Ahmedabad – Gujarat, India / Emmanuel Dyan / flickr.com

Dual India: Smart vs. Slums

An interview with Sujata Patel on the consequences of building smart cities in India by Iana Kozak

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An interview with Sujata Patel

An interview by Iana Kozak

We've have recently witnessed the enormous growth of new type of cities, ‘Smart cities’. The concept of the ‘Smart City’, is now gaining increasing popularity in China, South Korea, Africa, India, etc. How many "smart " cities projects are launched all around the world? There are nearly 50 new "Smart" projects; and India plans to build seven of them, each home at least two million people, which will rise up between Delhi and Mumbai as part of the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC).In the future, their number will increase to 24. But when talking about developing countries like India, we need to understand that these new cities are built not for everyone, but for those who can afford them. How to build a city for former "ruling groups" in a country where half the population is poor?

DMICDC selected IBM for the company’s expertise in the area of Smarter Cities. For five years, IBM has been working with companies, cities and communities around the world to build a Smarter Planet. IBM has made India a "major focus area" for its smarter planet and cities business, an area that involves making cities and townships more cost-efficient, and is actively talking with several real estate developers, cities and state governments in this regard. “We didn’t do our investment in India just for it to be a lab for the whole world. Smarter Planet is a central growth theme for IBM, and India is a huge focus area for us,” he said, in an interview with The Hindu. And here talent matters. Further, the fact that talent can matter enormously for the quality of these strategic outputs and, given the importance of speed, creates potential disbalance within a country.

And we are approaching the dystopian scenario depicted by Saskia Sassen: "There are now big firms that sell you a city. They will build you a city. And some of them will rent you the city. So that’s the dystopian scenario. That’s the dystopian scenario; in other words we will have vast settlements with probably many toxic conditions, where a lot of people – modest, middle-class people – will be living in slums... This is contrasted with these brand new perfect cities that aren’t really cities in that full robust sense of the term." In this interview with Sujata Patel, Professor at the Department of Sociology, University of Hyderabad, India, I tried to envisage the possibility of creating Smart Cities and their viability in India, as an extension of gated communities. What are the differences between these private cities and colonies? What kind of consequences will we get from such extreme growth in developing countries?
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You were actively involved in Human Rights Activism, for a long period of time. How has this aspect helped you in your understanding of society, its weaknesses and potentials?

It is a very interesting question. It is my upbringing and it is my parents’ background, because they were involved in freedom movements, and I grew up with concerns regarding how to understand contemporary India.

In the middle of the 1970s, the state declared what it called an Emergency. We didn’t have any involvement of the state until that time. And it was full of freedom of expression, freedom to demonstrate, freedom to question the state. In 1973, there was a major movement against the Indian state and as a consequence of this, the Indian Prime Minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi decided to implement what is called an Emergency: that is, a constitutional provision to suspend the rights of all citizens. And for the next two years, from 1975 till 1977, there was little possibility of any dissent in Indian politics. And most political leaders were put in prison. After that, in 1977, there was an establishing of Human rights organisations. At that time I was doing a doctoral thesis in Delhi while my parents were staying in Bombay. I was involved in both New Delhi and Bombay.

After 1977, human rights organisations started examining all kinds of rights violation by the state. Firstly, in extreme political parties, then in non-​mainstream political parties and groups, and many have appeared since India became independent. They were not part of political parties but they were still part of social protest and social movement, but outside the political parties and outside political culture, and were against all that. And the state started showing its strength and repression. We were able to understand the weaknesses because we started investigating the cases of ‘encounter to death’ when the police could pick up people and take them to edges of the city … Every case of encounter to death, of torture, was connected with an elimination of individuals and a repression of social movements. And we started investigating this and getting to know systematically the weaknesses of the project of creating India as a modern country.

New kolkata township /  seaview99 / flickr.com

New kolkata township /​seaview99 /​flickr​.com

India already has plans to build seven new Smart cities, each home to at least two million people, which will rise up between Delhi and Mumbai as part of the Delhi-​Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) (Dadri-​Noida-​Ghaziabad in Uttar Pradesh, Manesar-​Bawal in Haryana, Khushkhera-​Bhiwadi-​Neemrana in Rajasthan, Ahmedabad-​Dholera in Gujarat, Pithampur-​Dhar-​Mhow in MP, and Dighi Port and Shendra in Maharashtra). Smart cities are greenfield industrial cities providing IBM-​developed Integrated Communication Technology (ICT). These cities are supposed to host the “elite”. How is it possible in the context of India?

I think in order to understand, we have to see the changes that have been taking place in the last 20 years. Structural adjustment programmes and neoliberal policy have been implemented in the country. The neoliberal policy has directed public-​private partnership towards urban India. And as a consequence, there has been enormous investment in urban India and created parts of what the establishment calls “gated communities”. So, with gated communities there has also appeared the SEZ (Special Economic Zone). Both of these have been a way in which we can see the city growing as a dual city4: which is how we refer to the city’s position, I mean accumulation, by this position. The same is discussed by Saskia Sassen in “Global city” — it’s where one part of services are developed and they spread somewhere else. And we see that nowadays the investments for the poor, for helping the poor, for services for the poor, for even giving opportunities for the poor, have been reduced. The investments are going to creating this market upscale for the new middle class that the neoliberal policy wants to expand now. So, “Smart cities” are part of the same. I think that there have been enormous questions, confrontations, contestations and movements against at least SEZ, because they want to establish it by taking land from farmers. India is still an agricultural country. More than 31 percent of India is urban, the rest of it is agricultural. And any ecologically oriented settlement has to take agriculture into account. In principle, I understand “Smart Cities” are part of ecologically sustainable environment. I think this kind of a settlement, ultimately, is going against the economic organisation trends of the rest of India. To implement this, requires enormous political will. But it represents a way to create, as you said, an “elite”, but I would say “ruling group,” which wants to live a leader’s life, which is international, but which is against the rest of the country. I think it will lead to negative political consequences, not only economical consequences, which are about creating an unequal country, but also political and cultural consequences, which in a democracy is very difficult to sustain.

