“A private takeover of public space”: Will India's smart cities experiment really help tackle poverty?

Allahabad: not currently too smart. Image: Sanjay Kanojia/Getty.

India is rising. In cities across the nation, the pace of construction is reaching frenzied heights. Each city, each district, each state is reinventing itself, one smartphone, one flyover, one superhighway, one mega-project at a time.

In a recent speech, the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, said that the nation needed “to think big and focus on skill, scale and speed to revive India’s growth story”. To this end, Modi has come up with a new business model for urbanisation: India’s ambitious national smart cities mission, which aims to transform a hundred small and medium–sized settlements into smart cities.

As part of Modi’s mission, local governments are expected to consult with citizens and come up with proposals to make their city smart. The federal state will then select the hundred cities – based on past record and future potential – to receive recognition and resources for their plans.

While smart cities in the west rely on the mining and analysis of big data to create urban networks, Indian smart cities aim to provide basic urban services: water, sanitation, electricity, housing and so on. The provision of e-governance, fibre-optic cables and superfast broadband is a key part of this plan.

Best avoided. Image: dieterzirnig.com/Flickr/creative commons.

In India, the definition of a “smart city” has been opened up to allow for regional variation driven by innovation, entrepreneurship and business needs. The idea is to use urbanisation as an opportunity to generate wealth and prosperity. It’s also hoped that new smart cities will bypass the developmental “crises” (such as crime, poverty, energy shortages and slums), which grip mega-cities in the global south.

With this outlook, India’s investment in smart cities seems to be a win-win situation for governments and citizens alike.

The flip side

But scratch the surface, and a very different picture emerges.

In fact, the smart cities mission is promoting rapid regional urbanisation by speculating and monetising on the commons – land which belongs formally or informally to farmers and tribes people, who have used it for generations – and transforming it into real estate. Crucially, this transformation excludes those who do not fit into the vision of a smart city.

Not invited. Image: Well-Bred Kannan (WBK Photography)/Flickr/creative commons.

Attracting investment to fund smart city transformations is a major challenge. Public investment is inadequate, so funding is being sought through public-private partnerships. Global IT consultancies such as Cisco, Siemens, Samsung; infrastructure companies such as AECOM; and coalitions of planning, architecture and management companies have been lining up to provide smart city skills, technology and knowledge.

But they do so at a price – the terms of these partnerships often bypass the democratic processes associated with planning and governance.

For example, a range of new laws have been brought in, which highlight how India’s journey toward smart urbanisation is being influenced by corporate interests. These include laws sanctioning foreign direct investment in construction, and speeding up environmental clearances for major projects. Then there were the much-contested proposals to relax regulations around national land acquisition.

Reforms made in the name of India’s smart cities agenda have facilitated a private takeover of public space. While small and medium-sized towns are undergoing exponential growth, there has also been a large-scale manipulation of territory along their edges. Land acquisition and pooling along economic and industrial corridors, where these smart cities are strategically located, is prompting the construction of further satellite cities.

This is cause for concern: these new developments are largely privately owned, and sometimes even privately managed and governed. They run the risk of becoming enclaves of privilege, with private sector representatives already advocating the exclusion of the poor and marginalised through high prices and policing.

The smart city vision has also been criticised for its focus on the control and surveillance of ordinary citizens. While connected homes and public wifi might be a seductive promise for India’s middle classes, the services and products offered by Cisco, Siemens and others address only the symptoms and not the causes of poverty and underdevelopment.

International investment

So the question remains: who gains from these smart city ventures? The last year has seen an unprecedented number of foreign visits, both by the Indian prime minister and from potential international investors. Since 2014, David Cameron, Barack Obama, François Hollande and several other world leaders have visited India offering the knowledge, skills and investment India needs for its smart cities makeover.

Indeed, Japan’s Shinzo Abe recently visited India to sign a memorandum of understanding for the transformation of India’s holy city Varanasi into a smart city.

This global jostling is worth millions of pounds and dollars for consultancies and construction firms in the US and Europe.

But for all the Indian prime minister’s promise to “lay a red carpet and not red tape” for foreign investors, the process has been anything but fast. One of the big road blocks has been the bureaucratic processes of investment and approvals for smart city contracts. Difficulties have led to the retraction of several agreeements by private investors.

At the city level, some local authorities are refusing to implement the vision, on the basis that it gives India’s central government increased powers over urban development, which were constitutionally reserved for local authorities.

But it is at the grassroots where the smart city vision has been really challenged. After nationwide protests and petitions, the government was recently forced to withdraw proposals to relax land acquisition laws, which sought to remove embedded consultation and compensation clauses.

In Dholera, Rajarhat, Amravati, Haolenphai and several other new smart cities, farmers, tribespeople and indigenous groups are resisting their exclusion from India’s smart city makeover. They are campaigning for their constitutional rights to land, livelihoods and local cultures.

Their struggles are proof that neither the Indian government, nor its allies in the corporate world, have had the last word. India’s experiments with smart urban futures is contested, and will continue to evolve.The Conversation

Ayona Datta is a senior lecturer at the University of Leeds.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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.