Whose cities are these and how smart will they be?

A new report from policy think tank, Housing and Land Rights Network, has strongly criticised the Smart Cities Mission for neglecting the rights and concerns of the poor and marginalised. A look at what the report recommends for truly inclusive cities.

As the NDA government’s flagship program, Smart Cities Mission completes three years, the New Delhi-based policy think tank, Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), has released a new report titled India’s Smart Cities Mission: Smart for Whom? Cities for Whom?

This report comes as a sequel to HLRN’s earlier report on the Smart Cities Mission released last year, which provided a comprehensive review of the first 60 selected Smart City proposals.

This updated report provides major findings of the research team’s analysis of Smart City proposals from 99 cities, highlights important developments, raises human rights concerns related to the Mission and proposes recommendations.

Spread across six chapters, the new report is a cogently argued narrative covering 65 pages, complemented by four annexures that provide analysis of housing and other provisions for marginalized populations in the selected smart city proposals, people’s participation recorded in proposals, questions raised in parliament on the Mission and answers provided by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs and SDGs, targets and indicators relevant for Mission. The report presents such thorough research that the narrative is punctuated by 297 endnotes.

Blind to rights

The 2017 report by HLRN had brought under the scanner the absence of a human rights approach. It found that despite the lofty rhetoric, the proposals and practice, betrayed neglect of poor and marginalized populations that contribute sweat and blood in building our cities but rarely find their right to adequate housing honored.

With the exception of Bhagalpur, Gwalior and Ranchi; there is no mention of Scheduled Caste for any of the Smart City proposals. While some lip service is paid to migrant labour in several proposals, the approach envisaged by cities is not uniform.

Shockingly, the proposal for Vadodara refers to migrant workers as a ‘threat’ to the security of the city: “The emergence of the city as transport and tourism hub can also attract large numbers of migrant population which would include unskilled workers from outside the state. This floating and migrant population can pose serious threat to safety and security of the citizens, thereby increasing challenge to the city police”.

Similarly, the focus on homeless persons, who account for one percent of the population in cities, was found to be minimal in the Smart City proposals.

A year later, with 99 cities slated to become ‘smart’ and investment worth Rs 2.04 lakh crore being planned, this new report poses the question: “Has the Smart Cities Mission helped in reducing inequality and promoting inclusive development in the cities where it is being implemented?”

Sustainability over smartness

The HLRN research team recommends that “The Smart Cities Mission (which is essentially a ‘smart enclaves’ scheme) should reinvent itself as Sustainable Cities Mission, a shift required to bring about a substantial and sustained improvement in the lives and livelihoods of not only the eight percent of India’s population covered by the Mission’s ‘Area Based Development’ – but for every single inhabitant of India”.

Researchers examined Smart City proposals, government documents and media reports through a human rights lens and found that the Mission is plagued by the glaring absence of a rights-based approach as well as neglect of the poor and marginalized. So stark is this absence that at times it appears that the complete oversight of their issues and rights is not accidental, but intentional in the planning process.

In his article, ‘The Truth about Smart Cities: In the end they will destroy democracies’, Steven Poole argues, “The concept of the ‘smart city’ seems to have crystalised into an image of the city as a vast, efficient robot – a vision that originated, according to Adam Greenfield, from giant technology companies, such as IBM, Cisco and Software AG, all of whom hoped to profit from big municipal contracts, “rather than from any party, group or individual recognized for their contributions to the theory or practice of urban planning”.

Recommendations of HLRN report

The report suggests the following, with a view to change the direction of the Smart Cities Mission trajectory:

1. The Mission needs a human rights-based implementation and monitoring framework to assess the achievement of targets. This must ensure that its projects comply with national and international law and promote human rights and environmental sustainability.

2. The Government of India should incorporate concrete human rights-based indicators within the Liveability Index being developed, so as to meaningfully assess the quality of life and standard of living in all Indian cities, including ‘smart cities’. Indicators related to poverty, inequality, health, gender equality, human settlements, land, water and climate change should be integrated into the framework.

3. Implementation of the Mission should align with India’s legal commitments under the Paris Agreement and its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution towards climate change mitigation and adaptation.

India should also integrate its commitment under the New Urban Agenda (2016) within the Smart Cities Mission implementation framework, as it includes important measures to promote inclusive and sustainable development.

The Mission should also aim to implement recommendations from India’s third Universal Periodical Review at the UN Human Rights Council in May 2017.

4. The Mission must develop a special focus on the needs, concerns and human rights of the marginalized groups, individuals and communities including children, women, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, migrants, homeless persons, domestic workers, persons with disabilities, religious and sexual minorities, and other excluded groups.

5. There should be meaningful participation and engagement of the people in the selection and execution of smart city projects in all cities. The free, prior and informed consent of all persons likely to be impacted by any ‘smart city’ project should be obtained before the particular project is approved or selected.

People’s participation cannot be viewed as merely a technical requirement, restricted to inviting comments through email. This seems to be a mode that the current regime seems to be at ease with — whether it is inviting public comments on the draft national forest policy or the policy to set up a Higher Education Finance Commission in the place of University Grants Commission. For meaningful public feedback, multiple means of communication and participation must be developed, including for non-literate groups, in local languages and by using culturally acceptable means.

6. Human-rights based impact assessment and environmental impact assessment should be mandatory for all ‘smart city’ projects, before they are approved.

7. Strict measures must be put in place to ensure that implementation of ‘smart city’ projects does not result in the violation of any human rights. The rights to adequate housing, work/livelihood, security of the person and home, water, sanitation, health, food, privacy and information must be protected.

8. The provisions of adequate and affordable housing in all cities must be strengthened while aligning these with the targets of the PMAY/ Housing for All – 2022. Cities should define ‘affordable housing’ with clear income-based criteria.

Terms like ‘rehabilitation’ and ‘slum-free city’ projects should not be used as an excuse to demolish low-income settlements. Measures must be taken to prevent forced evictions, forced relocation and displacement.

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