What Does India’s Smart Cities Project Mean for the Poor?

Screenshot of the Indian Smart Cities Project Website

Screenshot of the India's Smart Cities Project Website

India’s smart cities project, a vision of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been hailed in the country and domestic media alike for its sheer magnitude and ambition. The 100 smart cities are satellite towns of larger cities and will consist of modern infrastructure, which will be added to the existing mid-sized cities.

As an increasing number of Indian people move from villages to cities in search of opportunities, the government believes that this 70.6-billion-rupee plan will ensure a high quality of life to people comparable with any developed European city.

But in a country where millions are struggling to get by, the initiative has some observers wondering how people will be able to afford the expensive housing and living costs of smart cities. This has given rise to a debate: Is India’s smart cities project built to keep out the poor class?

One year on, there are still questions on what will constitute a smart city. According to a concept note released by the urban development ministry, smart cities will be the cities which have (intelligent) physical, social, institutional and economic infrastructure, which ensure centrality of citizens in a sustainable environment.

The project has already started 12 kilometers from the city of Ahmedabad with the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT). In the next five years, the place will boast of high rises with sparkling glass facades, and the river Sabarmati flowing nearby will feature clean blue water.

GIFT 1, The tallest building in Gujarat. Image by Gujaratin via Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 3.0

GIFT 1, The tallest building in Gujarat. Image by Gujaratin via Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 3.0

The technology will be such that “human excrement will travel faster than most Indian trains,” Indian journalist Manu Joseph reported in the New York Times. The buildings will be equipped with sophisticated surveillance, 24/7 electricity and clean water, and fast trains with automatic doors.

But the project is also facing multiple problems and delays. The upcoming infrastructure in most parts of the country is coming at the expense of farming land.

Land acquisition in India is a very complicated process. The Modi government is looking to eliminate the requirement for the consent of landowners for certain projects to make land acquisition quick. Memories of protests by farmers against the construction of an expressway and India’s first Formula 1 track are still fresh, and the government's actions have contributed to a popular perception that they fight for private firms over farmers. The political opposition and its supporters have used the term ‘Suit Boot ki Sarkar’ to reference Modi’s monogrammed suit and the government’s supposed preference for industrialization instead of agriculture and the common man.

In January 2015, comments from an economist at an interactive panel discussion on smart cities held in Chennai and Mumbai seemed to confirm criticism of the project. Journalist Shruti Ravindran tweeted various paragraphs from the brochure ‘Smart Cities in India: Reality in the Making’ handed out to attendees.

The tweeted passages, which were taken from an essay within the brochure by Laveesh Bhandari, founder and chief economist at economic research firm Indicus Analytics, read:

When we build these smart cities, we will be faced with a massive surge of people who will desire to enter these cities. We will be forced to keep them out. This is the natural way of things, for if we do not keep them out they will override our ability to maintain such infrastructure. There are only two ways to keep people out of any space – prices and policing. In other words, the prices will automatically be higher in such cities – the notion that they will be low cost is flawed. Even if possible from a cost provision perspective, they cannot be low cost from a demand supply perspective.

Even with high prices, the conventional laws in India will not enable us to exclude millions of poor Indians from enjoying the privileges of such great infrastructure. Hence the police will need to physically exclude people from such cities, and they will need a different set of laws from those operating in the rest of India for them to be able to do so. Creating special enclaves is the only method of doing so. And therefore GIFT is a [special economic zone] and so will each of these 100 smart cities have to be.

Safety and security are the outcomes of a city where the rule of law defines daily lives and where justice is the dominant notice of resolving disputes. But all disputes are not resolved through laws, policing or a judiciary; a well-functioning political mechanism is by far the best dispute resolution mechanism.

He later argued that the government will eventually:

[…] need to decide whether to continue with building such enclaves, or use these enclaves as an example, and expand such services across all of India's 8000 odd cities […] If it is the latter, it will need to move forward on a spate of urban reforms.

Read the essay in its entirety here.

Blogger Vidyut commented in response:

So let me get this right. The government will be used to empty land to build smart cities in the name of developing the country. It will be called “inclusive development”. And the smart cities built on this land will be for the rich – by design. And we are talking of a hundred cities, displacing god knows how many people. The police of the land will be used “on the tax payer’s money” (as these hotshots like to call it) to keep the poor out of these cities using laws OTHER THAN INDIAN LAWS.

