India: smart cities need smart governance

The proposed Dholera smart city in Gujarat. Image: Dholera smart city.

Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister, is a leader with an urban vision. Before becoming prime minister, he was chief minister of Gujarat, where he transformed the state capital Ahmedabad with an award-winning sustainable bus transit system and a “world-class” riverfront recreation space.

Today, Modi’s most ambitious projects in the region are two planned new “smart cities”: the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City, on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, and Dholera, an industrial hub on the Delhi-Mumbai corridor. Still in inception, these cities are at the heart of the new administration’s ambitious plan to transform the crumbling and chaotic image of Indian urbanisation by building a hundred new smart cities

China is an inspiration for Modi, both in its larger push for modernisation through urbanisation, and its state-of-the-art new developments like Tianjin’s famous “Eco-city”. For urbanising countries like India and China, smart cities are an opportunity to turn urban growth into sustainable development.

Modi’s new policy has generated excitement amongst business leaders and urban elites tired of living in “third-world” environments. But whether India’s smart city policy will translate into the desired outcomes – more sustainable, more productive and better-governed cities – is debatable. Both smart and traditional cities need strong and effective local institutions to flourish. In India, that simply isn’t the reality.

1. India’s Megacities lack autonomous governments with the power to shape their own affairs.

Instead they’re controlled by provincial administrations, and managed by a patchwork of state, city and municipal bodies, public and private corporations and village panchayats (a sort of parish council).

But if smart cities are to have any impact on planning, coordination and governance, there needs to be a centralised metropolitan governing structure, accountable to city residents. If city governments do not have the incentives and resources, the trappings of a smart city – cyber highways, digital sensors, smart cards and computerized management systems – will remain just trappings: like the city development plans and environmental policies Indian cities regularly prepare but rarely implement.

2. Local authorities bear the financial burdens of service delivery without the powers of revenue generation.

City and local governments, responsible for basic public services, have the most direct impact on well-being, particularly that of the poor. In India, however, there is a glaring mismatch between their functions and capabilities.

Urban local bodies account for a third of public expenditure but just three percent of revenue. Property taxes, the main revenue base for municipal governments, constitute just 0.44 percent of India’s tax revenues, strikingly lower than other emerging economies.

Moreover, most so-called “smart city” or “new city” projects underway in India are happening outside official city boundaries. Most aren’t new cities at all, but self-contained commercial, residential or industrial enclaves adjacent to major cities. The revenues from such policies typically go to provincial levels of government, which are in charge of urban development policy; municipal and local authorities are left holding the costs. This pattern undermines the potential of city governments to grow into effective, well-resourced and democratically accountable institutions that can effectively improve urban conditions.

China is politically centralised, but administratively and fiscally it is far more decentralised than India. Its local governments account for half of public expenditure and 25 percent of revenue. They have the tools and resources to plan and manage growth; they can annex surrounding rural areas, and use land revenues to fund urban development. This strategy has allowed China to urbanise rapidly, with infrastructure and services keeping pace with or preceding urban population growth. India will struggle to follow suit.

3. Urbanisation in India has not been strengthening local governments

Urbanisation, historically, has been a time where public institutions are built and strengthened, from utilities to regulatory institutions, social welfare services to libraries and hospitals. So the current fragility of India’s civic institutions will have a serious impact on its ability to deliver improvements in wellbeing to its rapidly growing urban population.

Rural urbanisation accounted for nearly 30 percent of urban growth in India over the past decade. It’s created hundreds of newly-urban settlements which don’t have the municipal institutions required to collect taxes, plan development or deliver public services. As a result, slums and informal settlements, once a big city problem, are becoming more widespread.

By 2040, India’s urban population will be over 600 million. Amartya Sen describes India as a place where “islands of California” exist amidst a “sea of sub-Saharan Africa”. To mitigate, rather than entrench, inequities India needs an urban agenda that is more wide-ranging, inclusive, sustainable and locally-driven than one centered on new smart cities. 

The plan to build a hundred new smart cities is both grandiosely ambitious and deeply inadequate. Even if realised, it is unlikely that the smart cities will do much to alleviate India’s urban ills or secure broad-based economic opportunities and improvements in living standards for the majority.

Employment generation, environmental and social criteria, governance and public participation should not just be window-dressing, but must be taken seriously. Unless they are, the hundred smart cities will be nothing more than a hundred real-estate projects.


Shahana Chattaraj is a postdoctoral fellow in comparative public policy at the Blavatnik School of Government, University of Oxford, which exists to inspire and support better public policy and government around the world.

The Challenges of Government Conference – “Flourishing Cities” will take place in Oxford on 11-12 December.


Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.