India’s new government is spending £700m on new smart cities

Finance minister Arun Jaitley, the man with the plan. Image: Getty.

With 857m people still living in its countryside, India is currently home to the largest rural population in the world. But that is, gradually, changing. At the moment, less than a third of India’s population live in an urban area; by the middle of the century, the UN projects, it’ll be more than half.

India’s new government is belatedly responding to this trend. In his maiden budget speech on 15th July, newly appointed finance minister Arun Jaitley allocated INR 70.6bn (nearly £700m) of public money to create India’s first 100 “smart cities”. As housing and urban development minister Venkaiah Naidu explained to a post-budget news conference, the government’s vision is of a smart urban space where “the focus will be on education, entertainment, employment and environment management”.

The new cities won’t actually be cities at all. Rather, they’ll be mid-sized, “peri-urban” satellite towns, intended to take some of the population pressure off the overcrowded metropolises. All the same, the new policy implies three big shifts in the way Indian cities function.

Firstly, the smart cities’ layout will be meticulously planned – in contrast to a history in which most Indian cities have grown organically with little central planning. Next, the planners will focus on an environmentally friendly design, intended to minimise waste and carbon emissions. That’s likely to mean a heavy emphasis on green public transport.

But the most ambitious change is technological. All the cities’ various systems – transport, electricity, water et al. – will be integrated into a smart hub. That way, they can be centrally controlled for maximum efficiency.

Percentage of the population living in urban areas in selected emerging markets. India has been relatively been slow to urbanise. Data source: UN projections.

The smart cities policy was just one of a raft of proposals intended to clean up India’s cities and kick its cooling economy back into high gear. The government’s plan also includes £5bn of investments in highways and other key infrastructure, and £50.5m to improve e-governance and get broadband out to the villages. It also includes moves to reduce capital requirements and make credit more easily available, so as to encourage both foreign and domestic investment in sectors such as real estate.

Jaitley’s “budget for the cities” marked a very clear shift from previous efforts, which have generally prioritised the needs of the rural population. But the migrant job seeker, who left their village to try their luck in the big city, is becoming a staple of the Indian population. They’re also a key cohort in the aspirational ‘neo middle class’ which helped the BJP and its leader Narendra Modi win a large mandate in the recent 2014 Indian elections.

So politically, as well as personally, the smart cities initiative is a pet-project for Prime Minister Modi; significantly, it was one of the manifesto policies prioritized for the government’s first 100 days.

The first step in making this happen will be to set up public-private partnerships with the likes of HP, Cisco and IBM, to create the necessary IT infrastructure. This is a clearly a huge opportunity for those companies, which value the potential market at over £300 million. But it might be one for the public too.

As it stands, India’s myriad bureaucratic department each control one and only one facet of citizens’ lives. But according to Rakesh Kaul, a director of PwC India, these new smart networks will offer “smart policing, smart metering, smart sanitation, adaptive traffic, solid waste management, and (better) healthcare”, all through a single sign-on.

And this could make life much, much easier. Left your air con or lights on at home when you dashed off to work this morning? Simply use an app to turn them off remotely. Compare and contrast healthcare providers on your phone as you ferry between cities on a bullet train. Log-on and pay your traffic fine without having to pony up a bribe. The possibilities seem limitless.

But there are two barriers that need to be addressed before this can become a reality. For one, the money on offer is not actually very much. It works out to approximately £7m for each smart city: seed funding, to be topped up by future governments and through private sector investment.

The bigger issue is how to make this ‘smartification’ of daily life available to those not fortunate enough to have access to a smart phone, the internet, or even electricity. India’s smart phone market grew by a phenomenal 186% in the year to the first quarter of 2014 – but overall penetration still stands at just 10% nationwide. These new smart cities may end up as little more than exclusive enclaves for the financially well-off and technologically savvy, rather than the model inclusive communities being advertised.       

This isn’t the first attempt by an Indian government to sort out India’s sprawling, traffic-clogged and increasingly unlivable cities. Previous efforts, such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission and the Restructured Accelerated Power Development and Reforms Program, haven’t come off. At issue here isn’t a dearth of ideas, but India’s ability to execute them in the face of a vast and sluggish bureaucracy, corrupt politicians and self-serving corporate leaders.

