What is smart about a city whose infrastructure works the residents and even elected representatives have no say in, ask people.

Construction work in Bengaluru Smart City project in Commercial StreetRepresentational image
news Policy Friday, October 01, 2021 - 14:53

Twenty-six year-old Milana, a resident of Tumakuru city, 70 km away from capital Bengaluru in Karnataka, was in for a rude shock one August afternoon when she found the road leading to her door was flooded with sewage. When she enquired about the same with her neighbours, she found it was the result of the civic works carried out by the government-owned Tumakuru Smart City Limited company. This wasn't the first time though; the road has been dug up by TSCL at least six times in the past four months — each time damaging the water pipe, underground drainage pipes, gas connection, and electric wires. 

While the work has been “finished” by the company on paper, a dent in the road right in front of Milana’s house has meant that she cannot open her house gate fully till date. Milana is not alone, there are many in Tumakuru city who are unhappy and tired with the incoherent nature of Smart City works. 

Mahesh T is the elected councillor of Ward no 17 of Tumakuru city from BJP, where MIlana resides. Residents like Milana, in hopes of grievance redressal, knocked on Mahesh’s doors to seek accountability. But due to the nature of Smart Cities Mission (SCM) policy, even elected corporators have no knowledge of work being done in their own wards. Flooded with complaints from residents, Mahesh says he has tried to discuss matters with officials but with no success. Speaking to TNM, Mahesh says, “They refuse to discuss anything with us about what work they are doing or when they will finish it. Even if we make a suggestion, they ignore it completely. The works are going on unscientifically. If we try to raise an issue, they say that the corporator is hindering the work. They finish this work worth crores and then leave us to maintain it for the next five years.”

“Some of these projects take months or even years,” Mahesh says, “When we question the TSCL staff, they make irresponsible comments saying that it is natural for any infrastructure project to take a long time. People of Tumakuru will know the problems that they face and what is needed to be done, but all these projects get approval from Delhi. Even If we ask for changes, they don’t pay any heed, saying that it is already approved."

The experience in Bengaluru, another Smart City, is no different. Meenakshi S, a lifelong resident of Rhenius Street in Richmond Town at the heart of the central business district, has never seen water enter her home until this July. “We have been living in this house for more than 60 years now and since the start of the Smart City project works near our house, since July, my house has been flooded more than three times. Worse, they inadvertently broke the Cauvery water connection,” she says. Rhenius Street is being redone following the TenderSURE model, like in all major neighbouring CBD roads. 

Meenakshi explains that every time she calls the officials, she has to deal with Smart City, BBMP and BWSSB officials shifting the blame to each other. “But before they started work, everything was fine. I’m not the only one who has suffered. Some of the residents are very old and their family members are all living outside Bengaluru,” she adds.

Like Mahesh, Gangambike Mallikarjun of Congress, who was the 52nd Mayor of Bengaluru, says that often, corporators are not informed about Smart City works in their wards even in Bengaluru. She says, “When the public gets involved in projects, we suggest improvements or modifications based on our experiences, as we know our situations better. For example if a footpath is being constructed and if there is adequate space, we might want trees to be planted. But in the current Smart City projects, there is no such scope.”

“All developmental works are for people, and their opinion about what has to be done should be sought. At least in Bengaluru, we have ward committees. When people get together and decide what they want for their area, it also gives the residents the feeling that their opinion is valued,” she adds. 

Tikender Panwar, former Deputy Mayor of Shimla and a member of the CPI feels the Smart Cities Mission is an extension of the urban renewal missions of the recent years that are more targeted toward monetisation of land, and most of the projects are redevelopment works and very little greenfield projects. “A very small area of a city is getting these funds where there are huge inequalities existing in our cities. These SCM funds can be insignificant for a big city like Bengaluru but for a small city, it can make a lot of difference. But the SCM is bypassing the city council and not a single elected representative is heading these decision making bodies,” he says. 

What makes cities smart?

Incidentally, the Indian Bureau of Standards, a government entity which was working to define what makes a city ‘smart’ in India, was halted in its tracks for unknown reasons by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs.

