India: Smart Governance

The Government of India has launched a multi-pronged strategy to convert the seemingly intractable juggernaut called Urban India – comprising 4041 statutory towns and 3894 census towns with a current annual growth rate of 2.76% – into an engine of socio-economic transformation. An overwhelming majority of India’s cities are crippled by the paucity of finance for building infrastructure, the lack of sustained income required for operations and maintenance, and the dearth of functionaries with appropriate skills to plan and implement projects and deliver basic services. While our cities are touted as generating two-thirds of the country’s common wealth, the actual wealth is not so commonly spread, with a distinct big-city bias in the consumption and government spending that are key factors of the GDP calculus. The much-celebrated growth in small and medium towns rests on a conspicuous consumption of available land and real estate, and the unprecedented spending of hitherto unopened wallets. Given their low staff-strength, the speculative economy and absence of planning, these cities do not have the necessary resilience against system inefficiency and environmental shock.

As per the United Nations Human Settlements Programme, systemic distortions and inefficiencies are costly in the long term, as they undermine the environmental sustainability, equity and social inclusion, infrastructural availability, productivity and quality of life that form the recipe for urban prosperity. The economies of scale that create the wealth of cities can easily become dis-economies, with inefficient and resource-guzzling processes becoming a burden on scarce resources. Four years ago, the McKinsey Global Institute reported that, in order to sustain growth, India needs to build the equivalent of one Chicago every year for several decades; surely, this ‘urban awakening’ cannot be a bleary-eyed recognition of another daybreak but must instead be a rousing call to action.

The Government of India has launched a number of initiatives that seek to address the urban challenge in a comprehensive manner. The Urban Development Mission for 500 cities targets the provision of drinking water, sewerage and waste management. The promise to deliver ‘Housing for All’ by 2022 will also ensure that each house is equipped with a toilet. The HRIDAY (Soul) scheme to rejuvenate heritage cities will commence with six pilgrimage centres of significance to different communities. The programme for Smart Cities envisages the improvement of 100 satellite towns and mid-sized cities through effective planning, financial management and the widespread use of new communication technologies.

Digital connectivity in all cities is proposed as a key enabler of the urban transformation. Enhanced mobility is expected to create productive and liveable cities. All cities must harness private capital and expertise. ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ can now include slum redevelopment. The Ministry of Finance has enhanced tenfold the ‘Pooled Municipal Debt Obligation Facility’, which encourages financial institutions to promote and fund infrastructure projects in urban areas on a shared risk basis. This would particularly benefit clusters of small and mid-sized towns. Recycled water from cities will be used for growing organic fruits and vegetables. The symbiosis would contribute to the ‘Rurban’ mission, which will address the ‘push’ factors that have resulted in distress migration, especially from the rain-fed regions that comprise 60% of India’s cultivated area and are home to more than 200 million of the rural poor.

Such techno-scientific solutions and optimistic financial scenarios may seem premature, unaffordable and iniquitous to the sceptic. Those given to optimism might find the visions of smart, clean and sustainable cities deeply compelling, perhaps because the urban future is for once being articulated through evocations that distract us from the daily experience of urban poverty, spatial chaos, dysfunctional systems and decrepitude. Should such heroism be entertained? Should the resonance between aspiration and imagination be dampened?

Eight years ago, in The Open City, Richard Sennett wrote that “we need to imagine just what a clean, safe, efficient, dynamic, stimulating, just city would look like concretely – we need those images to confront critically our masters with what they should be doing – and it is exactly this critical examination of the city which is weak.” Apt words for the contemporary Indian condition, especially because the smart city has no visual corollary and is recognised only in its manifestations. While discussions about the smart city in India must undergo urgent examination, ‘smartness’ is a necessary condition for the future. The use of ICT can expedite critical reforms in government, and create a platform for public engagement of a scale and complexity that presently confounds our policy-makers and technocrats alike. It is more likely than any other intervention to transform our cities.

The idea that India would want to build smart cities can be appreciated if one observes the impact of the information and communications revolution in India. This revolution must be understood both in terms of growing e-enablement – a tele-density of 1.4 per capita, for example – as well as the force unleashed by the Right To Information. The cumulative effect of over 900 million mobile phone users was championed by Thomas Friedman as a transformative force in India’s democracy and has indeed become one. Of the 1100 citizen and business services targeted for e-delivery in 2012, over 600 services of various government departments are already available electronically. Twenty-seven ‘mission-mode’ projects for delivering e-services – pensions, central excise, income tax, passport, banking & insurance, land records, road transport, e-Courts, 100,000 Common Services Centres – are in advanced stages of completion. In 1996, the Indian Space Research Organisation had created a nation-wide network that can provide ‘telemedicine’ to remote locations, linking patients with doctors across geographies, and enabling medical consultation through virtual means. This network can extend to urban areas.

