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Will India’s Smart Cities Plans Bring More Expats To The Country?

India is a country in a state of flux, arguably more today than it has ever been before. For expats and for many experienced observers, it’s one of the most interesting places in the world to live, thanks to a unique combination of factors.

The country is the most populous democracy in the world, and is also one of the most diverse, with numerous religions, languages, traditions, and cultures, and a rich history too.Modern India is one of the fastest growing major economies not just in the region but in the world, with rapid industrialization and development, a growing middle class, and an increasing role in world politics, trade, and economics. Of course, the country also faces numerous challenges – the widespread corruption has been the focus of a lot of discussion, protests, and political debate in recent years. In addition, the country still struggles with widespread poverty, inadequate public health, and poor infrastructure. This is why expat opinions on India are so varied and conflicted.

For all these reasons and more, India’s new “Smart Cities Mission” has been attracting a lot of attention and interest, as well as some criticism. There is of course a lot of hope and excitement over a plan that has the potential to catapult the country into a new league, but at the same time, there’s a considerable amount of skepticism and worry over the viability of the plan, the risks, the challenges, and so on.

What is India’s ‘Smart Cities Mission’?

The concept of a smart city has been gaining traction around the world for several years now, but the specifics of the concept vary from place to place and depend on several factors. In general however, the description from the Smart Cities Council is a good one: it’s a city that uses information and communications technology to enhance its livability, workability, and sustainability.

The Indian government’s ‘Smart Cities Mission’ website doesn’t define a smart city, agreeing with the perception of the concept as a variable one, but it does lay out some parameters for the purpose of the Mission. It says that “the objective is to promote cities that provide core infrastructure and give a decent quality of life to its citizens, a clean and sustainable environment and application of ‘Smart’ Solutions,” with a focus on “sustainable and inclusive development”.

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Essential elements of infrastructure in a smart city would include adequate water supply; assured electricity supply; sanitation, including solid waste management; efficient urban mobility and public transport; affordable housing, especially for the poor; robust IT connectivity and digitalization; good governance, especially e-Governance and citizen participation; a sustainable environment; safety and security of citizens, particularly women, children and the elderly; health and education.

The idea behind the Mission is to provide funds and other support required to develop or modernize 100 mid-sized and satellite cities across the country, all of which will have the characteristics of a smart city. The central government will provide half the funds (Rs 48,000 crore), and the other half will be provided by the governments of the states in which these cities are located.

In the first stage of the Mission, 98 cities were selected to be part of the plan. In the second stage, proposals from all these cities were evaluated and the first 20 cities were selected to receive financing. These cities are Bhubaneswar, Pune, Jaipur, Surat, Kochi, Ahmedabad, Jabalpur, Visakhapatnam, Solapur, Davanagere, Indore, New Delhi, Coimbatore, Kakinada, Belgaum, Udaipur, Guwahati, Chennai, Ludhiana, and Bhopal. Over the next two years, the remaining cities, in batches of 40 and 38, will be included in the project.

The background

It is estimated that over 30% of India’s population lives in urban areas, and this percentage is only going to grow. India’s cities are also where the majority of expats live, especially the handful of metropolises like Mumbai, Delhi, and Bangalore. The contribution of the country’s urban population to its GDP is also growing, and is already at 60%. However, most Indian cities lack many of the most basic elements of infrastructure that exist and are even taken for granted in most Western cities. What this means is that the country’s 100 smart cities need to begin with the basics. Unlike smart cities in developed countries, where IT-driven solutions are used to build on and expand existing infrastructure, India’s smart cities will actually need to create much of this infrastructure. Basic infrastructure in India’s smart cities will thus be built on information technology rather than augmented by it.

