Should Bangalore Aim to Become a Smart City?

Pedestrians and commuters negotiate their ways to work on wintry December morning in North Bangalore

There is growing recognition that cities, which house more than half the world’s population already, require increased policy and development attention. India’s policy response to the need for sustainable, resilient and low-carbon cities is the Smart Cities Mission. This article argues that Bengaluru requires a much broader and deeper vision than the one captured in the Mission agenda.

Urbanisation: a new SDG

UN-Habitat, in its 2011 Cities and Climate Change global report on human settlements, has recognised urbanisation as one of the biggest challenges facing humanity in the 21st century. India is experiencing rapid urbanisation (annual rate of 2.3%), according to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, in 2011, with urban population set to account for 50% of the country’s population by 2040, as stated by the Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India (MoUD), in 2011. Cities concentrate not only people but, also economic assets and generate, in the case of India, 40% of the country’s GDP.*

Globally, cities are considered engines of economic growth, with the potential to help address challenges of social and economic inequality. Cities are also considered sites where disaster and climate risks faced by people, their assets and city infrastructure are concentrated, note Pahwa Gajjar and her team**, in their working paper on climate adaptation and disaster risk reduction. 

Understandably, international efforts are converging to guide urban-isation, i.e. setting limits to growth, surmounting governance challenges and addressing social inequalities. 

Seventeen new global goals – sustainable development goals (SDGs), defined by 169 targets – have been formulated after a widely participatory consultation process hosted by the UN. For the first time, there is now an urban development goal to “make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable.”

The international context

Let us consider how this goal frames the developmental challenges faced by cities all over the world and the propositions it puts forth in the form of dedicated urban targets. The goal emphasises equitable access to affordable housing, basic services, transport and public spaces for all urban citizens. Dedicated targets within it focus on:

  • Integrated planning and management of cities where cultural and natural heritage is protected
  • Strengthening of links with national and regional development planning
  • Designing of urban buildings for resilience

Several environmental sustainability concerns are incorporated, including reduction in the ecological footprint of cities, inclusion and resource efficiency. Integrated policies that address climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as disaster risk management at all levels, are encouraged. Special focus is recommended for the needs of those in vulnerable situations, including women, children, persons with disabilities and older persons.

The Indian context

However, in this conception of the urban agenda and unavoidable rationalisation of a global goal into measurable targets, the need for building capacity in urban officials and for enhancing their agency in city matters have been left out. Especially in the Indian context, we find that numerous governance challenges exist whereby cities and urban local bodies lack the skills, resources and authority to achieve many of the goal’s targets.

Is the Prime Minister’s Smart Cities vision India’s response to the global challenge of climate change, poverty, inequality and unsustainable development? Or is it an answer to the national call for economic growth, employment creation, world-class cities, better living standards and municipal reform?

Let us consider the fiscal and implementation aspects of the Smart Cities Mission, as shared on a Web site of the MoUD. With an initial budget of Rs 7,000 crore in 2014, 100 satellite towns of larger cities were meant to be developed as smart cities. The initial allocation has been hiked by more than two and half times and several incentives have been provided to encourage foreign investment in the programme. The institutional mechanism for implementation is a special purpose vehicle (SPV) that would be run like a private company for the duration of implementation and have representation from all levels of government.

Numerous lacunae

The strategy document admits that there are many interpretations of “smart city” the world over and even in India and that their implementation and adoption will vary across states and local bodies. The MoUD’s illustrative 2015 list of what constitutes smart cities has a mixed bag of infrastructure and governance elements. The core elements cover adequate basic services, efficient urban mobility, affordable housing, robust IT connectivity, health and education. Sustainable environment, good governance, safety and security of women and children, and citizen participation have been thrown in for good measure. Smart solutions that sometimes overlap with these elements include egovernance for a score of basic services.

