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Smart City: Modi govt lacks clarity, is yet to work out basic conceptual framework, says top expert

By Our Representative
One of India's topmost urban experts, Dr Isher Judge Ahluwalia, has taken strong exception to the Government of India's decision to go ahead with building 100 smart cities, as separate greenfield entities, as isolated islands away the existing towns and cities, without any notion about what they should look like. Ahluwalia, who was closely associated with the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), one of previous UPA government's flagship programmes, and continues to advise the Narendra Modi government on urban issues, insisted that there is lack of clarity on the concept of smart city in the Government of India.
Delivering the Pravin Visaria Memorial Lecture, organised by the Gujarat Institute of Development Research (GIDR), Ahmedabad, at the Ahmedabad Management Association, Ahluwalia said, “I have been asking India's urban development officials to provide at least one document which tells us what a smart city in their view should look like. However, they do not have any.” She added, “They have assured me that the document would be ready soon.”
Ahluwalia is currently member of the recently constituted Urban Institute of India which has been set up by the Government of India. Associated with the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and is considered by scholars as a strong advocate of the neo-liberal school, she wanted the existing urban towns and cities to inclusively acquire a "smart" character by providing them with a e-technology space, urban market reforms, capacity building, and enabling a decentralised financial mechanism to the urban local bodies.
Answering a question what she thought of two of Modi's dream projects being sold as possible early bird smart cities – the Gujarat International Finance Tec-city (GIFT) and Dholera Special Investment Region (SIR), in Ahmedabad and Gandhinagar districts, respectively -- Ahluwalia appeared sarcastic. She said, they sounded nice. It was always good to dream big. However, her concept of a smart city was very different – they must satisfy the aspirations of responsive citizens of the existing urban areas in an inclusive way. She hoped best luck to GIFT and Dholera City.
One of the senior-most economists, Ahluwalia, who is also wife of former Planning Commission vice-chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, said, the best definition of smart city she ever got was from the deputy Prime Minister of Singapore. The Singaporean dignitary told her that a smart city should be able to articulate the needs of its citizens, who should be fully involved in its development and provision of basic facilities like roads, water, sanitation, transport, and so on.
Wanting Indian cities not depend on the whims of the political class, who want tax cuts ahead of a poll, she disagreed with those who insist on public-private partnership as the way to reform . According to her, in such a scenario, the corporate bodies would be interested in eliciting returns for their investment, and the urban bodies would have to act according their wishes. However, there was lack of political will to do it.
Pointing towards how the political class is not interested in catering to the needs of urbanization, Ahluwalia said, the number of Census towns in 2001 were 1,362, and they have increased to 3,894 now, a quantum leap. A Census town is big village which has acquired urban characteristics -- its population exceeds 5,000, has at least 75% of male working population is employed outside of the agriculture, and a minimum population density of 400 persons per km.
Disagreeing with those who still believe in the dictum that “India lives in villages” and economic development depended on the development of villages, Ahluwalia said, the world had changed considerably ever since Mahatma Gandhi pointed this out. If India were to grow at a faster pace of development, which is the requirement of the economy, its economy should be urban-based, and not agriculture-based.
Giving the example of Punjab, which depended its development model on agriculture, Ahluwalia said, its per capita income has slipped behind several other states which have developed industrially. Once Punjab had the highest per capita income, but currently it had the sixth position. “An agriculture-based economy can grow at the most at 4 or 4.5 per cent rate of growth, while we want the Indian economy to grow by at least eight per cent”, she said.
Pointing out that urban India, accounted for two-thirds of the total GDP of India, Ahluwalia -- who currently heads Delhi-based think-tank Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, she said, despite this, even today just 31 per cent people lived in urban areas, which was much lower than many third world countries in the world, including China, Indonesia and Brazil. 


