participation in making the city dwellers city-smart is an issue scarcely thought over. Since every city has specific developmental needs, a unique culture and different socio-political conditions, there cannot be a centralised model of urban development. It should be very specific and informed by the local conditions and indigenous knowledge, and should provide opportunity for everyone to be a part of the social process of participation and negotiation.

Lack of this will take the project to the same fate as the modernisation endeavour met in the developing world. The cities which the govern-ment aspires to make smart may not be able to sustain the smartness for long and will only contribute to a growing polarisation of the urban life.


Aranya, R. and Vaidya, C. (2014), ‘Is India Ready to plan a smart urban future?’, Yojana,58: 57-60, New Delhi: Publications Division.

Chandrashekhar, S. and Venkatesh, N. (2014), ‘Planning for smart cities: Where to start?’, Yojana, 58: 10-12, New Delhi: Publications Division.

Gilbert, G. (2005), World Population: A Reference Handbook (2nd Ed.), California: ABC-CLIO.

Holland, R. (2008), ‘Will the Real Smart City Stand Up? Creative, Progressive, or Just Entrepreneurial?’, City, 12 (3): 302—320.

Mani, N. (2016), Smart Cities and Urban Development in India, New Delhi: New Century Publication.

Modelski, G. (1997), Cities of the Ancient World: An Inventory (3500-1200), Washington: University of Washington.

Mumford, L. (1937), What is a City? Architectural Record.

Plumb, D., Leverman, A. and McGray, R. (2007), “The learning city in a ‘planet of slums’”, Studies in Continuing Education, 29 (1): 37-50. DOI:10.1080/01580370601146296

Ranjan, R. (2014), ‘Inclusive Growth Through Efficient Urban Planning’, Yojana, 58: 40-42, New Delhi: Publications Division.

Pradeep Nair, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor and Dean, School of Journalism, Mass Communication and New Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. 

Sandeep Sharma is presently doing his Ph.D from the Department of Mass Communication and Electronic Media, Central University of Himachal Pradesh, Dharamshala. Before shifting to academics, he worked with Dainik Bhaskar, the Hindi daily, as a Sub-Editor.

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