A long list of desirables

The gaping hole in the list is regarding how an SPV would enable these wide-ranging elements and solutions with participation and support from the affected communities. The questions that arise include the following:

  • Would citizens be engaged when designing smart city solutions?
  • Would participatory gover-nance go beyond issuing death / birth certificates in response to e-requests?
  • Would lakes and urban forestry be revived to provide critical ecosystem services alongside new infrastructure?
  • Would access to public spaces improve for the underprivileged?
  • Would the new smartness integrate with the history and heritage of many of India’s smaller cities?

The answers to these questions indicate that these lacunae are ostensibly not being filled:

  • The Ministry has adopted an area-based approach, which means that strategies such as retrofitting, redevelopment, greenfield applications and pan-city endeavours will be applied to pre-determined geographical areas specified by urban local bodies.
  • There is a complete lack of understanding of cities as deeply connected social and ecological systems that may not be conveniently divided into geographical areas.
  • There is no understanding of how city systems of food, water, energy and waste interact and overlap through resource flows and people movement. Cities’ resource and sink needs extend far into their surrounding regions, which is why a region-based approach is recommended when seeking sustainable solutions.
  • In each document and every articulation of the Mission, whether it is smart strategies or smart solutions, there is little evidence of which environmental or economic problems Indian cities need to address and what kind of future such strategies will take us towards.
  • Issues of social cohesiveness, community engagement and cultural identity find no mention.

The one challenge that is featured on the MoUD Web site, which smart cities apparently face and should address, is ways of involving smart people in the planning phase and garnering city leadership to ensure programme success. 

The road ahead for Bengaluru

Bengaluru is the fifth largest and one of the fastest growing metropolitan cities in India. The population of the city has grown by more than 40 percent during 2001-11. This has obvious implications for the ability of the city’s ecosystem to provide for the numerous resources required to support the exponential growth in the city’s population, which is not always accompanied by expansion in city services and infrastructure. Bengaluru faces an array of interlinked challenges such as air pollution, water scarcity, urban flooding, food insecurity, waste mismanagement and loss of urban natural capital. As the primary city of Karnataka, Bengaluru has followed a development pathway marked by disappearing and dying lakes, numerous gated communities and high levels of social and economic inequity. 

In pursuing smartness, will Bengaluru be able to address the challenges it has accumulated over 30 years of unsustainable urban growth? Will it instead be able to pursue smartness, if it were to adopt an integrated social-ecological frame? If yes, what does it require to become a sustainable, smart, socially and ecologically integrated city?

Needed: a nuanced approach

The Smart Cities Mission has a very narrow focus that does not address the risks that a city of the size and development trajectory of Bengaluru faces. The pursuit of smartness, as defined by the Mission, may help achieve better traffic management and extend IT services to under-serviced sections of society. However, the larger and more complex challenges of providing bulk infrastructure to service a rapidly expanding urban population, and the need to manage a morphing urban geography in the context of climate change, will require a more nuanced approach and much longer engagement with practitioners, city leaders and city managers. 

City development strategies need to be informed by a comprehension of cities as systems where citizens draw resources from their urban ecology via a network of natural and manufactured water, energy, and transport and communication infrastructure and are exposed to locational, disaster and climate risks. Bengaluru is better off channeling the intelligence of its citizens into community-led, locally embedded initiatives, in response to particular societal challenges.

*S. Anand, A. Arakali, A. Jana, J. Koduganti and N. Sami, “Manufacturing Cities: Industrial Policy and Urban Growth,” 2014, The Indian Institute for Human Settlements and the Rockefeller Foundation, Bengaluru

**Sumetee Pahwa Gajjar, Rohit Jigyasu and Garima Jain, UNDP-IIHS Joint Working Paper: Poverty and Vulnerability Reduction, Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Adaptation with a Human Development Focus, 2013, Indian Institute for Human Settlements, Bengaluru and the UNDP in India, New Delhi.

This article originally appeared on The Nature of Cities.

Dr. Sumetee Pahwa Gajjar


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