Needed, a new urban vision

Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched his flagship >Smart Cities Mission proclaiming that governmental intervention in planning the cities would be minimal. He referred to a “bottom-up approach”, but did not emphasise who exactly would benefit from the cities. The approach suggests that India is breaking away from its Anglo-European architectural tradition, promoted by Jawaharlal Nehru in the 1960s with the projection of Chandigarh as a template for urban planners. Nehru’s aim was to create mixed-income cities with easy access to community infrastructure and to institutions such as the judiciary, the legislature and the executive. But Mr. Modi’s urban-planning approach contradicts that view and largely resonates with American-style urbanism. The government is putting the spotlight on smart cities and allowing the business community to lead the development. Let us take an example in the U.S. to figure out who could benefit from the new urban plans in India. In New York City, most of the commercial and residential buildings from uptown to downtown Manhattan are inhabited by the rich who can afford the huge rents. They have installed biometric security systems to keep the ‘unwanted people’ — that is, the poor — at bay. The city government has largely outsourced the public services to private companies, which are replacing the labour force with mechanised technology. As a result, the job market has become saturated. The unskilled workforce is caught up in a low-wage job cycle.

Before pushing India on to a similar American path, Prime Minister Modi must step back and re-think whether his government should invest in smart cities, or rather empower the existing urban centres by means of policies that cater to poor and middle class Indians. For instance, at present almost every Indian city faces sanitation issues due to the absence or inadequacy of drainage networks. The migration of people from rural areas to the urban peripheries continues at a rapid pace, resulting in the mushrooming of slums and unauthorised colonies. According to Census 2011, some 65 million people live in slums. The government’s response to the issue in terms of planning to build affordable housing for them is short-sighted. Smart cities would simply institutionalise the disparity within the cities instead of filling the lacunae. The last decade of urbanisation did change the academic and policy consensus toward urban centres, but ignored the fringes of these centres where those from the poor and the lower-middle class who came in a large influx ended up. In Delhi, the government passed on powers to residents’ welfare associations, which now decide on the choice of basic civic matters — and they always give preference to their own gated communities. Mr. Modi must take a forward-looking stance when it comes to developing urban India. Otherwise, the glossy vision of building smart cities could end up triggering a process of social apartheid.

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Printable version | Apr 9, 2021 9:40:13 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/editorial/needed-a-new-urban-vision/article7358629.ece

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