‘We don’t need IT here’: the inside story of India’s smart city gold rush

In the final days of India’s first Smart City Challenge – an endeavour both ambitious and suspect – consultants just wanted the whole thing done with. As the December deadline for submissions approached, they crisscrossed the country holding on to nearly finished plans and proposals for the cities they had been assigned just two months earlier.

Their documents evoked those familiar, romantic overtures of urban development: constant electricity and an endless flow of water, cyclists with their own avenues, renewed rivers and promenades for families to enjoy each evening, and streetlights that sensed when they were needed. The effects would be felt far beyond the limited geography of each smart city, the consultants thought.

Pashim Tiwari, an urban planner working with the All India Institute of Local Self-Government, was among those who sensed change. The 98-year-old organisation had been assigned two prospective smart cities in the state of Haryana, and two in Chhattisgarh. Tiwari was in charge of the projects. With barely two weeks left until the deadline, he knew his way around government offices – armed guards would step aside when he approached the cabins of powerful officials. When the team’s senior members went home now and then, their wives would reintroduce them to their children.

The extreme pressure of the two-month deadline engendered a rare spirit of cooperation. Legions of city officials were free to find obscure information the planners required. “City managers have become more aware of their cities. Most weren’t aware of the strengths and weaknesses – now, for the first time, this kind of thinking is getting institutionalised,” Tiwari said thoughtfully one morning in Bilaspur, one of the two smart city prospects in Chhattisgarh. “Nothing like this has ever happened before.”

‘They’ve ignored this place for so long …’ Bilaspur is one of the two smart city prospects in Chhattisgarh. Photograph: Mint/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

Outside, a roundabout dedicated to Jawaharlal Nehru wore political hoardings concealing India’s first prime minister, and tinny speakers broadcast instrumental music from the 1950s. Wires – electrical, cables – hung over the low buildings like unruly hair. Store owners swept rubbish into piles left on the streets, and cows gathered around the biggest mounds. The town’s pavement designs were a choice left to building owners.

Tiwari had arrived in Bilaspur from New Delhi early that December morning, wearing a sweater. The temperature outside was 30C. His eyes were glassy, and his cough was in no way helped by the coal dust carried into the city by slow winds. At the town’s municipal headquarters, Tiwari spent his waking hours creating the town’s smart city proposal with a team of young planners. “They aren’t jaded by city policies yet,” he grinned.

Bilaspur’s municipal commissioner had vacated a conference room for this youthful team. Other than a few sofas and coffee tables cloistered in one corner, the room was bereft of fixtures, but thousands of questionnaires were stacked along one wall. Tiwari explained that more than 70 “urban local bodies” (arms of government responsible for civic works) had conducted 35,000 detailed interviews for this single proposal.

Part of Bilaspur’s smart city plan

Citizens had been asked to rate the government’s accessibility, the town’s cleanliness, broadband penetration, mobile connectivity, sewerage, and safety and security on a scale of one to five. Tiwari asked for a sample from the file. The respondent had suggested, in a mix of Hindi and English, “a separate lane for emergency vehicles so that lives can be saved”. Asked which part of the city they wanted rejuvenated for the smart cities project, a substantial number of people mentioned the Arpa river around which the town had grown. Because citizens wanted it, the planners’ proposal would focus on the river. The whole smart cities endeavour, after all, was about what the citizens of India wanted.

Tiwari believes that smart cities could fix the problems of regular cities. “The city can now run as a public limited company,” he said, happily. “When you look at a city that way, the moment the valuation increases, municipal bonds become a reality. I’ll give you an example: city surveillance is amazingly viable in larger towns. If you have houses paying a small amount, you could have enough cameras to have an effective city surveillance network. And not one handled by the government, but by private companies.”

Like every other consultant vying for the government’s approval, Tiwari had followed the rules and was preparing two plans for each of his cities. One detailed the ideas and budgets for a small area within the city; the other was an invisible technological grid laid over the entire city. Tiwari’s team proposed a bespoke, city-wide digital operating system: “It will have electricity, water, healthcare, birth-death, credit card data, traffic licensing, penalties,” he said. “As a city official, if dengue season is approaching, you’ll get alerts reminding you that you have to put out particular tenders.”

