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India’s Smart Cities: A Vision Without Base

The lack of a strong system of local autonomy and a poor infrastructure are the most serious handicaps for India’s Smart City vision.

September 15, 2016

The lack of a strong system of local autonomy and a poor infrastructure are the most serious handicaps for India’s Smart City vision.

For reasons of protocol, John Kerry likes to be on time. During his recent visit to India, the U.S. Secretary of State had to apologize for being late more than once. Heavy monsoon rains had flooded the roads. The autocade of the American VIP also got stuck in massive traffic jams.

“I don’t know how you all got here…by boats or amphibious vehicles?” Kerry asked his hosts jokingly and, without further ado, extended his stay in India’s water logged capital by 48 hours.

One item on Kerry’s agenda was the “Smart City Mission,” a pet project of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This is an ambitious multiyear program that aims at infusing modern technology into the country’s urban centers catapulting them into the modern age.

In a multistage process, India’s government in 2015 had selected 100 cities for the project. Much of the initial euphoria has given place to more sober assessments.

Internationally, the government continues to mobilize support from potential donors, with more than 30 foreign governments pledging to aid the modernization drive.

The situation is less bright on the ground where the people are confronted with problem,s many of which have little to do with the futuristic schemes propagated in the glossy brochures of the “Smart City Mission.”

State of urban development

In India’s cities, the needs are very basic – with a focus on providing safeguards for the survival of millions of people in conditions fit for human beings.

That India is far away from this mark is exemplified every year when the monsoon sweeps over the country and many cities sink in the floods that kill dozens, if not hundreds of people.

With seasonal regularity, the catastrophes drive the drama of India’s urban underdevelopment into the public mind. Still, the people continue to wait in vain for effective redress.

“India’s cities are collapsing,” wrote The Times of India, the country’s leading English language newspaper, in a commentary bemoaning the “poor or non-existent urban infrastructure.”

The situation is not only desperate in the capital New Delhi, the situation in other urban centers such as Chennai, Mumbai, Hyderabad or Bengaluru is just as bad. The former Bangalore is often referred to as India’s Silicon Valley.

From rural areas to cities

Half of the households in the country’s start-up capital (Bengaluru) do not have a sewage connection. In Mumbai, the former Bombay, India’s financial capital and the center of the Bollywood film industry, half the population lives in slums.

The number of inhabitants of the “unofficial settlements” is on the rise. Every minute, 30 Indians migrate from the rural areas to the cities.

According to projections, the urban population of India will increase by as much as half a billion in the coming four decades. The country is in the midst of an unparalleled demographic transformation.

This has implications far beyond the shores of the South Asian subcontinent. Imagine the impact on the world’s climate when India’s half a billion internal migrants leave behind their carriages and bicycles and opt for motorcycles or even cars after setting foot in the cities.

This scenario explains why India – together with the United States and China – has a seat in the first row in international climate negotiations.

Lack of regional policies

In search of a better life, a job, healthcare and education for their children, many internal migrants don’t find their way through to the congested urban centers. They get stuck on the outskirts of what experts refer to as “urban agglomerations.”

These areas are typically slums beyond the purview of local authorities or other state institutions.

Regional policy and planning are absent in these zones. “Our city’s infrastructure is not a network or a system. It is a set of fragmented splinters,” says Gautam Bhan, who teaches at the Indian Institute of Human Settlement in Bengaluru.

This applies also to the capital New Delhi, where – according to Mr. Bhan – there is an absence of any proper urban planning, and where today a quarter of the inhabitants live in “spatial illegality.”

In a process, which a World Bank report terms “messy and hidden urbanization,” access to infrastructure and basic public services has become the object of political power games and patronage.

Not without justified pride, Indians refer to their nation as the biggest democracy on earth. Strong federal structures are an integral element of a lively democracy. Nevertheless, democracy at the municipal level only exists in embryonic form.

This is a serious shortcoming as it is on the lowest state level that politics becomes tangible for citizens.

Need for political reforms

The lack of a strong and functioning system of local autonomy is the most serious handicap for India’s Smart City vision and its desperately needed urban renewal.

“Installing digital technologies alone will not deliver the results India hopes to achieve,” says a recent report by the Brookings Institution.

The “decline of political and administrative leadership locally is alarming, with most cities confronting a complete collapse of local governments’ institutional capability,” the experts write.

What does that tell us? Without drastic political reforms and administrative devolution, Modi’s ambitious Smart City Vision will remain what it is – a vision, or just another plan without a chance of implementation, of which India has seen quite a few before.


The needs in India’s cities are basic: To provide safeguards for the survival of millions of people.

Half of the household’s in India's start-up capital (Bengaluru) do not have a sewage connection.

The urban population of India will increase by as much as half a billion in the coming four decades.

India – together with the US and China – has a seat in the first row in climate negotiations.

The lack of a strong system of local autonomy is a serious handicap for India’s Smart City vision.