This has reference to your news item published in the Counterview, covering the Pravin Visaria Memorial Public Lecture being delivered by Isher Judge Ahluwalia on the 11th Feb.
I continue to be a serious follower of Prof. I.J. Ahluwalia's academic and other writings ever since my college days (mid 1980s) and have my strong reservations against some of the points you have made in the news item. You seem to have misquoted Prof. Isher Ahluwalia and I feel that she wasn't "sarcastic" (the way you observed) when she took on the question on the 'smart cities' (GIFT city and the Dholera SIR).
Keshab Das said…
This has reference to the report at (Smart City: Modi government lacks clarity, is yet to work out basic conceptual framework, says top expert) on Professor Isher Judge Ahluwalia's informed and erudite Pravin Visaria Memorial Public Lecture at the AMA in the evening of February 11. As we read your write-up, it is clear that you've grossly misrepresented the substance and arguments of her talk which were not only rich in analysis and ideas but were presented in a lucid manner.
Dr.K.M.Joshi Professor of Economics of Education Department of Economics Maharaja Krishnakumarsinhji Bhavnagar University said…
I read the counterview column of 12th February about the lecture
of Dr. Ahluwalia. I was surprised to go through the content discourse
of the article which deviated on many counts from the presentation
made by her. Her opinions on couple of issues have been misinterpreted
and presented in the article in a indistinct manner. I would
appreciate if reports/columns of such academic events are put in the
original state so people comprehend the facts.
Lalitha Narayanan said…
This has reference to the report at commenting on Dr. Isher Judge Ahluwalia's lecture Urbanisation in India: Opportunities and Challenges. This report seems to have been written in a hurry without verifying the facts, a concern shared by myself, my colleagues at GIDR and others who attended the lecture. Dr. Ahluwalia spent more than half an hour at AMA after the lecture, interacting with students and others. You could have talked to her in detail before commenting on her responses and terming at as 'sarcastic'. We really did not expect a senior journalist like you to write in an irresponsible manner. As part of the organising team which arranged this lecture, I urge you to withdraw this article.
Aparna said…
This is regarding the article published in Counter view, "Smart City: Modi government lacks clarity, is yet to work out basic conceptual framework, says top expert" on 12th February, 2015. There appears to be a bias in the way your correspondent has interpreted the speaker Dr. Isher Judge Ahluwalia's take on ‘smart cities’. In my perception, she did not take an exception to the concept but only highlighted that it is still under the process of being formulated as a detailed policy. She emphasized upon the need of participatory processes in urbanization and enabling citizens to fulfil their needs and aspirations, which was brought out through the example of Singaporean Prime Minister’s definition of smart city. Further, according to my observation, even on Dholera SIR and GIFT city, she was not sarcastic as you mentioned. In fact, one significant feature of her lecture was that based on her long experience through different governmental regimes she straight away came to describing the gaps identified in the urban development processes such as: requirement of urban administrative reforms for utilization of urban development funds; a common trend of sabotaging local institutional capacities by political interests; Census Towns facing an uncertain and abysmal path of urban growth and; ‘toothless’ local governments even after the 1992 constitutional amendment. I feel that your article gives a political colour to her reflections. In fact, while earlier sounding quite satisfied with progress made by some cities across India; when countered by the audience, Dr. Ahluwalia also readily accepted to look into the matter.
Considering that your portal has a wide readership, it is expected that you would maintain a rational stand and remain unbiased in your perceptions and expressions.
Harshvardhan said…
Lecture by Dr Isher Judge Ahluwalia was very enlightening to me as a student of urban planning but what surprises me is the heading of this article, is it like unless a headline has the word modi in it - it doesn't grab the audience and after the defeat of BJP in Delhi Election for sure something anti modi goverment grabs even more audience but this doesn't mean we turn round the facts which were stated by Miss Ahluwalia during the lecture.

Firstly, regarding the heading - I strongly disagree which what it conveys, about the smart city initiative, she expressed the importance of our definition of smart city - appreciating the definition of the deputy prime minister of Singapore - she expressed her interest to know what does the government defines it as. Quoting the response from the ministry about the definition she said - they have told me that the booklet regarding smart cities will be out soon which will have the required information. No where did she mention the lack of clarity of government.

