The Centre has failed to adopt an inclusionary and sustainable approach to development under its much publicized Smart Cities Mission which aims to create 100 `smart cities’ in the country by 2020, a study released by the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), India has said.
As the Mission completes two years this month, HLRN’s report titled `India’s Smart Cities Mission: Smart for Whom? Cities for Whom?’ presents a human rights and social justice analysis of the process and guidelines of the Mission as well as of the 60 selected Smart City proposals.
The study finds that the positive components of Smart City proposals lie largely within the ambit of formulating technological solutions, developing renewable energy sources, and building resilience of cities. The proposals, however, lack a comprehensive vision for the future that omits the needs and aspirations of cities and their inhabitants, especially the majority who live and work in cities.
``The entire notion of developing as ‘smart cities’ only 100 of India’s over 4,000 cities and towns appears to be discriminatory. The Mission promotes greater urbanization without addressing its structural causes such as the agrarian crisis, rural distress, failed land reform, and forced migration. Though the aim of promoting the development of small towns is noteworthy, the Mission does not seem to be the appropriate vehicle for achieving this objective,’’ the study points out
As 56 of the 60 shortlisted ‘smart cities’ are also included in the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), and since the allegedly richest municipality in the country—New Delhi Municipal Council—is also one of the ‘smart cities,’ the criteria for selection as well as the utility and benefits of the Mission are not clear, it says.
Pointing out that the Mission and the Smart City Proposals fail to adopt a human rights approach, including with regard to gender equality and non-discrimination, the study says that there is a disturbing silence on the specific needs and rights of women, children, and marginalized groups such as Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, minorities, migrants, domestic workers, and persons with disabilities. The lack of human rights standards and indicators to monitor implementation also raise questions about whether the Mission will be able to improve living conditions of all city residents, especially low income groups and other disadvantaged communities, the study says.
The composition of the Special Purpose Vehicle—the entity created under the Indian Companies Act to implement the Mission—and its potential to bypass elected governments and urban local bodies as well as its apparent lack of accountability, brings to light serious issues about the nature of governance being promoted, the study says.
The study further points out that despite raising the issue of housing for low income groups in their proposals, none of the selected cities have included operational plans on how targets will be met, neither have they incorporated housing standards to ensure the guarantee of the right to adequate housing. Instead, forced evictions and threats of eviction for ‘smart city’-related projects, already have been reported in Indore, Bhubaneswar, Delhi, and Kochi. Land acquisition for green field projects is also likely to result in loss of farmland and forests, and promote more displacement while threatening rural livelihoods and food security, the study says.
While the Mission places an overwhelming focus on digitalization and technology-driven ‘smart solutions,’ the study says it is important to note that technological innovations alone are not sufficient to solve the structural issues that plague urban India. Moreover, the creation of consolidated electronic databases of residents’ information could give rise to serious privacy concerns, identity theft, increased surveillance, data misuse, and security breaches.
Dependence on foreign investment and the corporate sector for financing the Mission is high. The consulting firm Deloitte has estimated a requisite investment of 150 billion US dollars (120 billion from the private sector) for the realization of SCM targets. In addition to concerns about corporate control of city development processes, it is apparent that the corporate sector, including large multinational companies, is likely to be the greatest beneficiary of the Mission, the study alleges.
Given the human rights issues and multiple challenges of the Smart Cities Mission, HLRN’s report has asked the government to incorporate a human rights and social justice approach in a; stages of Mission, while developing standards and human rights-based indicators to monitor its implementation and progress. Implementation of ‘smart city’ projects must not result in the violation of any human rights.
The government must undertake comprehensive human rights and environmental impact assessments before any ‘smart city’ project is sanctioned. Ensure the free, prior, and informed consent of all affected persons before any project is implemented, and also revise the structure and operational principles of the Special Purpose Vehicle to ensure that it works within the framework of democracy provided by the Constitution of India, the study has said.
Invest adequately in rural areas, and address issues of the acute agrarian crisis, land-grabbing, landlessness, internal displacement, and distress migration – through adequate budgetary and policy interventions, including through the Rurban Mission, and ensure comprehensive convergence of the Smart Cities Mission with other schemes, especially AMRUT, Housing for All–2022/Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, Swachh Bharat Mission, and Heritage City Augmentation and Development Yojana (HRIDAY – which also includes four of the selected ‘smart cities’) are some other recommendations made in the study.
Importantly, it has asked the government to develop an overarching human rights and environmental framework to monitor all schemes. Link implementation of all schemes, including of the Smart Cities Mission, with the Sustainable Development Agenda 2030 and the Paris Agreement, and ensure compliance with India’s international and national legal commitments.
Regulating the role and functioning of the corporate sector and ensuring that all private and foreign investment projects comply with human rights and environmental laws and standards is also an important recommendation.
Shivani Chaudhury, Executive Director, Housing and Land Rights Network says: “Our analysis of the Smart Cities Mission highlights the glaring absence of a human rights approach and the lack of emphasis on inclusion, social justice, and equitable development. The undemocratic powers conferred on the Special Purpose Vehicle and the momentous role assigned to the corporate sector reveal the rise of two alarming trends: the corporatization of Indian cities and privatization of governance. The premise of the ‘smart city’—as a relevant model for India—needs a fundamental re-evaluation, especially when profits seem to prevail over people and technology over human rights. This is all the more urgent given the increasing levels of exclusion, impoverishment, unemployment, hunger, homelessness, forced evictions, and displacement of the urban poor in our cities.”
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