By combining cutting-edge technology with business competence, however, smart cities may finally be able to change things. It’s an idea whose time has come.

Siddharth Bannerjee is a graduate of LSE’s Department of Social Policy. He works on governance reform initiatives, especially ones involving the use of innovative technology and open source data.


In South Africa's cities, evictions are happening despite a national ban

An aerial view shows a destroyed house in Lawley, south of Johannesburg, on April 20, 2020. The city has been demolishing informal structures on vacant land despite a moratorium on evictions. (Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images)

On the morning of 15 July, a South African High Court judge ruled that the city of Cape Town’s Anti-Land Invasion Unit had illegally evicted a man when it destroyed the shack where he was living.

That afternoon, the Anti-Land Invasion Unit was out again, removing shacks in another informal settlement.

Evictions were banned in South Africa for nine weeks, after the national government placed the country under a strict Covid-19 lockdown in late March. At present, eviction orders are automatically suspended until the country moves to a lower “alert level” and can only be carried out with a special order from a judge.

Yet major cities including Cape Town, Johannesburg and eThekwini (created through the merger of Durban with several surrounding communities), have continued to use municipal law enforcement agencies and private security companies to remove people from informal housing. In many cases those operations have been conducted without a court order – something required under regular South African law.

Around 900 people were evicted from three informal settlements in eThekwini during the eviction ban, according to the Church Land Programme, a local NGO. Its director, Graham Philpott, says it’s also aware of evictions in other informal settlements.

While evictions aren’t a “new experience” in these communities, the NGO released a report on lockdown evictions because they were “so explicitly illegal”. “There was a moratorium in place,” Philpott says, “and the local municipality acted quite flagrantly against it. There’s no confusion, there’s no doubt whatsoever, it is illegal. But it is part of a trend where the eThekwini municipality has acted illegally in evicting the poor from informal settlements.”

Evictions also took place in Cape Town and Johannesburg during so-called “hard lockdown” according to local activists. In eThekwini and other municipalities, the evictions have continued despite restrictions. In Cape Town, authorities pulled a naked man, Bulelani Qholani, from his shack. That incident, which was captured on video, drew condemnation from the national government and four members of the Anti-Land Invasion unit were suspended. 

The cities say they’re fighting “land invasions” – illegal occupations without permission from the land owner.

“Land invasions derail housing and service projects, lead to the pollution of waterways, severely prejudice deserving housing beneficiaries and cause property owners to lose their investments over night,” Cape Town’s executive mayor, Dan Plato said in a statement. (Plato has also claimed that Qholani did not live in the shack he was pulled from and that he disrobed when municipal authorities arrived.)

South African municipalities often claim that the shacks they destroy are unoccupied. 

If they were occupied, says Msawakhe Mayisela, a spokesman for the eThekwini municipality, the city would get a court order before conducting an eviction. “Everything we’re doing is within the ambit of the law,” Mayisela says. But “rogue elements” are taking advantage of Covid-19, he added.

“We fully understand that people are desperately in need of land, but the number of people that are flocking to the cities is too much, the city won’t be able to provide housing or accommodation for everyone overnight,” he says. 

While eThekwini claims to be a caring city, local activists say the evictions show otherwise.

In one case, 29 women were evicted from shacks during the hard lockdown. With nowhere to go, they slept in an open field and were arrested by the South African Police Service for violating the lockdown, Philpott says.

“These evictions are dehumanizing people whose dignity is already compromised in many ways,” says S’bu Zikode, the president of Abahlali baseMjondolo, a community organization whose Zulu name translates to “the people of the shacks”. 

“It has reminded us that we are the people that do not count in our society.”

Municipal law enforcement and private security contractors hired by cities regularly fire rubber bullets, or even live ammunition, at residents during evictions. Some 18 Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed since the organization was founded in 2005, Zikode says, most by the eThekwini Land Invasion Unit and Metro Police.

