Narendar Pani

IT cities and other ‘unsmart’ ideas

Narendar Pani | Updated on January 22, 2019 Published on January 22, 2019

IT cities Losing sheen   -  M Karunakaran

‘Smart cities’ are short on political appeal and economic wisdom. The hidden costs of ‘developing’ Bengaluru are unacceptable

Whatever happened to the technology city as an electoral talking point? At the turn of the century State leaders were competing with each other to present their capital cities as huge technological successes.

SM Krishna’s promotion of Bengaluru and Chandrababu Naidu’s promotion of Hyderabad were carried out in a spirit of aggressive competition. Today, Bengaluru’s IT industry does not quite figure in the city’s political conversations. The division of Andhra Pradesh has of course taken Hyderabad out of Chandrababu Naidu’s sphere of influence, but his promotion of the proposed capital of the new Andhra Pradesh, Amravati, has tended to lean rather more on traditional imagery than on high technology.

A major factor in the change of urban technology politics has been the failure of the efforts to tap investment in technology as an electoral weapon. At the national scale the India Shining campaign bombed quite spectacularly, and the results at the city level were no more comforting.

Krishna lost Karnataka for the Congress. He did better in Bengaluru itself but only by putting up as candidates traditional politicians who could not claim any technological credentials. In keeping with the control technology tends to have on the overall urban discourse, this was projected as a victory of the information technology strategy. But when the Congress went with this understanding and put up an IT icon from Bengaluru South in 2014, he lost by a significant margin.

There were moments early in the Modi government’s term when it appeared likely that technology would once again be given the pride of place in urban policy, and hence urban politics.

The Smart Cities initiative was launched with much fanfare. In keeping with the technology-conquers-all approach there were comparisons being made between vastly different cities on the basis of what the smart cities strategy would achieve.

There were a spate of international comparisons being bandied about, including converting Varanasi into Kyoto. But as election season approaches there are few indications that the BJP will make this the mainstay of its urban campaign.

A part of the reason for the unwillingness to showcase the Smart Cities campaign is quite simply that so little was achieved in it. The government spent an extraordinarily long time deciding what it meant by Smart Cities. And while it may have finally arrived at a working definition, it did not manage to evoke the imagery of the IT cities of Krishna or Chandrababu Naidu.

Despite substantial amounts being sanctioned under the programme it did not develop the popular symbols so necessary to build images of cities. The IT city was quickly associated with ubiquitous technology parks. Smart cities have had no such imagery to associate with.

The cost factor

To make matters worse, the costs of promoting information technology cities are only now beginning to be felt. In the high noon of the IT city very little attention was paid to costs. It was as if the government had to only spend on infrastructure and all would be well. This spurt of often unreasoned spending paid little attention to important details.

Would it cost less to provide urban mobility if the demand for it was reduced by, say, making homes closer to places of work? Should major new pieces of infrastructure, like airports, be placed closer to points in the city where the demand for that facility was concentrated?

In the absence of such realism the infrastructure turned out to be more expensive than it needed to be. It did not help that the discourse was so completely controlled by the high technology groups.

This allowed them to even make a case for government subsidies when none was needed. The airport in Bengaluru was projected as an unviable project that nobody wanted unless there was a government subsidy, in addition to the project being given far more land than major international airports in other parts of the world.

With the benefit of these additional incentives the original promoters were able to exit within a few years with a comfortable profit. And the project is being promoted as one of the most rapidly growing airports in India.

One of the reasons why this cost carelessness was not noticed was the assumption that if the government gave the money others would not have to pay for it. But as the excess land was sold for housing projects Bengaluru was compelled to provide water to them at a cost that raised the price of water in the city as a whole.

The need for further expensive infrastructure to connect these already expensive projects raised costs even further, including making Bengaluru one of the cities with the highest costs of public transport.

As citizens of India’s cost-insensitive cities react to the burden, it is no surprise that vote-sensitive politicians do not find the high technology city a viable political talking point.

The writer is Professor, National Institute of Advanced Studies, Bengaluru

Published on January 22, 2019
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