In pursuit of smartness

The dream of the ‘smart city’ is a morally and socially indefensible one in a hierarchical society, in which the quest for meeting the basic needs of citizens has been all but abandoned

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:28 pm IST

Published - August 12, 2014 12:35 am IST

Illustration: Prathap Ravishankar

Illustration: Prathap Ravishankar

The “smart” phone moment passed me by, since I was determined to maintain my edge over a mere inanimate object. But the new and eager call for “smart” cities is too intriguing to let pass without reflection and comment. The call to >“smarten” Indian cities has gone beyond the tired old promises of clearing garbage, building more housing for the poor, providing drinking water, guaranteeing electricity supply and better roads. Instead, it sets its goals high — placing hope entirely on creating a new urban space consisting of hot spots, continuous and seamless wifi access, sensors which alert you about impending traffic jams or tell you how to curtail water wastage and bring every household onto a smart e-grid. It hopes to leverage and mobilise technology to improve energy consumption and waste management, clear congestion, allocate scarce resources wisely, provide Internet connectivity and infrastructure to enable ease of access and movement. Sometimes, a few other desirables have been thrown in such as healthcare and good governance.

This technobabble about our collective future is not very different from the dreams which other technologies once generated. In the 1960s, when we were young and stupidly enamoured of what electricity could achieve, the most popular room at the Visvesvaraya Industrial and Technological Museum in Bangalore was the Room of the Future, whose door would open with a mere “hello.” Appropriate lights and music would turn on as you entered and settled down. That Ideal Home, in what was then a Non Fan Station (Army classification for cool cities like Bangalore), was a dreamlike space, but no one seriously believed they would be part of anybody’s real experience. But that was before the remote control was even dreamed of. As Bangalore moved away from its exalted Non Fan status, new dreams were spun out of the marvels of city planning and management represented by Singapore. At the end of the last millennium, the Karnataka Chief Minister even pragmatically promised “strips of Singapore” — despairing at the hurdles in India posed by democracy. Meanwhile, IT giants who made Bangalore their home spoke of building “a home where no buffaloes roam” a la Santa Clara, California, with Narayana Murthy, the CEO of Infosys, as the Mayor.

Though we don’t have a >“smart” city yet in India , a 100 of them have been provided for in the latest budget, following the model of Gujarat’s Dholera. Gujarat’s Dholera, which is stoutly being resisted by — you guessed right — those who will be dispossessed, we see many real estate companies occupying the Internet with their offers of “smartness.” The enchantment with “smart” cities, which began with the previous Finance Minister, was significant enough to be made a part of the 12th Five Year Plan.

Needless to say, such ambitious technological visions involve huge finances, and once more, predictably, the mere thought of the quick millions to be made in building these dreams is leading many companies, not to say governments such as that of Singapore, to salivate.

Scaling up the ‘gated community’

Is the “smart” city the “one size fits all” solution to the myriad problems that plague the cities and towns of the subcontinent? One quickly realises that it is not; rather, the “smart city” will evade the intolerable strains on public and private life posed by the ungovernable Indian city. In order to do this, “smart” cities will design a new future for their inhabitants: “greenfield” sites will be made to ensure the homogeneity of its population. It is a scaling up of the “gated community” concept to the city level.

The dream of the “smart city” is a morally and socially indefensible one in a deeply segmented and hierarchical society like ours, in which the quest for meeting the basic needs of its citizens, even decades after independence, has been all but abandoned. The pursuit of smartness is merely another name for a technological escape from our bewildering and taxing social milieu. Meanwhile, emboldened no doubt by the success of many privately built gated communities, the Sanathana Dharama Parirakshana Trust from Sringeri has taken the pursuit of smartness to new heights. On offer at a site about 40 kilometres from Bangalore is the first exclusively Brahmin community township, a vedic village no less, with a temple complex, a Veda Pathasala, Goshala, alternative medicine centre, etc. Houses curving around the auspicious symbol of ‘Om’ will ensure its inhabitants protection from the rough and tumble of Indian democracy.

That such a space has even been imagined and advertised, (and by the claims of the advertisement “sold out”) in a nation which has, over the last century, been acutely and shamefully short on just and humane urban visions, is a defiance of democracy, and a mockery of the market’s “invisible hand.” It not only lays bare the bankruptcy of our collective urban imaginations, it reinvents the spatial brutalities of caste.

(Janaki Nair is professor, Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.)

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