By Sanjeev Vidyarthi
India’s ruling classes seem increasingly convinced that cities and their regions are crucial sites for the nation’s economic development. Not only urban India continues to outpace its rural counterpart in terms of contribution to the national GDP but also when it comes to generating different forms of revenue for the state. Cities are arguably even more important culturally and socially. Chattering classes and decision makers, for example, reside mostly in the cities and so do the popular powerhouses of Bollywood and Indian cricket. From this perspective, Centre’s largesse for cities in form of direct monetary grants (such as the smart cities program) should not be surprising at all. As aptly summarized by an acquaintance: Dudharu gai ko chara toh sabhi daalte hain or everyone feeds a milch cow. So, if the Centre is providing monies to our cities for its own gains, why should we care?
Following two reasons might help make sense of the Central largesse. First, the Indian state, just like most other states across space and time, takes much more than it returns back to the people. The idea that the state takes a sizable cut, almost as a rule, before giving back is perhaps most visually evident in the recently held Republic Day parade. The handsome horses, smartly turned-out Presidential Guards, shiny BMW cavalcade and the largely ceremonial firecrackers exhibited on 26 January were paid with your tax rupees. Historically, the situation was even worse. The state mostly took and returned little if at all.
Even in places like Jaipur, where hereditary kings apparently cared for city planning and urban economic development (evident in all the state-supported crafts, trades and specialized bazaars) levying no direct taxes on city residents, the princely state derived almost two-thirds of its revenue through various forms of land taxes or lagaan. In other words, extractions from destitute and largely landless peasants sponsored the royal lifestyle, attendant expenses and the city that provided the site for staging the princely spectacle. So, if the contemporary Indian state is returning some of the monies increasingly derived from our own cities, it is really good news worth celebrating.
Second, and perhaps even more important, the Centre is actually beginning to ask individual cities to take care of themselves and their uncertain future. That's where the idea of doing better city planning comes in. Planning after all is about anticipating and prepare for an uncertain future. At some level, contemporary Indian cities seem pretty hard places like the industrial cities of the West at the end of nineteenth century: dense, polluted and choked with all sorts of goods, activities and human communities desperately needing fresh air, parks, open places, social and cultural institutions like schools and hospitals, places for efficient economic exchange and, most important, housing for all. And, who can plan and provide it better than the local people who live, work and play in these places?
So, as the Centre continues dismantling the Nehruvian model of centralised-planning (where New Delhi not only controlled the flow of resources but also single-handedly decided what happened in which place), India’s largest cities now actually have some encouragement from the Centre and discretionary funds to decide what is most important for the residents’ welfare and future well-being. Paying attention to the development of Independent India’s urban planning policy makes it clear that neither the smart cities initiative is the first of its kind and nor would it be the last. Remember, not so long ago the buzzword was JNNURM that disseminated substantial Central funds directly to the cities and, you may mark these words, given the pathetic state of urban India the flow of Central funds for city improvement seems predictable in foreseeable future.
The trick then for local elites, place-based businesses, aspirational middle-classes and emerging city-centred entrepreneurs—who undoubtedly stand to gain the most from federally sponsored efforts to improve urban India—is to try ensure that their own cousins and brethren including the government engineers, state bureaucrats and professional consultants make better plans and pursue downstream development projects in a socially just and environmentally efficient manner. However, there seems little rush for better planning at the local level, and perhaps wouldn’t be so quickly, in a culture that goes back thousands of years. But as long as we begin to make incremental gains and improvements at the level of individual cities, making full use of the Central bounty, local people would be demonstrating real smartness that, ironically, may turn more effective than the Central bureaucrats and their clever consultants who coined the term ‘smart cities.’
The author is an associate professor in the Department of Urban Planning and Policy at the University of Illinois, Chicago.