While “N”, commenting on her post, wrote:

On the face of it, it does seem cruel but nothing can make the development go faster and reach India’s poor than making our cities world class and attracting the talent and entrepreneurs which we are losing to emigration. With China reaching some 160 or so cities with more than a million population and the infrastructure in each city is just amazing, it can be seen how urbanisation is working there. Such fear mongering will lead us nowhere.

Critics see the smart cities project as something that will deepen the divide between the elite and the poor, and further take the ‘dreams of luxuries’ away from the public domain and hand it to a few who can afford it.

They fear that despite its promise of 24×7 electricity and high-rise buildings that will shine in daylight and glow in the dark, the smart cities project will cast dark shadows across the country. India needs something for its masses, but not everyone is convinced that smart cities are the answer.


  • Krishna

    When was our cities inclusive? Everywhere you can see gated communities for rich and poor dwelling in slum. All resources like electricity, water are consumed by rich. Roads are occupied by personal vehicles and no encouragement for mass transportation. There is no equitable resource sharing or at-least meeting basic needs of poor. What is planned through inclusive smart cities is saving resources like water, electricity using modern technology and sharing saved resources with others. Plan for affordable accommodation for every one, affordable transportation, etc. Everyone should get health coverage not only rich. There need to be entertainment facilities for everyone unlike today where only rich get everything. Instead of raising voice against smart city talk about your definition of smart city and what do you expect from smart city, what are to be the features incorporated in smart city for inclusiveness. Be positive.

    • David Ceasar

      The plan for the new Andhra Capital, Amaravathi, is focusing on bicycles, a rapid bus system and transport over water. In the end as Indians become richer it is simply not feasible to use resources like Europeans (and certainly not like Americans). This is better not only for the poor, but for everyone. Not even the rich can escape the pollution.

  • Vissionary

    Is there any ray of hope for TRIPURA ?

    Lakhs of Educated Youths (and their families) of TRIPURA (2nd highest populous state in NORTHEAST) have been languishing in complete frustration for over a decade now (recent news on TRIPURA can be referred for details) due to lack of –> Progressive Economic policies, Meaningful development, Best of the industries and quality professional employment opportunities, Best of the class healthcare, Proactiveness in being nationally and globally competitive.

    Does anyone know why capital AGARTALA is not yet even an inch near to a tier-2 city like PUNE ?

    Does anyone know what TRIPURA have achieved (in terms of giving its educated youth much needed professional career opportunities at par with other progressive states) till date by focusing only on natural resource (rubber, bamboo, plastic) based industry, which in progressive states (e.g. Karnataka, Maharashtra) is considered as intermediary industry, while IT and High Tech industry (in Software Export) are the prime economy drivers !! Does any one know WHEN BRAIN DRAIN would be REVERSED in TRIPURA ?

    Does anyone know WHY poor and lesser educated people are still not able to live a life with self dignity – at par with those in other progressive states (e.g. An Healthcare firm or IT MNC firm not only employs Doctors, Engineers, Managers and other graduates – alongwith them there are many other supporting and maintanance staffs who get due trainigs, well paid and can make their own career as well !!).

    Does any one know HOW LONG (and WHY) people of TRIPURA (Youths especially) have to languish in backwardness when rest of the progressive states are vying for attention from top IT MNCs and High Tech firms to set up their base ??

    If tier 2 cities like PUNE, GURGAON – (with top talents from India making careers in these cities) – can achieve same through right mix of people, policies, push and willingness to embrace technology and competition – why can’t AGARTALA ??

    Hope much needed ECONOMIC VIBRANCY (like Bangalore, Mumbai, Gurgaon, Pune, Chennai, Hyderabad) is created in AGARTALA (to emerge as new SMART CYBER CITY of India!) with best of the policies and setting up of World Class Infrastructures.

    Really hope leadership in CENTER, TRIPURA Govt and Other Concerned DIGNITARIES takes a FUTURISTIC and PROGRESSIVE approach and goes BIG to put TRIPURA into national & international scheme of things and strives hard in making AGARTALA into an world class city signifying uprising India’s growing prowess!

    We really need to move forward by developing TRIPURA with world class infrastructures and bring it at par with best of the other Indian states in the shortest possible time!