Anam City is a new town along the Niger River Delta under construction in Anambra State, Eastern Nigeria / anamcity.com

Anam City is a new town along the Niger River Delta under construction in Anambra State, Eastern Nigeria /​anam​c​ity​.com

In the cities we can see a symbiosis between gated communities and the urban poor: Could we imagine these cities without slums?

And what happens is that it creates a small group of “privilege poor” who can get access to these gated communities, but who cannot become the part of the “elite” and who will remain outside gated communities in small slums, small settlements.

It is very important to remember that we are talking about a country with an enormous population: 1.8 bln. But they don’t need so many services, they need only a few. And what happens is that it creates a small group of “privileged poor” who can get access to these gated communities, but who cannot become part of the “elite” and who will remain outside gated communities in small slums, small settlements. You create a dual city, in previous spaces of the country.

4. –The use of the term Dual City as a synonym for a late capitalist metropolis is very frequent among city theorists who ideologically come within the neo-​Marxist orbit. These thinkers produce social criticism that aims to unmask the capitalist superstructure and denounce urban injustices. This position is becoming more and more important after several decades of globalisation, which has generated degrees of social polarisation unknown since the end of the Second World War. Saskia Sassen thinks that it is a case of a phenomenon that is intrinsic to the new late capitalist order, where badly paid jobs are the key to economic growth. This makes social decline a complement to development, and not as previously an indication of decadence.

In some parts slums are found around gated communities, in some cities you have them living from 5 to 10 km away. There is enormous competition for giving these services; not everyone gets a job. This is a problem in smart cities; there is a belief that this is a way in which there will be a ripple effect of demand: demand of services, demand of education — this demand will incorporate productive labour in these cities. This is a wrong assumption, in my opinion, because these services will raise a competition and a lot of people will have to leave, and a result they flood the informal market.

Gujarat International Finance Tec-City construction along Dehli Mumbai Industrial corridor / giftgujarat.in

Gujarat International Finance Tec-​City construction along Dehli Mumbai Industrial corridor /​gift​gu​jarat​.in

The informal economy and “urban poor ” play a fundamental role in city development in the context of India, and other developing countries. What will their role be in the future?

Poor is reproduced as poor

India has 96% of the population working in the informal sector. It is a huge number. A huge part of it takes in agriculture: small peasants, land, etc. The informal sector has been there all the time. That is the way the economy is organised. We are talking about 50% of the people living in cities being the “urban poor”. Poor reproduces poor. In the book, “Beyond Kolkata: Rajarhat and the Dystopia of Urban Imagination,” about new township development, you can check and find that it creates more and more poor rather than vice versa, because peasants’ resources have been taken away.

The Delhi-​Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC) project is partially financed by the Japanese Government. And nowadays, we can see dozens of “smart cities” projects across the world funded by foreign investments. Do you consider new “smart cities” as modern colonial cities?

We have to be careful about how the colonial economy is different to the “new colonial economy” — i.e. neoliberalism. It is possible to argue that new Smart Cities will continue to build this dual city hypothesis. If we look at African cities, the situation would be more correct. The national heritage forms a more complicated situation in India. And I don’t think that external control would be complete in the way it is in Africa, because there are lots of checks and balances within India, which don’t allow international projects to be created completely. There is an international group that is now building a Smart City in Kerala, led by the Dubai Group. Because of checks and balances you have to create Indian interest, and this interest makes it very difficult to make it completely dependent on external finance and external human resources. So, I think there is a more complex situation around the implementation of Smart Cities, and it is a different situation, I would suggest.

As far as I know, the state is pulling back the Smart City. And what I have read up till now makes me think that it is not going so easy in Africa either. The state is trying to bring in this kind of development, but there are two main issues: first, the state does not have complete legitimacy, and second, there have been a lot of protests against this kind of land acquisition. So, it will not be so easy to build Smart cities across the world.

Slums Mumbai India / Le Grand Portage / flickr.com

Slums Mumbai India /​Le Grand Portage /​flickr​.com

What can other developing countries learn from India? What can European countries like Russia learn from India?

Smart Cities, you know, are possibilities in context with developing countries but the economy cannot be implemented in other developing countries until there are economic changes to accept this

I think developing countries can learn two things. One is that one should not go for progress with such uneven implications for poverty and wealth. And I think that European and North American projects cannot be replicated in this part of the world. These kinds of projects, Smart Cities, you know, are possibilities in the context of developing countries but the economy cannot be implemented in other developing countries until there are economic changes to accept this. You know that the anthropologist Clifford Geertz had made a distinction between evolution and involution. Involution is unproductive development or growth without growth in per capita wealth. And I think we need to understand that it will actually lead to more negative than positive consequences. But that doesn’t mean it won’t happen, I think it will happen because the elite in India want these things. They want to live an international lifestyle and they want to maintain an international identity and, certainly, they will have it. And then the consequences are much more negative than it would be in Europe or in Russia.

But let me tell you that I have met many European social scientists who are also against this type of Smart Cities and gated communities as an extension of Smart Cities. I think they will also understand that there can be negative implications, including the negative implications of having IT-​oriented technologies which you don’t control but others control you. I also want to raise another question about what kind of surveillance and control they bring into our lifestyle. They are organised in such a way as to dominate, routinise and almost robotise lifestyles. In principle, I have great objections to this kind of thinking about cities. IT-​oriented cities are what any part of the world should have, even in Asia.