Soumyadip Chattopadhyay, Arjun Kumar
The COVID-19 pandemic brought the world’s smart cities to a halt and is exposing the fault lines in human habits and habitations. More than 99 million people living in India 100 smart cities, especially those living in the densely populated informal settlements and slums, with dreadful combination of poverty and inadequacies in access to water and sanitation and poor waste management, are facing the wrath of this pandemic.
Government of India’s ‘Smart Cities Mission’ (SCM) aims to drive economic growth and improve the quality of life for people in 100 selected cities. There is an overt emphasis on technology for facilitating the collection of data and on smart solutions for increasing the efficiency of urban services.
45 cities have already set up Integrated Command and Control Centres (ICCCs) and these are operational as 24/7 war rooms for creating a situational awareness and real-time coordination of emergency response services amid the COVID 19 crisis.
In particular, these are used as a single source for all pandemic-related action and measures (Bengaluru), tracing the infected patients as well as identifying the hotspots (Agra), providing telemedicine solutions (Kota), tracing peoples’ movement during lockdown period as well as the state of home quarantined people (Vadodara and Varanasi) and disseminating awareness videos (Kalyan Dombivali) and so on.
Undoubtedly, judicious use of digital infrastructure and collective intelligence approaches entails two important implications: first, it would strengthen the cities’ capacities to manage COVID-19 and second, it would provide valuable lessons for citizens’ involvement in co-using technology to solve social challenges.
The usefulness of such approaches is reinforced by the successful examples of empowering citizens as ‘mayors’ in Seoul in accessing same real-time detail information as the mayor on confirmed coronavirus patients; or empowering citizens with resources in the Canadian City of Guelph in easily seeking or offering various kinds of assistance as effective real-time pandemic responses; or harnessing digital technology and innovation in Helsinki for efficiently delivering urban services.
Nevertheless, effective pandemic responses in Indian cities cannot rely heavily on high-tech platforms or apps. The rhetoric of ICT based citizen engagement and innovative approaches to governance and communication does not match the reality of digital illiteracy coupled with unequal access to digital infrastructure including computers and the internet.
Internet technology has yet not been recognized as a basic urban infrastructure in Indian cities where household internet access is extremely limited. Census 2011 data reveals that, on average, 9.8% households in Indian cities has computer or laptop with internet connection at home, with the corresponding figures being even lower for many smaller cities.
In only 7 out of 100 cities, more than 20% of households had access to internet infrastructure. Things may have changed since then given that these statistics are nearly a decade old but access to technology is much more than just numbers.
Due to their social position, women are less likely than men to use digital technology and certain marginalized groups, for example people with disabilities, may find it inconvenient to access critical knowledge and information.
The implementation of SCM so far is likely to create inequality within the cities as area based development (ABD) projects, although covering a little over 7 percent of the area of the 99 cities and that too with concentration of affluent people and having better service coverage, account for 80 percent of the SCM budget.
Only 20 percent of the SCM budget is effectively left for the vast majority of the urban citizen with massive unfulfilled needs of basic urban infrastructure and services. Several of the projects undertaken under the SCM (parking facilities or real estate development or commercial real estate or uses of water meters) seek to build the financial corpus of the city.
This will likely to have regressive impact on urban poor’s ability to access basic services. Further, given the SCM’s emphasis on convergence of funds from other schemes, the possibility of transmission of inherent unequal nature of fund allocation for ABD projects into them will make all the policies more exclusionary.
Recognizing and addressing this urban inequality in smart cities is essential for fighting the current pandemic and, perhaps more importantly, for making them resilient to future crises.
There are some evidences that preparation of smart city proposals in many cities portrays tokenistic public participation limited to online consultations on social media or websites with public responses in the form of multiple choice or Yes /No answers. This increases the risk of making these proposals more elitist, leaving behind the voices and needs of poor and marginalized citizens.
Moreover, private consultants led technocratic solutions seem to replace the democratic framework through which elected representatives address the needs and priorities of urban residents in general and urban poor in particular in smart cities.
A survey of 150 elected councillors of Municipal Corporation of Hyderabad during the lockdown period reveals that elected councillors are still the first responders to many problems of the urban citizens. Technology driven solution cannot provide ration to those without ration card or create makeshift shelters overnight for homeless people.
Although, depending on their political and social capital, the responsiveness of councillors might differ, but leveraging their local knowledge they can bridge the information gap and complement the technological know-hows by connecting people with the governmental and non-governmental relief work at the ward level in the emergency situation.
It is important to empower and support the councillors. City governments have funds under the SCM for infrastructure development and these city governments must be allowed to use at least some fund to meet the essential daily needs of the urban poor including the migrants.
In essence, more than technological innovation, the smart cities in India need to work with their citizens including the urban poor to co-produce the bottom up solutions.
Amid COVID-19, community involvement is indeed crucial to tap the local knowledge regarding the diseases as well as to ensure public acceptance and compliance with policy decisions like social distancing. COVID-19 is a wake-up call for the India’s smart cities to reorient their policies to reduce urban inequality and close the service gap.
All these can play a significant role in giving shape to the aim of building inclusive and sustainable cities in India. There has been a growing academic and policy interest in connecting challenges of a majority urbanised world to questions of health and disease.
The processes of messy and hidden urbanisation in India has resulted in increased vulnerability to emerging infectious disease outbreaks. While rapid and intensive forms of densification have proved to be enabling factors for the spread of COVID-19, smart cities need to prove their resilience, given their capacity- both monetary and administrative.
Since the Ministry decides on their organization, functions and scope; urgent steps must be taken to prevent these urban sprawls from becoming centres of high infection rates.
These decisions must relate to shifting socio-ecological dynamics, infrastructure networks and empowering local governance, as a combination of these can play a role in both giving rise to and mitigating the impact of current and future outbreaks.
About the authors:
Soumyadip Chattopadhyay is associate professor of economics at the Visva Bharati University, Shantiniketan and a senior visiting fellow at Impact and Policy Research Institute (IMPRI), New Delhi.
This article first appeared in Counterview | Smart cities: Why pandemic response can’t rely heavily on high-tech platforms, apps on June 27, 2020.