    Yes – we do have logistical issues in terms of connectivity,tough terrains – which slowly but surely being overcomed with multiple links opening up through Bangladesh,Myanmar!

    Appreciating TRIPURA Govt and Center on the development works so far,would request to set higher goals and aim to make TRIPURA the new face of emerging India!

    Some of the very important issues plauging TRIPURA badly:

    1.INDUSTRY – Not a single High Tech corporate, Big MNCs – especially economy driving Service Sector (from IT, High Tech – source of higher disposable income – source of thriving economy) have a presence in TRIPURA – Need of the hour (with major connectivity projects on and due for completion in next 1-2 years) is to have many of these companies (e.g. IBM,Accenture,TCS, Infosys, Wipro,Cognizant, Tech Mahindra,HCL) set up Delivery & Consultancy centers (by facilitating them with setting up of necessary IT zones / parks – in the line of ITPL Bangalore, Electronics City Bangalore, HITEC Hyderabad, Rajiv Gandhi Infotech Park Hinjawadi Pune, DLF IT Park Chennai – with due URGENCY) – Which is a must to open up window of professional opportunities (and mass employment) for bright (More than 6 lakhs UNEMPLOYED !!) youths of the state. TRIPURA is also home to massive talent pool with combination of huge number of working professionals (working in other Metros and abroad currently), local educated youths, youths (and working professionals) from other parts of INDIA, neighboring NORTHEAST states and legal working professionals from Bangladesh and Neighboring countries! At the same time geographical proximity of AGARTALA to important BANGLADESH cities (and subsequently to other SE Asian countries) gives ample business opportunities for IT Majors to expand their client base across industrial domains (e.g. Digital Bangladesh project being envisaged by Bangladesh Govt). Does anyone know when a QUICK and DECISIVE step will be taken to make AGARTALA an epitome of IT opportunities where it would solve MOST SEVERE UNEMPLOYMENT ISSUE for lakhs of educated youths from TRIPURA ?

    2.LIFESTYLE – Not a single world class 5 star hotel (Taj, Leela, Oberoi, ITC), World class shopping mall (Phoenix Market city Mumbai, LuLu International Shopping Mall Kochi, Mantri Square mall Bangalore), multiplexes (PVR, Big Cinemas, INOX) , World class Retail chains (Walmart, IKEA, Pantaloons,Shoppers Stop, Croma, Reliance Retail etc) exists in TRIPURA – Need of the hour is to have many and which is a must for a better and modern lifestyle for both people of State as well as thousands of (domestic and international) tourists arriving in the state.

    3.EDUCATION – Not a single higher education institute of national importance (IIM, IIT, IISc, AIIMS, Symbiosis management institutes, Xavier management institutes etc …) exists in TRIPURA – Need of the hour is to have many (given the fact that a huge number of students from TRIPURA migrates to other states for pursuing Engineering, Medical and Management from best of the institutes) which is a must to bring youths at par to the ones in other part of India !! This will also help best of the brains from other parts of INDIA to know NORTHEAST (TRIPURA in particular) better!

    4.HEALTHCARE – Not a single HOSPITAL of national importance (in terms of professionalism , proven quality and trusted brand) exists in TRIPURA which is a must for those helpless people of state who has to run around and rush to Chennai and other cities for treatment even during those critical hours of life! – Need of the hour is to go PROACTIVE and INVITE best of the brands available (e.g AIIMS, FORTIS, APPOLO, MANIPAL Hospitals) to set up their HOSPITAL CHAINS at AGARTALA, at the same time highlighting enormous business opportunities they can derive from Medical Tourism Market comprising of Tourists coming from other Northeast states, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Nepal, Bhutan and other Neighboring countries. Does anyone know HOW LONG people would continue to suffer (Latest was Maleria epidemic) due to lack of best of the class healthcare in TRIPURA ?

    5.RAIL – Really hope TRIPURA gets connected to Trans-Asian Railway (TAR) Network with individual lines to MYANMAR and BANGLADESH – in the earliest possible time. Given the huge prospect of being a important Rail hub (catering to domestic and international traffic) connecting NORTHEAST to SE Asia and further to Europe, Hope AGARTALA rail station gets transformed into a world class Rail station (with best of the technologies, equipments, infrastructure and amenities) in the line of Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Maharashtra) and Chennai Central station (Tamil Nadu). Also, need of the hour is to have a seamless Rail connectivity between all the NE capitals (Mumbai-Chennai like network need to be put in place for people to move across NORTHEAST easily without any hassles/security issues). Does anyone know when first Bullet Train will arrive in TRIPURA ?