Tiwari believes that, eventually, everybody will come to see the benefit of living in a “smart area”, and be willing to pay for it. He described a world where all the city’s residents, from slum residents to the occupants of penthouses, could use services online – where electrical connections were easy to procure, and all kinds of payments could be made by phone or at a kiosk. A world of blissful information technology. “We realised that even in slums, people will pay nominally more for improved services. [With our system] everyone is able to access any resource if he is able to pay for it. Every citizen has the opportunity to access data for his survival and upliftment.”

A model at the Smartcity Expo in New Delhi. Photograph: Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

A mile or two east of Bilaspur’s municipal headquarters, at the banks of the Arpa river, are where the trash returns to town. I walked there the day after meeting Tiwari and saw a boy who was squatting behind a mound of trash, scoop up handfuls of acrid water to rinse himself. Cannonballing children leapt off a pipe jutting above the river’s surface.

On the administration’s side of the river, where nicer buildings are located, a woman in a burkha came down the bank, passing pigs and an immobile drunk. She hitched up the hem of her clothing, and trod carefully on a submerged path through the treacly stream.

The full details of the new city plan were still unknown to residents of Bilaspur, but as often happens, the more ominous parts were beginning to leak out. Tiwari said that land around the river would be acquired for the smart city. In exchange, residents would receive another plot nearby: a third of the size of the land they gave up, but according to him, worth much more with the knock-on effects of the smart city. “It is quite lucrative for people to give.”

“During Indira Gandhi’s time, they promised us a bridge here,” said a man living beside the river, who declined to give his name. “They’ve ignored this place for so long, and now we’ve heard they’re breaking everything.”

As he spoke, a boy rode up on a bicycle, wearing only red underwear. He stopped at the river’s edge and stared across, chewing a small red rag.

“Look at this addict,” the man said, as the boy turned to go. “Smell his rag.” The cloth the boy was chewing reeked of turpentine. “Look at his chest – it will curve inward. All this will go inside him and his insides will get stuck. He will die before he is 24.”

The boy, aged 14, nodded his head in agreement; he looked like he wanted someone to find him a place in the world. Then he mounted his cycle, rode it into the river, and fell off.

Making a smart city

In February 2015, the Indian government announced that Bloomberg Philanthropies, the urban-focused charitable foundation set up by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, was to help the Ministry of Urban Development identify Indian cities that could be made “smarter”. Through Bloomberg’s connections, local officials could reach out to experts elsewhere.

“This approach is different,” the government’s release said. “It will ensure that real citizen engagement happens, as people get involved both in design and execution of city development plans.”

Each competing city had official webpages on a government-run website, where citizens were asked what kind of smart city they desired. The responses included working streetlights, better roads, regular garbage collection – the stuff of regular civic life.

Bloomberg Philanthropies has said its aims would include giving “local officials … broad flexibility to develop approaches” that answered local needs. A Bloomberg video explains: “Smart cities are about clustering smart people, smart institutions, and creating an economic model that can evolve with time.”

Last August, a shortlist of 98 cities was announced. Before the end of January, the first 20 winners of the smart city challenge will be revealed. A further 40 smart cities will be chosen the following year, and 40 more will follow the year after. Together, they will draw on the $100m funds from the smart city programme over five years. The funding will increase substantially with matching funds from each state, and other government schemes to utilise.

But greater than this competition is the pull of history: smart cities have long been imagined, but never defined. To help create the model, technology companies have forged smart city agreements, hosted smart city conferences, and arranged smart city meetings. In Bilaspur, Cisco said it would charge the town £2.6m for an information and communication technology platform. In addition, the planners had budgeted £6.7m to lay broadband fibre. Meetings were arranged with Siemens. “Even Google’s getting into smart cities,” said one planner.

