Mihir S Sharma questions whether digital technology is the best way to prepare neglected urban areas for an influx of rural migrants


Mohandas Gandhi, who the Republic of India continues to venerate as the ‘father of the nation’, said a century ago that ‘India does not live in its towns, but in its villages’. One way or another, this has been the guiding ideology of successive Indian governments.

Welfare schemes have been focused on the rural poor, and have largely left the urban poor untargeted. Migration from villages to towns and cities has not been seen by the government in New Delhi as a natural consequence of economic development, but as a failure that needs to be addressed by specific policy. If people are moving away from rural India to towns, this logic goes, then something must be wrong in the villages – and it is the government’s duty to make it easier for them to stay ‘at home’.

An unfortunate consequence of this sort of thinking is that India’s towns and cities are never set up to receive migrants. Few new planned townships have been built since the 1950s, and existing cities are startlingly unfriendly to new residents. They struggle to register as voters, or to access basic amenities. Low-income housing is not a priority, and where it is built tends to be reserved, explicitly or implicitly, for ‘locals’. Some large cities, such as Mumbai, have repeatedly voted for local parties that explicitly attack and intimidate migrants from the rural hinterland of India’s northern states.

This is why, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that he intended to build ‘100 smart cities’ shortly after he came into office in May 2014, it was seen as a sharp departure from previous Indian governments. It is difficult to overstate how much of a change this rhetorical focus on urbanisation represented. And it hasn’t come a moment too soon; by some estimates, in the next decade and a half, a quarter of a billion Indians will seek to move to a larger town.

Unfortunately, since then, as more details of Modi’s plan have leaked out, disappointment has begun to set in. Perhaps the seeds of the problems that many now detect in the programme were visible from day one – and in the very name, ‘smart cities’. It’s difficult to get three urbanists in a room to agree what a ‘smart city’ is, but in most cases they would say it has something to do with the use of technology to make existing cities more liveable, and to ensure that urban services respond more swiftly to citizens’ needs. This is clearly a worthy goal, but it is not quite a city-building programme.

POLL POSITIONS: India’s villages are seen by politicians as where their real voters live
POLL POSITIONS: India’s villages are seen
by politicians as where their real voters live

Rather than finding new sites for townships, or developing areas for settlement from scratch, the 33 smart cities that have so far been chosen by the central government, following a competition in which state governments nominated towns for consideration by New Delhi’s urban affairs ministry, are all existing towns. And instead of expanding municipal boundaries, the smart cities programme will at best tweak existing infrastructure. This has led the unkind to suggest that the biggest beneficiaries of the smart cities programme, as it is currently, will be large digital infrastructure companies like Siemens and Cisco, and not current or future town-dwellers.

While GPS in buses that tell riders when they’re approaching, or sensors in garbage dumps that alert municipalities when they’re overflowing, are good ideas, neither quite substitutes for a real bus fleet, a bus transit corridor, or a well-administered municipal garbage collection service. Digitising urban services can provide more information to the authorities; but unless they have the incentives and the capability to respond, town-dwellers are unlikely to benefit.

What, instead, should Modi be doing for India’s towns?

First of all – and most important – municipal administrations should be made more responsive to those who actually live there. Currently, towns tend to be administered by the government of the state in which they are located. Urban and village local bodies, the ‘third tier’ of Indian government below the Centre and the states, are starved of funds and of power. But politicians in states tend to look at towns as merely revenue-generating locations, and villages as being where their real voters live. This will not change any time soon.


India’s political system is notoriously cash-hungry. And there is so much money to be made from real estate permissions and from urban services contracts that state politicians are not going to give up control of these easily. Modi should have focused on pushing or bribing state governments to legally empower local governments. Giving real power to the lowest, and most accountable, level of government is the first step to making sure that India’s towns become more liveable.

The smart cities project was in fact an opportunity to push for this change. The promise of a large amount of money from the central budget, even if on the condition that most of it flows to an elected and empowered urban administration, might have won over some state-level leaders. But, instead, the idea of local empowerment is alien to the programme as it’s currently designed. Indeed, the plan is for each smart city to have a ‘CEO’ responsible to New Delhi – which naturally undercuts the elected local administrators.

The second aspect of any credible urbanisation programme would be to actually manage rural-to-urban migration; not in the Chinese sense of reducing or controlling it, but in setting up pathways that rural-to-urban migrants could follow. The Prime Minister has promised to build large concentrations of new factories, well connected to global trade routes, as part of his ‘Make in India’ programme. These factories will need workers.

A young person in a distant part of rural India should be able to pack up and move to the vicinity of these factories, secure in the belief that the government will help him or her find or train for a job, and that there will be ample and secure low-income housing nearby. In other words, there are crucial additional stakeholders in the urbanisation process, besides the various levels of government and current town-dwellers: they are potential or future town-dwellers. Any sensible urbanisation programme should be set up to respond to their needs and choices.

DOES IT COMPUTE?: Some believe the biggest beneficiaries of this smart cities programme will be digital infrastructure companies like Siemens
DOES IT COMPUTE?: Some believe the biggest beneficiaries of this smart cities programme will be digital infrastructure companies like Siemens

The third prong of workable urbanisation in India must be a focus on the basics. A permanent water supply needs not just ‘smart’ water meters but miles of new pipes. Many Indian towns either use British-era sewage systems or lack modern sewage altogether. Bus systems have expanded following a ten-year push by the previous central government to give cities cash for public transport and similar amenities; but the buses frequently run on potholed roads, because nobody has worked out a way to pay for those. Before cities become ‘smart’, they must be basic.

Digital technology is sometimes viewed in developing countries as a way to leapfrog the failures of the state. The smart cities programme in India is, in some ways, the apotheosis of this error. Without fixing the more basic capabilities of the state, digitisation is doomed to be an incomplete and partial solution. And any programme that relies solely on digitisation – including the smart cities project – will eventually fail.

The worst part is not that the project will be ruinously expensive when it does fail. The problem in India is that those quarter of a billion migrants are very likely to move anyway, whether India’s towns are ready for them or not. India is a liberal democracy; unlike in China, migration cannot be restricted or controlled.

It is difficult to imagine India’s cities being even more crowded and under-serviced than they are today, but it can and will happen, unless something changes. India’s current and future town-dwellers will need a more complete solution for their failing cities than Modi has offered them so far.

Educated in New Delhi and Boston, Mihir S Sharma is a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi. His financial journalism has won several prizes. His book, Restart: the Last Chance for the Indian Economy, was listed for the FT-McKinsey Business Book of the Year award in 2015.


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