Secondly - when a question was posed to her by audience regarding her opinion on Dholera and Gift city, she replied by saying, anything which we achieve beyond the minimum standards is always good and wished best for those projects.

Thirdly - As the first para states that "she took a strong exception to the Government of India's decision to go ahead with building 100 smart cities as separate greenfield entities, as isolated islands away the existing towns and cities" - This is also not true. Answering the question regarding retrofitting the exiting cities as smart cities - she said retrofitting existing is a huge challenge, where a combination of both can move forward.

I am sure the reporter can do the following corrections and make sure that just the facts which are stated are reported and not what his perceptions are or what he wishes to hear from a person. I am sure so many students like me who follow Dr Ahluwalia wont desire such a twisted reporting from media.
Anonymous said…

In reference to the article published at, dated Feb 12 covering Pravin Visarias's memorial lecture delivered by Dr. Isher Judge Ahluwalia. I think what has been reported in the article is deviating from what was actually conveyed. Firstly the heading itself shows a misinterpretation by the reporter as the entire lecture was devoid of any reservation against smart cities. I wonder how her response to a question on GIFT city and Dholera SIR is taken as sarcastic .She rather wished best for these projects and said that anything above the minimum standards is always better.The report has been articulated in a manner which doesn't gives a correct description of the event.
Unknown said…
Was there a swearing in to misi interpret here before it was decided to write on the talk?
To start with there isn's any proposal to create a 100 greenfield cities and so neither was a mention of so in the talk. Moreover she emphasized on the need to realize the proper character and definition of the smart cities for India on an account of its diverse character soico economic and demographic character.

The Low GDP levels of Punjab and Haryana were talked of to support the fact that an agrarian economy can never provide with very high returns. For obtaining higher growht rates industrialization and a higer share of manufacturing jobs are essential and what that would need is skilled labour and so she touched upon the large chuck of working population and the future projections of so and the smart cities as the absorbents.

Talking of the illegalities and loopholes, yes theres no disagreement here that its been all across and thriving irrespective of the ruling party and has been the barrier to succesful implementation of development projects and for obtaining undeserved gains and theres an absolute need to curb it.

And sarcastic! No there was hardly any sarcams involved and yes we all need to get a little more optimistic at this point and get over the preconcieved notion and smart cities are meant for the corporate classes and ruin the marginalised ones. All it needs to take care of the "INCLUSIVE" part in the upcoming policy document.