How the ‘Aerotropolis’ at Durgapur, West Bengal, might look. As of now, it consists of a runway, a terminal, and roads surrounded by fields. Photograph: Townland

Elsewhere, Microsoft, Ashoka University and the Indian School of Business have begun a “venture accelerator programme” focused on smart city solutions. Dheeraj Batra, who heads the business school’s incubator, said the accelerator would take a “very broad approach” to smart cities. Asked why the school decided to focus on smart cities instead of regular ones, Batra said: “Honestly, the smart cities idea gives these startups a better chance at success.”

To create the proposals, cities signed up a raft of international consultants: McKinsey Company, KPMG, PricewaterhouseCoopers, the Indian firms Infosys and Tata, and Aecom, a consultancy conglomerate whose revenues doubled from the previous year to $18bn in 2015. Cautionary stories circulated: in one of the largest corporate settlements in Australia, for example, Aecom settled for $201m for exaggerated traffic forecasts for a failed toll road.

There are others, such as “Aerotropolis”, a sprawling real-estate project in West Bengal marketed as India’s first airport metropolis. As of now, it consists of a runway, a terminal, and roads surrounded by fields.

Townland, the Indonesian consultancy behind Aerotropolis, is now one of the official consultants for Tiruchirappalli, a city in Tamil Nadu which is also known as Trichy. At a mandatory hearing with local stakeholders, the consultants were viewed as outsiders who couldn’t come to terms with this culture of the ancient temple town.

Vijaykumar Sengottuvelan, a local architect, was disapproving: “I don’t think a consultant coming from outside can draw a plan for Trichy in the next 10 or 20 years. They’re totally unfamiliar with the nuances and identity of the place. They’re not able to tell the difference between Trichy and [the neighbouring city of] Madhurai. They asked me what made Trichy unique,” he said, seemingly a breath away from adding: “the heathens.

Sengottuvelan agreed to be interviewed soon after a smart city consultation with citizens had been held. “They said the city will have IT companies,” he explained.

At the meeting, he and other stakeholders worried about the proposal. “We said that the identity of the city should be respected; that whatever development has to happen should focus on strengthening these identities, rather than making every city the same. If you’re going to think of smart cities only like they’re Dubai or Shanghai … it will be a gated community.”

The proposal for Tiruchirappalli was less gated community, more a weird mix of marketing speak and emotional pandering. Residents were promised “enhanced last-mile connectivity”, an “integrated bus stand with sky walk”, digital signage, “employment opportunity for [the] economically weaker section”, and health monitoring apps “especially for pregnant ladies”.

Wired city: chaotic electricity cables in Old Delhi. Photograph: Arkaprava Ghosh/Barcroft India

But Sengottuvelan believed that the public hearings, a crucial part of the smart city challenge, were a facade: “The hearings give a false impression that things are transparent.” He believed the agenda for smart cities had already been set, and the exercise was about the application of information technology for benefits that were unclear.

“As stakeholders, we know what the city lacks. But in their presentation, they said that technology would be used to stop electricity theft, and there will be CCTV on the streets, and they were talking about an app that tells you where parking is available.” The thought left him cold. “My suspicion is that they have already developed technology, and are looking for a place where they can sell it en masse.”

The decision process

The question about technology’s dominance in smart cities is surely the tip of a deeper concern: who decides what a city’s priorities should be? In 1992, an amendment to India’s constitution devolved power to city governments. People affected by city life, the thinking went, should have a say in city affairs.

The urban ministry’s approach to smart cities swings the other way. “The cities programme nudges us toward information technology, rather than local government,” said Pavan Srinath, the head of policy research at the Takshashila Institution. Sensing that the mission to create smart cities was an important moment in urban governance, Srinath has led the thinktank’s study of the endeavour from 2014: “You have to ask, is the smart cities mission furthering local government, or putting a spanner in it?

“I think, for a city like New York, where problems have been solved, putting sensors on sewage pipes is a wonderful idea. For India … ” his voice trailed off, leaving scepticism to fill the void. “I think what the conversation needs to be about is what is smart for your city, for your area.”

The planners and architects I met, who initially saw the smart cities programme as an opportunity to examine the deficiencies of existing cities, also feared the course it seemed to be taking. “We have the opportunity to not make mistakes,” Biju Kuriakose, a Chennai architect, said. “But you have an American [Townland] in Indonesia as the consultant for Trichy. The logic is, they know smart cities. But consultants look at cities with a spreadsheet, and walk around with their 10 bullet points about sustainability.”