Aravind Unni, urban poverty thematic lead working at Indo-Global Social Service Society, notes that the concept of smart cities started originating in the 1980s and 1990s backed by emerging tech companies like IBM, Cisco and others who floated the idea of using data to manage cities of the US West Coast better and that idea spread. “It was only in 2011 that the inaugural Smart City Expo World Congress was held in Barcelona, which has now become an annual event charting smart cities’ development and popularizing the term, and concept beyond the developed nations,” he says. The BJP in its 2014 poll manifesto had mentioned Smart Cities where it said, “Our cities should no longer remain a reflection of poverty and bottlenecks. Rather they should become symbols of efficiency, speed and scale.” It was in this context that Prime Minister Modi in June 2015 made a call to build 100 smart cities — essentially promising better urban development and cities that match the cities of the global North. 

Cities across the country had to compete with one another based on preliminary ideas. Once selected as a Smart City, the company is given Rs 500 crore over five years by the Union government as grant, and the same amount has to be contributed by the state government or the local municipal body.

Arvind notes that however vague it sounded, a smart city was defined as “one having provision of basic infrastructure to give a decent quality of life to its citizens, a clean and sustainable environment, and application of smart solutions, keeping the citizens at the centre”. 

“But this concept fit for the global North did not account for the reality of governance and institutions of Indian cities which do not have the ability to execute projects at breakneck speeds and are struggling to handle the existing city maintenance issues,” he observes. According to an Indian Express analysis, till date in more than six years, less than 50% of 5,196 sanctioned projects have seen completion.

In contrast, Arvind observes in reality, there is nothing unique about the interventions and projects that are being executed by Smart Cities. He goes to the extent of saying that Smart City projects at best may be a wasteful expenditure or at worst projects that are instead worsening the existing situation, citing incidents of urban flooding of “smart cities”. 

“They are conventional urban projects that should have been executed by the city and state governments themselves, as opposed to the vague guidelines of the Special Purpose Vehicle-led implementation that will fade away as the scheme is rolled back,” he adds. 

TMSL or Bangalore Smart City Limited have been set up in line with the Smart Cities Mission. As per policy, the company is owned equally (50:50) by the state government and the city’s municipal corporation. Once selected as a Smart City, the Union government hardly has a role in projects, according to a former MD of a Smart City in Karnataka. The board of the Smart City, composed of high ranking bureaucrats including the top IAS officer leading the city council, chooses what projects are to be taken following broad based guidelines of the Union government. 

Not ‘smart’ but anti-constitutional

Bengaluru-based advocate Ajesh Kumar Shankar says the concept of Smart Cities itself is not only “stupid” but unconstitutional. He is one of the many arguing against the formation of a Smart City like company for Bengaluru’s Solid Waste Management, jointly owned by the Bengaluru civic body and the state government, at the Karnataka High Court. 

In that case, the High Court has prima facie observed that the BBMP cannot outsource its statutory functions. “By the 74th Amendment of the Constitution, we ought to have more power in the hands of the local people for their local problems through the ward committees and area sabhas or panchayats in rural areas. So this means, we elect corporators and we are in a participative democratic process,” he says.

“But through the Smart City project, the entire structure is being corporatised with no scope for public participation or accountability over public spending. So this creates an odd situation of duplication where the company is carrying out the work which already falls under the ambit of city corporations, but in a legislative vacuum,” he adds.

Srinivas Alavilli, another advocate for decentralisation in governance, says that the problems with Smart Cities are multifold. First, being that the planning process itself is done at a parallel level of an elected city council of corporators. Second is that no one will lose an election if Smart City works are done shoddily. “Our local corporator knows that if she turns a deaf ear to the residents’ complaints, she will have a hard time getting elected next time. But with Smart Cities, there is no such political accountability. Can we hold the Prime Minister or even Chief Minister responsible for bad Smart City works? The experience is the same with parastatal agencies like BESCOM, where there is no political price to pay for not delivering,” he says, adding, “Instead of spending public money on such schemes, focus on systematic reforms such as strengthening state finance commissions that will ensure financial devolution based on a formula to all cities instead of throwing some grants as special gifts. Trust the people of the city to wisely use the funds for what they deem important for them.”

Become a TNM Member for just Rs 999!
You can also support us with a one-time payment.