Dr. Ahluwalia is a respected person, both as a professional and as a person. She beautifully handled the questiones raised and evoked the crowd beautifully. A mis interpreted negative version of her talk makes no sense at all.
Kirtida Oza said…
I have gone through your article based on the talk given by Dr.Ahluwalia on urbanisation.I found the lecture a very lucid overview of both the opportunities and challenges of urban development in India.In my opinion,she was not at all sarcastic about the GIFT city or Dholera SIR . On smart cities,i think she shared that it was good to see the emphasis on urban development but it was a work in progress.The lecture was reflective,sharing her journey as a scholar on urbanisation,and she took pains to emphasize that there are many models within india and that much of her learning came from the many government officers who practiced urban governance and management.
Neeru Bansal said…
I was one of the audience at her lecture and found her views on urbanisation and the kind of actions needed to improve the infrastructure in urban areas in India to be quite balanced and fair. A lot of students and young professionals were present and she handled the complex topic in a simple and interesting way. The kind of title given here only sensationalises the whole thing. I don’t think she was sarcastic while answering the question on smart cities - GIFT city and Dholera in Gujarat. She had presented her views on ‘Smart Cities’ and quoted Dy PM of Singapore on what it means in their country and mentioned her discussions with government officials in Delhi about the evolving details on smart cities in India. Based on her experience, she discussed the kind of actions needed to improve infrastructure in existing urban areas. She also quoted some of the good examples she had come across while working in this sector. Infact, she was very graceful in presenting her views on all the questions posed to her after the lecture. I would request the reporter not to misrepresent and sensationalise such academic events. A more responsible approach on reporting would be appreciated.
Tara Nair said…
I share the concern expressed by my colleague about the report that appeared in your web journal. The report grossly misinterprets an otherwise eclectic and extremely neutral analysis presented by Dr. Ahluwalia. I am not sure whether you have done enough research on her previous work and ideological positions. Bluntly branding an intellectual as a champion of neo-liberalism and reading into her responses ‘sarcasm’ is definitely not appropriate. It surely is a matter of your correspondent’s interpretation of what she said. I don’t have to remind you of journalistic values as you are an established professional of repute and long experience. I think the least you could do is to withdraw the write up and replace it with an objective one.
I am sure you would appreciate our anguish and act fast on this.
Jag Jiavan said…
I chanced upon reading this Counterview writeup, and and also read up the comments. First about the writeup. It suggests two things. One, that the Government of India STILL does not have any concept of a smart city. And second, the urban expert believes that smart cities should be developed from within, and not as "isolated islands".
As a participant at the public lecture, I can say this very clearly: That the expert stated in clearcut terms that GoI does not have any notion of a smart city though it is in power for the last so many months. Let them prepare a concept. Does anyone one have any? No!!! Its all in Venkaiah Naidu's head!!!!
As for the second point, I think, the expert was totally confused and did not know what to say. She did not know whether to support the idea of having Greenfield cities like Dholera or GIFT City. Even while quoting the deputy PM of Singapore, she did not enunciate her views with clarity.
In fact, it seems the writer of this article did not highlight how confused Dr Ahluwalia was. I would say, she wanted to oppose the idea of green field cities, but refused to do it in so many words because she must now support the Modi government! The Counterview news item should have highlighted such green field cities have never succeeded. As and when they happen, they only mean indiscriminate land acquisition and turn people into paupers. The proposed Andhra capital will be one such green field project, and see the havoc it has created.
As for the comments, they seem to be orchestrated by someone from the organization which organized the lecture, so they are not serious. In fact, the authors of the comments seem to be more confused than expert herself.
Neeru Bansal said…
Mr Jag Jivan
This is in response to your comment that the above comments on the news item are orchestrated. Did you make a check on people and could you find that they could be influenced to write something if they don’t believe in it. Looks like that you wish your comments to be taken seriously and don’t want to respect others’ views. The main lecture by Dr Ahluwalia was focussed on how to improve infrastructure in existing urban areas and how to strengthen local bodies and she did full justice to it.
Jag Jivan said…
Ha! So you want to minus out of orchestrated comments list? Vow! Most of the comments come from one source only. You know the source. Why bluff? Of course they are orchestrated! When others point towards your issues, it becomes not wanting to "respect others' views"... Is that so? Does it mean that when you were commenting on this article you were not "respecting" what the writer of this article said?
By the way, I also commented on this article. I think it was rather mild on Dr Ahluwalia, who is an elite, confused person, at least this is what she appeared to me and many of my friends who attended the lecture. She talked of infrastructure, refused to focus on urban poor, except in passing, in reply to a question...
Does it mean that I should be accused by the writer of this article I am not "respecting the viewpoint" of the article writer? What a logic... Great!
Amalendu said…
I read this post with lot of disappointment as I was among many others to listen through this proceeding of the talk. The tagline given to the article is certainly motivated, possibly the author wants to draw attention for the wrong reasons. I am saddened because, build up to the tone of the talk was set by the chair of the event Prof. Kundu who paid a tribute to Prof. Visaria citing some wonderful incidents. Prof. Visaria epitomized a person of very high integrity and Prof. Kundu did the justice in citing a few glimpses of this aspect of the persona that Prof. Visaria was. Given this context, Dr. Ahluwalia's talk was not only timely and important on the issues of Urban infrastructure and governance, but also methodical and driven by facts, analysis and experience. Dr. Ahluwalia's rich experience of academics and policy blended well in the talk to justify the needs and urgency of addressing urban infrastructure and governance issues.