In Raipur, a two-hour drive from Bilaspur, in a mouldy room at the district headquarters, the consultants frowned at their spreadsheets; the numbers were startlingly small. A junior planner, one of the group’s workhorses, read out the cost of touchscreen kiosks and his manager, a senior planner, smiled. “35,000 rupees for a touch display is not possible. It’s at least 600,000 rupees.”

Tiwari stretched out on a chair, conserving his energy for later presentations. These final days of the bidding process involved winning the approval of the people most likely to be affected by the smart cities programme: government employees. The next meeting was two hours away.

“Everyone is creating their own platform,” Tiwari said. “Cisco is, Microsoft is, IBM is, Infosys is. The question is, who is going to deliver the right mix? The trick is not technology so much as understanding the regulatory system and the user system, and then creating middleware in a manner that can integrate both of them with appropriate technology.”

Tiwari said the organisation he worked for hoped to lay a fibre network and leave the very last stretch, the part that reached homes and offices, open to whatever technology people adopted. “The network will belong to the governing company. If any private company has an application they want to put on it, we’ll ask them to pay an access charge.”

Tiwari’s phone kept buzzing in the silence. He answered every call. On a wall behind the planners, a diagram consisting of clouds and arrows reminded them that technology, energy, people and the economy were bound to each other.

Tiwari is comfortable with technology’s complexities. “I had access to tech a long time ago. Always. Others did too, but they weren’t enamoured by it. We had a BBC Micro in college.” He was fascinated by the Raspberry Pi, and said that the openness of his smart city system would allow citizens to plug in devices such as the Pi for their own use. The vision was appealing: the city as a programmable device.

The humble smart city planning office in Raipur. Photograph: Rahul Bhatia

At a quarter to six, a man stuck his head into the room. “You can go in now. He’s waiting.”

The office of the municipal commissioner, a powerful administrative official, was a floor below. In an enormous room, behind an enormous desk, sat a muscular man no older than 40. He was dressed in a grey shirt and beige jacket. He held documents with one hand, and used the other to smoothe his hair. The plan did not make him happy.

Tiwari shifted forward on his chair, eager to respond to any problem the commissioner brought up. “The thing is,” he began, “the ministry has said that for the pan-city solution, no costs on infrastructure should be incurred. They will only approve websites, information technology. It could be a traffic solution also.”

This struck the commissioner as mad, and so inconceivable, that he stuttered: “What is the meaning of this? We don’t need information technology here.”

An assistant agreed: “No, we don’t.”

“We need money for flyovers here … ”

“We need those flyovers,” the assistant repeated.

“Sir, it’s your party that has done … ” Tiwari interjected, referring to the Smart City Challenge’s driving force, the National Democratic Alliance, which forms India’s present government.

“I don’t know if you’ve been out on the streets, but we need wider roads, flyovers, proper pathways.” The commissioner scoffed: “Half these things we don’t understand: ‘Intelligent traffic solutions … ’”

He put down the proposal. “I wanted something we could implement immediately. I don’t see any of that here. And what you’ve proposed for the smart city area is very difficult. It involves a lot of demolition work.”

He continued: “It’s not my job to give responsibility to a software company. You’ve written that the company will look at traffic violations, number plate registrations, handle the CCTV control room. But all this is the police’s jurisdiction. You’re saying they will do our job. We will have no powers left to enforce anything.”

“It’s been a challenge for everyone, but the system that has been devised is just this,” Tiwari replied, sounding frustrated.

“Look at this,” the commissioner continued, engrossed in this vision of an alternate world where his post was irrelevant. “IT tools for automatic speed detection.” He looked at Tiwari, aghast. “There’s no work for us here.”

At the end of the meeting, Tiwari left the enormous room in silence, walked upstairs slowly, and pushed open the door with a “smart cities” printout stuck on it. Briefly, only for an instant, his optimism failed him.

“It’s been like this,” he said, before catching himself. “If you look at other countries at a similar stage in their history, we’re doing really well.”

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