In 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s promise of creating 100 new cities caught the national imagination. Featured prominently in the BJP poll manifesto, it was a dazzling vision. In rally after rally, Modi proclaimed that the new, ‘smart’ cities would create employment and provide world-class facilities: 24x7 water and power, a robust public transport, housing for all, safety and security (if anyone screamed, sensors would alert a command station), short walks to workplaces, smart solutions to waste management and energy efficiency. Growing urbanisation need not be a challenge, we must see it as an opportunity, the ebullient leader said.
Two years on, a watered down version of that idealisation is raising more questions than providing answers. For neither are greenfield (or new) cities coming up, nor even are satellite cities. Instead, minuscule parts of existing cities—often, exclusive pockets—have been identifed for development by special purpose vehicles (SPVs). For instance, just four sq km out of Bhubaneswar’s 135 sq km are to be ‘smartified’. Fears are that such development doesn’t match Modi’s grand talk of including the urban poor. And the SPVs are essentially companies (in which the local body has a shareholding), triggering apprehensions about governance and extraneous authority.