It appears like the author forgot the prelude to the article that set the tone of integrity that Prof. Visaria personified and rightly, Dr. Ahluwalia and Prof. Kundu demonstrated. All other detailed points are elaborated in many of the posts earlier that possibly the readers will see if they happen to read this article. The author of the article can also correct herself/himself by responding to some of the posts and agreeing to correct her/his article. That would possibly be a rich tribute Prof. Visaria on whose memory this lecture series was organised.
Jag Jivan said…
Dear Mr Amalendu, the lecture was by Dr Ahluwalia. And the only things that was new and therefore made "news" was, Modi and his men do not have any notion of smart cities, and yet they are fooling around about it all around. Everyone wants a smart city now -- Gujarat chief minister to Reliance boss Mukesh Ambani. Dr Ahluwalia made this point abundantly, hence was worth reporting. It was a commentary on Centre. As for Dr Kundu and Dr Visaria, they may be great academics, but they did not make news, where is the point in reporting on them?
And let me also tell you -- neither Ahluwalia, nor Ambani, nor the Gujarat CM -- have ever thought of the space for the urban poor in these so-called smart cities. How will they build them? By acquiring farmers' lands, as in Dholera? By turning a proposed finance city (GIFT) into a real estate haven where likes of Amitabh Bacchan would come and stay (he has already bought land in the vicinity)? Handing over precious agricultural land to big corporates, as in Sanand and beyond up to Bhechaji-Mandal? So, slums can stay in Ahmedabad, and richie rich can live in these smart cities, is that so? Or, like in old days, the manual scavengers would go, clean up these smart cities, and would be moved out later so that they don't look dirty? Did Dr Ahluwalia touch upon any of these issues? Certainly not. What's smart in her definition, can you tell me? Just e-governance? The reporter unfortunately failed to point towards all this.
Anonymous said…
Modi promised to make Delhi into a smart city. Of course as he discovered, Delhi was already a smart city. It voted for Kejriwal.
Tara Nair said…
Mr Jag Jivan’s observes that the responses to the post largely originated from one ‘source’. But how would that reduce the genuineness of the core issue raised in all the comments? GIDR particularly is grossly disappointed that an event that we so painstakingly and carefully put together is dragged into a murky public discussion for wrong reasons. The expert journalists of Counterview are entitled to their ideologies, their views about the government and governance. But they must also respect that there is a difference between academic discourse and journalistic reporting. A serious and responsible academic could just follow a tradition of heterodox thinking. S/he could be quite capable of carrying forward an argument in a value-free manner. That’s the reason why some of us pointed out that it is important to ‘know’ a scholar, and not only ‘hear’ him or her. I am sure you will agree that objective journalism would not randomly attribute values to some statement and interpret that the speaker perhaps was suppressing a sarcastic smile while saying that!!

All of us individually have our share of critique against a whole range of things that take place around us in the name of development. We must stand by them too. But mixing up “what we wish to hear” with “what we hear”, to say the least, is violation of basic journalistic ethics.
Editor said…
I am pained by the manner in which Tara Nair has tried to interpret's report. The comment comes despite the fact that we have published all the reactions to the report in the name of complete transparency, and in order to ensure that those who think otherwise are properly represented. However, this should not mean that Jag Jivan is not entitled to put forward his viewpoint. If you are entitled to have your view about "journalistic ethics", others can question your "academic ethics" as well.
I have already requested for the transcript of Dr Ahluwalia's speech. I was told through an email that it could not be provided because of the "negative" (sic!) report. Is this "academic ethics"?
A CEPT student said…
I am a CEPT University student. I was closely following the entire debate and I thought I should intervene now. I know for sure what kind of "academic ethics" prevails and where and how. I am not revealing my name because of obvious reasons. Similarity of comments suggests they were dictated by one person, and others just "signed" them all. And I can suspect who this person could be. Why is this person keeping quiet forwding the juniors to write to justify Ahluwalia? Hey, what's the interest, man?


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