India’s ‘urban awakening’ was described by the McKinsey Global Institute using a limited set of economic indicators, but smart urbanisation can harness increasing numbers of data-sets and revolutionise the management of city economies. e-Governance is a necessary condition for an accessible, open and fair government. After an initial phase when they were treated as bulletin boards for public disclosure, the e-Gov platforms created by cities like Ahmadabad, Surat, Bhopal, Pimpri-Chinchwad, Vishakhapatnam, Chennai et al have become interfaces for internal monitoring as well as a slew of public services, minimising corruption and improving efficiency at all levels. Increasing numbers of municipalities are drafting Citizen’s Charters to promise time-bound delivery, a reform that will get stronger with the prevalence of tort laws.

The ICT revolution allows the substantiation of official intent with indicators and measures that can be ever more complex, not merely numerical but also spatial, visual, aural and textual. Governments have realised that actual impacts can be measured and performance as per goals can be a mantra. However, decades of ignoring the science of cities and neglecting our research institutions has left us with a lack of data for and analysis of the urban sector. This is a vacuum that must be filled post-haste if we are to face the gathering storm of urbanisation.

We offer a few actions for e-governments to place high on their ‘to-do’ lists. The first is flexible land use, based on sophisticated modelling of land markets and the mapping of value. This will erase a paramount cause of corruption and tendentious urban policy – the regulated supply of land has distorted the land market by making, say, commercial land-use scarce and residential land-use plentiful – and will enable the cities to become more compact, reducing the carrying distances for infrastructure and leveraging economies of scale. Compact cities will by nature become dense cities, where the density of information will yield greater efficiency and reveal unsustainable distortions and inequities. Consider, for instance, the fact that the highest population density in the country, 37,346 per sq km, is found in Delhi’s poverty-ridden North-East district: more than 800 times the global average, nearly 100 times the national average, and over 16 times the average stipulated in the Master Plan for Delhi. The zonal plans for the areas surrounding this congested location could have responded with measures to absorb the overload, but the land-use map shows only a diagrammatic relationship between different zones rather than a dynamic co-dependence.

In addition to evolving intra-city relationships, an enhanced appreciation of urban-rural co-dependencies is a necessity today. Geospatial mapping can combine with the measurement of ecological footprints to make the regional scale the norm for urban planning. The per capita availability of land, which was 0.89 hectares in 1951, dropped to 0.37 hectares in 1991 and is expected to drop further to 0.20 hectares by 2035. The per capita availability of agricultural land is expected to see a more drastic reduction, from 0.48 hectares in 1951 to 0.08 hectares in 2035. Smaller land-holdings are already making farmers more dependent on urban food prices. With agri-productivity in India one-tenth that of China and a fifth of the USA, there is tremendous pressure to enhance yields through mechanisation and biotechnology. Analysis of holding and investment patterns will reveal the power of indigent populations – which are more likely than migrants to demand improved governance – and the mutual interests of city and countryside. These are aspects of the urban-rural continuum that must be addressed through ‘smart’ spatial planning, as indigent populations with naturally entrenched interests in their own neighbourhoods will appreciate and demand more contextual knowledge.

The most profound impact of smartness in city management will be experienced through the participatory management of commons – that is, the management of all forms of public space and resources. In an era of convergence between different ministries, departments, agencies and institutions, combined with the right to information that energises e-governance, the servant-served relationship that has shrouded our civic lives will yield to a partnership whereby a government can benefit from ‘crowd-sourcing’ its efficiency, and individuals and communities can benefit from the greater attention paid to performance and outcomes. But governments can also view the access to information as an inherent threat and it is not surprising that e-Governance inspires anxiety. In the Proceedings of the Fifth National Conference on e-Governance in 2012, the editors felt it necessary to include a cautionary paragraph on the ‘Pitfalls of Democratisation of Information’, pointing out the potential menace of an inquisitive public. Such a cautious attitude resists the potentially liberating qualities of greater access to information and the immense possibilities that might be created from such an information ecosystem. With more and better information becoming accessible, we can expect further automation of government and social functions and the application of predictive technologies, such as those being developed by Google, whereby algorithms will assemble disparate information into coherent statements and instructions.

If today we are at the mercy of information asymmetries and opacities of decision-making, we should expect that our common tomorrows will liberate the collective energies that make cities the supreme celebrations of joint endeavour. The only measure of the smart city should be whether it allows us to achieve the goal that Lewis Mumford identified a century ago: to “socialise creativity”. We must imagine a future when the smart Indian city has so little environmental impact that when a story-telling mother points to the night sky, her children can actually see the twinkling stars.

Jagan Shah is Director of India’s National Institute of Urban Affairs.