    6.CITY TRANSPORT – Not the best of the Road Infrastructure and City Transport System is in place in AGARTALA! Need of the hour is to have world class technology (e.g. GPRS enabled systems) and equipments embedded in ROADS (e.g. Digital Sign boards, CCTV cameras, Automatic Traffic Signal Control System etc.) and PUBLIC TRANSPORT VEHICLES (e.g. High Tech VOLVO AC and Non-AC Buses, Double-decker Buses) ; and install a organized process (e.g. Daily, Monthly and Yearly Passes, Dress code for Bus operators) in place – with something like Ahmedabad Bus Rapid Transit system, Bangalore Metropolitan Transport Corporation, Delhi Integrated Multi-Modal Transit System! Does anyone know when AGARTALA METRO will be flagged off ?

    7.AIRPORT – Really hope AAI comes up with an world class international terminal (in the line of Delhi, Hyderabad, Bangalore , Mumbai Airports) in AGARTALA with modern technology, infrastructure, equipments and best of the amenities! With growing economic linkage between INDIA and other ASEAN countries (latest being PM’s visit to Japan and Thailand) as part of INDIA’s ACT-EAST POLICY,it hardly leaves any room for imagination – the role AGARTALA going to play in near future being the hub of international trade. And SMOOTH and AROMATIC flow of INTERNATIONAL and DOMESTIC travelers (includes businessman, tourists, patients, students) will hold key to fully realize potential of ACT-EAST policy envisioned by INDIA’s leadership. Does anyone know WHEN International Airport would actually come up at AGARTALA ?

    8.WATER Ways – TRIPURA Rivers are connected to Rivers in Bangladesh. Need of the hour is to transform TRIPURA rivers into national waterways, set up World Class Inland ports (in the line of Kaladan Multi-modal Transit Transport Project) and connect them to Bangladesh River and Sea ports, which would ease TRIPURA’s landlockedness to a significant extent and improve Supply Chain and Logistical delivery of goods and services!

    9.HIGHWAY – Hope AGARTALA gets incorporated to have seamless access to SE Asia connectivity points (India-Myanmar-Thailand trilateral highway and Kaladan Multi-modal Transit). Also Need of the hour is to have Multi-lane express highway (in the line of Mumbai-Pune expressway, Delhi-Gurgaon Expressway) connectivity among all NE capitals. Can there be a Express Highway (via DHAKA) connecting AGARTALA and KOLKATA ?

    10.BUSINESS MEET – Not a single Global Investor Meet organised yet in AGARTALA (whereas in Karnataka, Gujarat and even Chattisgarh these are almost frequent affairs – Recent one being PUNJAB getting thousands of crores of investment out of a Investor Summit !!). Need of the hour is organize such event which would surely put TRIPURA in global map and radar of world class corporates!

    11.SPORTS – Not a single International stadium exists in AGARTALA to hold national and international level football and cricket tournaments (ODI, T20, Test matches, IPL, ISL, Challengers League etc) !!! Need of the hour is to set up an World Class International stadium with latest technology, infrastructure, equipments and best of the amenities (to the level of Eden Gardens Stadium, M Chinnaswamy Stadium, M. A. Chidambaram Stadium) to facilitate football and cricket crazy fans of TRIPURA (2nd Populous NE state!!), fans from neighboring NE states and neighboring countries of Bangladesh & Myanmar, budding cricketers and footballers from NORTHEAST to watch their favorite STARS in action !! This would also be a huge boost to Tourism, Relationship build up with neighboring countries, Opening up of many other avenues in industry starved NORTHEAST TRIPURA! For an instance, even though INDIA will be hosting 2017 U-17 FIFA world cup, there seems to be no chance of having few matches played in TRIPURA – though that would be the nicest thing to bring WORLD much closer to NORTHEAST TRIPURA !! Does anyone know when first international cricket match will be played in AGARTALA ?

