Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania
India in Transition

Smart Cities: India’s Urban Future

Shahana Chattaraj
August 24, 2015

In late June, the Indian government launched an ambitious and forward-looking urban program, a centerpiece of Prime Minister Modi’s developmental agenda. The Smart Cities Mission will involve building state-of the-art new cities and modernizing old ones. It has generated reams of newsprint and massive anticipation. India is urbanizing rapidly and haphazardly, and is expected to add four hundred million new city dwellers to its urban population over the next three decades.

June also saw the passing away of Charles Correa, India’s foremost architect and urbanist. His book, The New Landscape: Urbanisation in the Third World,presented a new way of thinking about cities to generations of architecture students in India, dissatisfied with both the utopian vision of Le Corbusier as well as the community “self-build” movement in architecture that arose in rejoinder. Like Jane Jacobs, he focused on the relationship between spatial form and the economic and social life of cities and neighborhoods. Unlike Jacobs, Correa was an interventionist, his analysis geared to addressing the challenge and opportunity of urbanization in poor countries. If Jacob’s muse was New York, Correa’s was Bombay (now Mumbai). Bombay was, according to Correa, both “a great city and a terrible place.” Even as its physical environment degraded, it generated a wealth of opportunities, interactions and economic activity, honing skills, aspiration and entrepreneurship. He contrasted Bombay with more pleasant urban environments and planned towns whose neatly ordered buildings and wide roads failed to make thriving cities.

Mumbai’s historic market quarters, the bustling commercial heart of the city around Crawford Market and Mohammed Ali Road, embody Correa’s thesis. Noisy, congested, and apparently disordered, they are a living chronicle of Mumbai’s commercial genius and social diversity, its ability to absorb migrants and offer them hope of economic mobility. The government sees much of the old commercial districts areas as dilapidated, ripe for redevelopment into glossy towers and commercial complexes. But they can be read, instead, as inherently “smart” built environments in their efficiency and adaptability and their fit with the economic and social life of residents. Their urban fabric supports an incredible density and diversity of functions and livelihoods. Businesses are embedded in communities and in associational networks that cut across communal and neighborhood lines. Formal and informal economic activities are interlaced and spaces for work, community, and domestic life overlap. “In-between” spaces are intensively and adaptively used for transit, commerce, and socialization. History, density, and proximity facilitate trust and collective efficiency, as well access to information, credit, and new opportunity.

Parts of Mumbai’s informal economy are dynamic and entrepreneurial, but it is also a form of social safety net where the state welfare system is patchy and meager. A large number of Mumbai’s hawkers are former millworkers; as in many other leading cities, formal manufacturing employment is shrinking. An unskilled migrant might set up a stall selling food or fixing umbrellas, and earn a livelihood on the streets. A patch of space, Correa observed, is a critical economic resource for a poor city dweller. Correa emphasized that vernacular-built environments are constructed, maintained, and re-fashioned by various small-scale firms and service providers, unlike cities composed of skyscrapers and expressways, or smart cities that are advanced technology and capital intensive. India has a massive low-skilled workforce with limited prospects in formal industry or modern services. A smart strategy for city-building would factor in employment generation, incorporating and upgrading the small-scale construction and real-estate sector, currently the largest source of employment in India after agriculture.

Mumbai’s historic market districts are a distinctive example, but such mixed-use, high-density mid-rise built environments are widely prevalent in India. They stand in contrast to sprawling ribbon development along highways, banks of high-rises without density on the city outskirts, and the predominant form of “modern” urban growth in India. As Correa pointed out, vernacular built environments are efficient, generating impressive economic output and employment with a minimal consumption of resources. They are flexible and adaptable – ideal traits for an economy and society in transition, and a planet facing the unprecedented threat of climate change. These areas are far from perfect. Many lack municipal services and adequate infrastructure and have few green spaces or public amenities. Strengthening local government and responsive and imaginative planning can do much to improve living conditions. They offer an alternative template on which to conceptualize smart cities more appropriate to India’s urban context than the luxury models on offer from global technology providers and avid real-estate corporations.

Global firms are lining up to sell India smart city blueprints, and media reports breathlessly lists their attributes: centralized control rooms with real-time data, digital sensors to locate parking spots, electronic pods. These accounts seem to forget that cities are agglomerations of human beings; their buildings and infrastructure are important but ancillary. And thus, important questions remain unanswered. Who will live and work in these new smart cities? Can poor migrants find themselves a home and a living, or will they have digital sensors to track encroachments? On what principles will they be governed – as local electoral democracies or privately managed corporations?

The imagery for India’s new smart cities is rooted in an incongruous idiom, featuring sprawls of expressways amidst expansive greens in urban landscapes eerily empty of people. They echo the “towers-in-the-park” form of Corbusier’s modernist city but ignore his dictum that form follows function. It is difficult to see how they will accommodate the largely informal small, medium and micro-enterprises that form the backbone of India’s urban economy. Amidst rising concern about pollution and climate change, the eight-lane highway is a misplaced symbol for urban progress; less than five percent of India’s population own cars and even public transportation is unaffordable for the poor. A smart city is an efficient one, and it is perplexing that some of the proposed new ones are profligate in their consumption of scarce land and public resources, even as their economic rationale remains sketchy. The problems that plague India’s cities are fundamental, that of basic infrastructure and services, and effective and accountable city governments to organize them. As monsoon rains predictably flood roads and swamp traffic in major cities, skeptical reporters point out that functional drainage and sewerage systems hardly require advanced technology; the sub-continent’s ancient civilizations of Mohenjodaro and Harappa perfected them several thousand years ago.

With the hype around India’s Smart Cities Mission so disconnected from ground realities, some critics have dismissed the government’s urban agenda as elitist and irrelevant. But India’s urban policy is evolving rather than set in stone. Prime Minister Modi, launching the urban mission, called for a “bottom-up” model of smart city development. Such a model will need to take account of the everyday lives of ordinary citizens, of human behavior and its relationship to the built environment. If India’s smart cities are to be a means to leap-frog the developmental ladder, they will eschew the car-centric and sprawling urban development models of the last century to focus on circular urban economies and the sustainability and resilience of urban systems. It is not a criticism to say that India’s policy-makers are making it up as they go along, but a recognition that they are in uncharted territory might offer scope for real innovation in intelligently planning and adapting cities for the twenty-first century. As India embarks on a mission to reshape its urban future, Correa’s insights remain powerfully relevant. Policymakers, in their effort to make Indian cities look “world-class” should not lose sight of what makes them successful cities: their absorptive capacity, efficiency, adaptability, and the opportunities they provide for poor rural migrants as well as educated professionals to make a better life.             

Shahana Chattaraj is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Oxford, Blavatnik School of Government.


India in Transition (IiT) is published by the Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI) of the University of Pennsylvania. All viewpoints, positions, and conclusions expressed in IiT are solely those of the author(s) and not specifically those of CASI. IiT articles are re-published in the op-ed pages of The Hindu: Business Line. This article can be read here.

© 2015 Center for the Advanced Study of India and the Trustees of the University of Pennsylvania. All rights reserved.