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India's smart city reforms 'seldom address' urban areas' organic, historic character

By Soumyadip Chattopadhyay* 

Consideration of small and medium towns as well as the uniqueness of each city is imperative while planning urban cities. Noting this, the Center for Habitat, Urban and Regional Studies (CHURS), Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi presented a discussion with Prof Manoj Parmar and Dr Binti Singh on “India’s Smart Cities Mission: Light Houses?” as part of The State of the Cities – #CityConversations.
The discussion started by mentioning India’s hopes to modernize through smart cities to achieving higher living standards. This mission involves a large number of stakeholders, such as municipal governments, states, consultancies, and private corporations.
However, the Smart Cities Mission has not had great success even though five years have passed since its commencement. He said that it is important to understand its implementation and how it can transform the existing governance structure.

Urbanization in India

Dr Binti Singh, Urban Sociologist, Associate Professor, KRVIA, Mumbai; Book Series Editor, Routledge, Taylor, and Francis; Associate Editor, Oxford Urbanists, mentioned the vibrance of the urban landscape which was standing on three pillars, namely, governance, basic services, and infrastructure.
The changes in the urban landscape triggered her research. She explained that India will have seven megacities and numerous urban centres or second-tier cities. Urbanization in India is said to be inspired by global symbols and models. The global character of India’s cities is not only restricted to luxurious areas but slums and similar settlements as well.
Moreover, India has surpassed the US as the second-largest smartphone market, according to “App Annie Retrospective Report in 2016.” Thus, it is now seen as a security and surveillance market with varied government departments. Dr. Binti also said that small and medium towns are the focus of study for many urban researchers.
Smart city is the new paradigm driving urban policy and governance across the world. For this large change to occur, Smart Cities Mission deploys a variety of technologies such as Artificial Intelligence, Internet of Things, Robotics, and Big Data to build cities governed on the foundation of data.
Technology is essentially aimed to create economic opportunities, transparency in governance, and institute better delivery systems. The speaker also briefly mentioned urban policies in India since 2015. The research of the speaker was performed at two levels- secondary research involving collation of relevant information and primary research including detailed case studies.

Urban planning and redevelopment

Prof Manoj Parmar, Director, Professor, and Former Dean, Masters Programme in Urban Design and Urban Conservation, KRVIA, elaborated that his book, "Smart City in India: Urban Laboratory, Paradigm or Trajectory?", co-authored with Dr Binti Singh, tries to understand the mechanisms in place, look at several planning paradigms and take up the discourse on medium towns. Prof Manoj emphasized that “the book is an academic reflection”.
Historically, the urban planning process has witnessed different paradigms which dissected the cities. At the same time, these paradigms may not have anything in common. In recent times, there has been a shift in urban planning concerns of cities and the emerging paradigm aspires to form a reactive, reflective, and knowledge-oriented society.
The transformation of cities seldom addresses the challenges and the organic and historic character of these cities goes unnoticed. In this context, Smart City is a conceptual model and not necessarily a technique for planning. Urbanization trends of metros and medium-sized towns are met with issues of conflict inflicting upon the environment, livelihood, livability index, and affordability.
Their book seeks to raise some fundamental questions on new planning initiatives and the role of urban planning and design. On the book’s concluding note, Prof Manoj mentions that seven aspects namely, ecology, livelihood, mobility and network, infrastructure and analysis, institutions, public realm and heritage, and tourism, are all interdependent.
Based on their research, Dr Bindi stated that there are a plethora of random initiatives across cities along with multitudes of players. Further, asking questions of equity in the urban setting is important so that no one is left behind. 
Some contradictions pointed out in the book include priority for uniform standards, performance, benchmarks, and indexes which tend to rank diverse cities along with similar parameters. While Smart Cities Mission wants all cities to capitalize on their strength and build their uniqueness, it also subjects the cities to competition based on centrally determined parameters.

Smart city paradigm

Prof Tathagata Chatterji, Professor, Urban Planning and Governance, Xavier University, Bhubaneswar, as a discussant, raised questions about the efficiency of the mission in measurable terms. When the scheme was proposed, areas were supposed to include lighthouses and trigger similar development impulses in other parts of the city but for success to materialize, integration into the planning framework is pivotal in nature. He thinks it is important to measure the performance of the cities in terms of air quality, water delivery, and the like.
Prof Gopa Samanta, Professor, University of Burdwan, West Bengal, gave the perspective of an urban geographer. She claimed that the Smart Cities Mission was initiated to rescue the IT sector and the Indian economy. Many inequalities are seen in the cities due to inconsideration of the diverse nature of cities. Moreover, the project orientation of the urban development proposal does not seem to work according to the speaker.
Sameer Unhale, Joint Commissioner, Department of Municipal Administration, Government of Maharashtra, mentioned that the Smart Cities Mission was widely spoken about as it presented a different paradigm for managing the cities. New models and approaches have to be tried out so that cities can engage with the rising, complex challenges.
Moving forward with institutional innovation with models such as SPVs is the need of the hour. The power of technology has to be harnessed to face the obstacles. Even more, we require an open mind, free of prejudices, and resilience to carefully inspect the potential.

Technological framework

Surbhi Agarwal, Researcher at MIT Civic Data Design Lab, Jaipur, specified how the relationship between technology and cities is very close. To ensure that technology is used in the right way to facilitate positive changes, democratic values such as data privacy have to be incorporated. A value-based framework can help the decision-makers pick the right things.
Prof Manoj Parmar addressed that their book is a starting point to examine the dense urban planning process. The aspect of initiating dialogue and integrating people is of prime importance. The book is not a critique of any approach but rather, an attempt to integrate the approaches. Dr Binti Singh pointed out that she tries to immerse herself in the topic of study by engaging with people from various disciplines to create a robust scholarship.
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*Associate Professor, Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan, Senior Fellow, IMPRI, Inputs: Arjun Kumar, Mahima Kapoor, Swati Solanki. Acknowledgment: Ritheka Sundar, Research Intern at IMPRI

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