    12.ECONOMIC ZONE – Really hope AGARTALA gets incorporated in the proposed BCIM (Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar) corridor project and BIMSTEC (Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation) project. Having close geographical proximity with important cities like DHAKA and CHITTAGONG will surely help TRIPURA leverage it’s strategic location of being India’s Gateway to SOUTHEAST ASIA! Also there is a urgent need to build economic and industrial corridors connecting all NE capitals to leverage economic potential between Northeast India and Southeast Asia. Does anyone know when a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) will come up in AGARTALA? Can there be a ECONOMIC CORRIDOR set up between AGARTALA and DHAKA ?

    13.TOURISM – There seems to be no concerted approach in Branding and Marketing TRIPURA TOURISM with a wider internet reach through Social Media network, Top travel and hospitality web sites (in the line of Maharashta Tourism, Tamilnadu Tourism, Uttar Pradesh Tourism, Kerala Tourism, Goa Tourism) even though there is a huge scope for TRIPURA in both National and International Tourism Market. Also hilly terrains can be transformed into a major hub for Adventure Tourism (in the line of Ladakh) in addition to existing eco, cultural and religious Tourism.

    14.TECHNOLOGY – There seems to be no approach in promoting and using modern technologies e.g. Internet Of Things (Combination of Physical things, Sensors, Internet, Cloud, Big Data and Real time Analytics) – which allows to overcome day to day challenges and enhance quality of public life (e.g. Wireless sensors on Bridges and Buildings for precaution against earthquake and natural disaster; Smart farms to improve Agriculture productivity; Effective Monitoring of Healthcare for patients; Managing Rivers, lakes and flood situations; Managing Traffic Congestion; Managing Air Polution; Managing Forest Degradation; Maintaining Roads and Highways; Monitoring Goods Transportation; Monitoring vehicle speed and preventing Road Accidents).

    15.SMART CITY – Hope AGARTALA gets incorporated in the SMART CITY (with a Global imprint) project envisaged by NDA Govt.

    16.ENTREPRENEURSHIP – Does anyone know why there is no notable start up (like RedBus, Snapdeal, Flipkart) yet from TRIPURA ?

    17.NRI – There seems to be no approach to involve NRIs from TRIPURA to come up with ideas, investment for rapid economic growth of TRIPURA – whereas Karnataka, Tamilnadu have seen major contributions from NRIs.

    18. TELECOM – Internet and Telecom services are still WAY BELOW PAR in AGARTALA (compared to cities like AHMEDABAD or BANGALORE)- while country have moved on with latest technologies like 4G !! Does anyone know HOW LONG people of TRIPURA have to be deprived from – seamless HIGH SPEED Internet and Best of the class Telecom services ? Does anyone know when AGARTALA would become a WIFI enabled city ?

    Also urgent need of the hour is to complete all the existing infrastructure projects as soon as possible and identification and sanctioning of all other infrastructure projects fulfilling above infrastructure gaps without any further delay!!

    Anything less than ‘WORLD CLASS’ would only defeat the very purpose behind infrastructure development of TRIPURA under ACT-EAST Policy!!

    IMPOSSIBLE – just means I AM POSSIBLE! If India need to catch up with developed part of the world,the most strategically placed Northeast (especially TRIPURA) need to be made into a developed region in the shortest possible time!!

    I strongly believe TRIPURA govt (in close co-ordination with Center, other concerned dignitaries & all corporate vissionaries) can certainly achieve this sooner rather than late, which would definitely give its people a better employment opportunities, a better healthcare, a better access to quality education, a quality lifestyle, and last but not the least a confident and connected TRIPURA leading India’s charge towards contributing to a more stable and stronger global economy!!

  • […] What Does India's Smart Cities Project Mean for the Poor?Global Voices Online, on Mon, 15 Jun 2015 20:20:46 -0700India's smart cities project, a vision of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has been hailed in the country and domestic media alike for its sheer magnitude and ambition. The 100 smart cities are satellite towns of larger cities and will consist of modern … […]

  • […] More info. Go to Original news. […]

  • Sandy

    We need smart cities because those who can afford to live will get the feel of heaven, but will also pay a price for that luxury life and that money can be used to make smart villages. Once this cycle starts, we can see the change. If people of small cities and villages can get everything in their own place, they will come to big cities and live in slums.


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  • […] itself” was being “diluted.”  Language discovered in a promotional brochure, suggesting an intentional exclusion of the poor from the smart city’s benefits, has borne out even harsher assessments of SCM, for […]

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