Since the Congress party is determined not to let Parliament work, Prime Minister Modi has an unexpected opportunity to focus on executive action. So much can be achieved through good execution, and voters too will generously reward those who visibly improve their lives. Urban reform is one area crying for such vigorous attention.
The intriguing phrase ‘smart cities’ conjures a vision of a technological and sustainable future for an aspiring India. Yet no one quite knows what it means, including those in charge. I believe the Indian city will only become ‘smart’ if it builds around the way Indians actually work and live; and second, if it seizes autonomy from state governments. Until our cities have directly elected, empowered mayors who can raise funds for the city, and to whom municipal commissioners report, urban India will not become ‘smart’.
Since Nehru’s time it has been fashionable to create elitist master plans that were hugely wasteful of land and capital, and ignored the way Indians worked and lived. The plans imposed rigid ideas about separating the workplace from the home, which was reflected devastatingly in a Supreme Court judgement a few years ago that destroyed the livelihoods of lakhs of poor in Delhi. It is the same mindset that encouraged Nehru to create the visually exciting Chandigarh, with its acres of greenbelts, which only served elite bureaucrats and was always hostile to the needs of the masses.
Modi should not make the same mistake. His people talk about smart cities mainly in technological terms. This is fine, but I believe a smart city is also about doing ‘smart things in a city’. One of these is to design it around the livelihoods of the aam aadmi. Such a city should humanely place the urban poor and our informal economy at the centre of its thinking; take inspiration, not from leafy Chandigarh, but from the sprawling slum of Dharavi in Mumbai.
Dharavi teaches how a city grows organically when people move from villages and learn to live and work in the same place. To service their needs, kirana shops, barbers, cycle repair and mobile phone recharging vendors pop up. The strength of Dharavi is its face-to-face sociability where human bonds of inter-dependence are formed with strangers.
Because of historic prejudices, many city regulators do not allow mixed use of land where working and living co-exist. Many do not allow high-rise buildings, which is absurd in a country where land is in short supply. By living vertically we would make horizontal space available for precious common goods — parks, schools, libraries, and public squares — which encourage sociability and friendliness. In a country where the aam admi walks and cycles, we should have generous pavements and bicycle paths. Instead of wasting hundreds of acres on a university for a thousand students, a land-scarce country should have high-rise campuses in the middle of a downtown where students become part of the community.
Most important: a smart city must have freedom, especially autonomy in governance and finances. Today, an Indian city is at the mercy of the state government. The 74th Amendment provides for this political reform but the states have thwarted it. Unless there is an elected mayor accountable to the citizens of a city, the delivery of services to the community will not improve. The municipal commissioner should report to the mayor and not the chief minister. A city should be able to become financially more independent. It must have its ‘own’ sources of revenue, both from taxes and from levying rational user charges for services. It must be entitled to predictable formula-based transfers from state governments as part of revenue-sharing arrangements. It should be able to issue municipal bonds as many cities do around the world.
Modi’s critics call it old wine in a new bottle. They are right — many of the ‘smart city’ ideas were a part of the old JNNURM (UPA’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission). But twenty years from now, which one will you remember: Smart cities or JNNURM? Now that we have a name to rally people around, let us not focus on technology alone but on innovative solutions to transform the future of the Indian city.