By Rina Chandran
An ambitious government plan to upgrade India's cities risks further marginalising poor and minority communities and hastening slum evictions, while failing to address the reasons villagers move to urban areas, campaigners said.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's Smart Cities Mission aims to modernise 100 cities by 2020 with high-speed internet, uninterrupted power and water supply, efficient public transport and living standards comparable to Europe.
But the $7.5 billion plan does not address the needs and rights of poor women and marginalised groups including minorities and migrants, according to a report by New Delhi-based advocacy group Housing and Land Rights Network, India (HLRN).
Nearly 14 million households live in urban slums across India, with a further 3 million living on city streets.
The drive for Smart Cities has already triggered evictions of people from slums and informal settlements in cities including Indore, Bhubaneswar, Delhi and Kochi without adequate compensation or alternate accommodation.
Plans to spruce up central business districts and build urban rail lines are likely to displace tens of thousands more, the report said.
"The premise of the 'smart city' as a relevant model needs a fundamental re-evaluation, given the increasing levels of exclusion, impoverishment, unemployment, homelessness, forced evictions and displacement of the urban poor in our cities," said Shivani Chaudhry, executive director at HLRN.
Officials say India's congested cities - 13 of which are among the 20 most polluted in the world - desperately need a makeover to improve residents' quality of life.
"The mission provides the choice to those who live in squalor to live with dignity, in a more hospitable environment with basic infrastructure," said A. A. Rao, a spokesman for the housing ministry which is overseeing the plan.
"In every instance, people are taken on board, and there have been no forced evictions to my knowledge," he said.
About a third of India's population of 1.25 billion lives in cities, with tens of thousands leaving their villages for cities every year in search of better opportunities.
The Smart Cities plan promotes urbanisation without addressing the reasons people move to cities, such as a lack of jobs in rural areas, Chaudhry said.
The government must adopt a more holistic approach to improve social services and infrastructure across the country, and undertake human rights and environmental impact assessments for every Smart City project, she said.
"Merely selecting some cities, and some areas within cities excludes rural areas, which intensifies the justification for urbanisation and worsens the rural-urban divide," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"There is no place for the poor in these shiny cities envisioned by the government."
(Editing by Alisa Tang)
This story was first published on June 12, 2017 in Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change.