(Mayisela says that if city employees have broken the law, Abahlali baseMjondolo can file a complaint with the police. “There is no conclusive evidence to the effect that our members have killed them,”  he says.)

Other Abahlali baseMjondolo activists have been killed by what Zikode calls “izinkabi,” hitmen hired by politicians. Two eThekwini city councillors were sentenced to life in prison 2016 after they organized the killing of Thuli Ndlovu, an Abahlali baseMjondolo organizer. A member of the Land Invasion Unit who is currently facing a charge of attempted murder after severely injuring a person during an eviction remains on the job, Zikode says.

South Africa’s 1996 constitution is intended to protect the public from arbitrary state violence and guarantees a right to housing, as well as due process in evictions. But for Zikode, the South African constitution is a “beautiful document on a shelf”.

“For the working class and the poor, it’s still difficult to have access to court. You’ve got to have money to get to court,” he says. 

The actions by municipal law enforcement are breaking down social trust, says Buhle Booi, a member of the Khayelitsha Community Action Network, a community group in the largest township in Cape Town.

“There’s a lack of police resources and those very few police resources that they have, they use to destroy people’s homes, to destroy people’s peace, rather than fighting crime, real criminal elements that we see in our society,” Booi says.

For him, it’s a continuation of the practices of the colonial and apartheid governments, pushing poor people, most of whom are Black, to the periphery of cities.

Around one-fifth of South Africa’s urban population live in shacks or informal dwellings, according to a 2018 report by SERI. Many more live in substandard housing. City governments maintain that the shacks destroyed during anti-land invasion operations are unfinished and unoccupied. But Edward Molopi, a research and advocacy officer at SERI, says that this claim is an attempt to escape their legal obligations to get a court order and to find alternative accommodation for affected people. 

The roots of the current eviction crisis go back to apartheid, which barred non-white people from living in cities. Between the 1940s and 1970s, tens of thousands of people were forcibly relocated from neighbourhoods like Johannesburg’s Sophiatown and Cape Town’s District Six to remote townships.

In the 26 years following the end of apartheid, deepening economic inequality and rampant unemployment have limited access to formal housing for millions of South Africans. Government housing programs have mostly focused on building small stand-alone homes, often on the peripheries of cities far from jobs and amenities.

While these well-intentioned projects have built millions of homes, they’ve failed to keep up with demand, says Marie Huchzermeyer, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism & Built Environment Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Government-funded housing projects “will never on it’s own be enough,” she says. “It has to be accompanied by land release.”

Government policies call for the “upgrading” of informal settlements and the formalization of residents’ occupation. But “there are still very, very, very few projects” of that nature in South Africa, Huchzermeyer says. “Even if it’s an informal settlement that’s been around for 20 years, there still seems to be a political wish to punish people for having done that.” The government wants people to go through the formal process of being given a house, she says – and for them to be thankful to the government for providing it.

At the municipal level, change will require “real leadership around informal settlement upgrading and around ensuring that land is available for people to occupy,” she says. 

Despite the end of enforced racial segregation, spacial apartheid remains a factor in South Africa. There are few mixed-income neighbourhoods. Those who can afford to often live behind walls in sprawling low-density suburbs, while the poor live in overcrowded slums and apartment buildings.

The creation of the apartheid city “didn't happen by chance,” says Amira Osman, a professor of architecture at the Tshwane University of Technology. “It was a deliberate, structured approach to the design of the city. We need a deliberate, structured approach that will undo that.”

Since last fall, Johannesburg’s Inclusionary Housing Policy has required developments of 20 or more units to set aside 30% of those units for low-income housing.

The policy, which faced significant opposition from private developers, won’t lead to dramatic change, says Sarah Charlton, a professor at the Centre for Urbanism and Built Environment Studies, but it is “an important and significant step.”

Zikode isn’t optimistic that change will come for shack dwellers, however.

“People in the high positions of authority pretend that everything is normal,” he says. “They pretend that everyone is treated justly, they pretend that everyone has homes with running water, that everyone has a piece of land – and hide the truth and the lies of our democracy.”

Jacob Serebrin is a freelance journalist currently based in Johannesburg. Follow him on Twitter.