The Human Rights Dimensions of India’s Smart Cities Mission

Shivani Chaudhry from the Housing and Land Rights Network argues that India’ Smart Cities Mission lacks a human rights dimension – with highly problematic consequences.

In June 2015, the Government of India launched the Smart Cities Mission to create 100 ‘smart cities’ in the country. Between January 2016 and June 2018, in several rounds of the ‘Smart Cities Challenge’ contest, the government selected 100 cities to be developed as ‘smart cities.’ These cities were chosen from a preliminary shortlist on the basis of the Smart City Proposals submitted by them, and will receive about five billion rupees from the central government over a period of five years. The rest of the money for ‘smart city’ development is to be generated by cities from their urban local bodies and other sources, including private investment.

While the Mission may be well-meaning and those shaping its architecture may have noteworthy intentions, its vision and implementation modalities necessitate a candid re-evaluation. After three years of its existence, limited demonstrable outcomes, and millions of dollars of investment earmarked for selected projects, it is important to ask: is the focus on ‘smart cities’ the right priority, and has the correct policy decision been made for a country overwhelmed with alarming socio-economic indicators, including high rates of multi-dimensional poverty and inequality?

No Focus on Human Rights

What defines a ‘smart city’ is not mentioned in any policy document, ostensibly to encourage diversity in interpretation. But beyond the definition, the issue is whether the aspiration should be to become ‘smart’ or to create more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable habitats for all. ‘Smartness’ is not a synonym for inclusion; in fact, the means to achieve it could well be exclusionary. This is not about semantics but about defining non-negotiable priorities and equitably allocating limited resources. Targets shape actions, so shouldn’t greater emphasis and thought be invested in setting appropriate goals?

The Mission is always in the news for its hype, hope, and hyperbole. But not much has been written on its human rights implications, particularly for the most marginalised. These include the homeless, destitute persons, minorities, domestic and construction workers, and others working in the informal sector, persons with disabilities, children, and other excluded groups. Housing and Land Rights Network India (HLRN) has been monitoring the Mission through a human rights lens and recently released an updated report of its findings.

The focus of the Mission is not on the entire area of the 100 shortlisted cities, but instead on select pockets within these cities. By the government’s own admission, over 80 per cent of ‘smart city’ funds are being devoted to ‘area-based development’, which, according to calculations by HLRN, covers less than 5 per cent of the total area in 49 cities (of the 86 cities for which data is available) and affects only 8 per cent of India’s total population. The scheme, thus, appears to have a rather restrictive and fragmented outlook. Instead of a holistic, human rights-based approach to development, it adopts a project-based one. Labelled as a timely response to India’s fast-paced urbanisation, the Mission – like most urban policy interventions globally – accepts the fatalistic ‘inevitability of urbanisation’. It does so without addressing its structural causes, imbalances, and adverse impacts on the ecosystem.

The participation of, and attention to, marginalised groups especially in the framing and execution of projects, has been noticeably limited. While issues related to women, children, persons with disabilities, and older persons find some mention in almost all Smart City Proposals, the Mission lacks a consistent rights-based and substantive equality approach. It appears to be largely gender neutral. Any scheme of this magnitude would require comprehensive standards to guide its unfolding. However, the Mission is characterised by the absence of qualitative standards and monitoring indicators with regard to human rights. Though the government, in a positive move, has announced the development of a ‘liveability index’ to assess the quality of life in 116 Indian cities, including the 100 ‘smart cities’, its methodology is not yet clear.

Smart Cities for Whom?

Adequate housing for low-income groups has been identified as an area of concern in most Smart City Proposals, causing several cities to formulate the goal of becoming ‘slum-free’. However, without concomitant indicators – such as the number of homeless persons in the city – realisation of this target could promote evictions and demolitions of low-income settlements. Evictions have already been reported in several cities for reasons ranging from ‘city beautification’ to ‘slum clearance.’

Global experiences highlight that the price for developing these ‘smart enclaves’ is borne by residents in various ways. While some developments directly lead to the expulsion of low-income communities, others result in higher living costs, for example through increased charges for essential services such as water. With improved amenities in the ‘smart city,’ housing prices tend to rise, fuelling the threat of evictions, homelessness, and gentrification.

An underlying element of ‘smartness’ is increased digitalisation, as is evident in most Smart City Proposals and the Mission guidelines. If not accompanied by adequate safeguards to promote equality, this move could exacerbate India’s digital divide, which is also a gendered and an urban-rural divide. It is estimated that only 29 per cent of India’s internet users are women, while daily internet users account for 182.9 million in urban areas and 98 million in rural India.1 Growing digitalisation entails risks of technological dependence, rising surveillance, and the capture of personal data, generally without consent. In the absence of mechanisms for transparency and accountability, this raises several concerns: from potential violations of the rights to privacy, security, and information to the threat of data misuse.

Another issue of concern is the high dependence of the ‘smart city’ on private sector investment. A great emphasis is being placed on public-private partnerships, which are profit-driven and not based on environmental, social, or human rights impact assessments. This indicates a fundamental shift in governance from a welfare-based to a market-based paradigm, as well as a trend towards growing corporatisation of cities and privatisation of governance.

It is true that being part of the Smart Cities Mission has initiated positive developments in some cities, for example solar energy projects and improved waste management systems. But the question is whether a super structure like the one of the Smart Cities Mission – with a competing governance model, private consultants, and large funds – was required to get cities to perform their mandated roles?

What Next?

As the Mission enters its fourth year and is concentrating efforts to demonstrate results, it is important to reflect on its future and on how positive outcomes for all groups can be ensured. Most importantly, the Mission needs a human rights-based framework for implementation and monitoring, which allows it to assess achievements and to ensure compliance with national and international laws. Implementation should align with India’s international commitments, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, the Paris Agreement, the New Urban Agenda, and the Universal Periodic Review. A national law on data protection is needed to check against the risks of digitalisation.

Instead of its narrow focus, the Mission should address the entire city and everyone in the city. It must prioritise the needs, concerns, and rights of marginalised individuals, groups, and communities, including children, women, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, migrants, homeless persons, domestic workers, persons with disabilities, religious and sexual minorities, and other excluded groups. Meaningful participation and engagement need to be a priority; the free, prior, and informed consent of all affected persons must be obtained before project selection. Human rights and environmental impact assessments must be mandatory for all ‘smart city’ projects. A more integrated policy response that recognizes linkages and addresses rural-urban issues along a continuum is essential. The current model requires a fundamental re-envisioning exercise that places people, not technology and profit, at the centre.

Our goal needs to shift from creating ‘smart cities’ to creating ‘human rights habitats’. It is only then that we can hope to achieve greater equality, social justice, and the realisation of everyone’s right to live with dignity in urban and rural areas.

Shivani Chaudhry

Shivani Chaudhry

Executive Director at Housing and Land Rights Network
Shivani Chaudhry has been working with Housing and Land Rights Network in New Delhi, India, since 2004. Before that, she worked with the Center for International Environmental Law (CIEL) in Washington, D.C., USA. She was a member of the Government of India, Ministry of Rural Development's Task Force on Land Reforms. She has been involved with developing tools and standards to monitor housing and land rights, and writes and speaks on these issues regularly.
Shivani Chaudhry