Advantages and opportunities expected from the ‘Smart Cities Mission’

The plan has clear advantages for the cities that are part of it, right from the development of basic infrastructure to the creation of a high quality of life. It is hoped that this “smart” urbanization will foster innovation and entrepreneurship, which in turn will create wealth while addressing issues, such as crime and poverty, that these cities have struggled with for years. However, beyond being an opportunity for the cities themselves to develop and push the entire country forward, the Smart Cities Mission is also an opportunity for a number of other stakeholders, including developers, investors, academics, consulting firms, and of course the country’s information technology and communications technology sectors, both of which are already huge and growing. According to the country’s National Association of Software and Services Companies (NASSCOM), the Mission could be worth up to $40 billion for these two sectors alone over the course of the next 10 years.

Jones Lang LaSalle (JLL), a professional services and investment management company specializing in real estate, says in a report titled Decoding The Future Of Smart Cities In India that the project will be beneficial for “infrastructure, human resources, industry, technology, education, health and medicine, banking and finance, retail, tourism and heritage structures, art and culture, and natural resources utilization”. In addition, they foresee the creation of tens of millions of jobs, increased foreign direct investment (FDI), an increased contribution to GDP, and increased government revenue, which of course can be used for further development. The report also talks about public-private partnerships, citizen participation, and sustainable development. The conclusion of the report touches upon the fact that implementation of the project could be difficult, but maintains that it is necessary in order for India to keep pace with global standards.

Concerns about the ‘Smart Cities Mission’

Since the announcement of the smart cities project, there has been wariness and skepticism about it. One concern of course, as mentioned in the JLL report, is the fact that the current socio-economic situation in the country might make it difficult to implement such an ambitious plan. The country will need to summon massive amounts of funding and expertise, navigate the hurdles of bureaucracy and corruption, and also negotiate and collaborate with various stakeholders in order for the Smart Cities Mission to be successful.

One worldwide concern over smart cities, and one shared by some Indian experts, is the risk of surveillance and control over the citizens of these cities. Due to the ubiquity of communications and information technology in a smart city, there is a high potential and propensity for constant and widespread geo-surveillance.

Another issue that has been pointed out is that much of the land that is being earmarked for development into smart cities belongs either formally or informally to local farmers and tribes, and the acquisition of this land requires adequate consultation and compensation. Many of these current landowners are reluctant to part with their land, which would also mean giving up their livelihoods and culture to a large extent. The government, on the other hand, has attempted to relax land acquisition laws, only to retreat in the face of protests. Clearly, this is something that will need to be negotiated slowly and carefully.

The land acquisition issue also has another concerning aspect to it – the speeding up and often pushing through of environmental clearances, regardless of the ground realities. Critics have pointed out that sustainability is an important element of a smart city, and the dilution of environmental regulations is a lopsided approach that is inconsistent with the project’s own aims. Equally importantly, cutting corners in such matters could lead to major problems for these cities and their residents in the long run.

Concerns about a corporate takeover of land are also being voiced. There are worries that the smart cities will not really be cities but corporate colonies, which will be owned and managed by private entities, and which will use a combination of high prices and physical policing to allow only the wealthy while keeping out the poor and marginalized. This again goes against the stated principles of the project, since it will exclude the poor instead of addressing poverty, and will essentially use public land and funds to benefit a select, privileged portion of the population. These concerns resonate deeply with the current worldwide debate over wealth inequality and privilege.

What does this mean for expats?

With all the benefits being promised by the Smart Cities Mission, there could be exciting times ahead for expats in India. One of the most important developments of course is that if things go according to plan, expats will have a much easier time living in Indian cities. For many years now, the low cost of living has been among the main draws for expats. There are other factors too, such as the rich culture, travel opportunities, and ease of raising children, but in many ways, many expats find Indian cities exhausting, and the choice to live there is a bit of a compromise. Many struggle with the bureaucracy, the poor infrastructure, and the lack of professionalism in many spheres.

The success of the smart cities project could change a lot of this. There will of course be massive development, upgrading, and augmentation of all kind of infrastructure, from electricity to public health to communications to transport. In addition, for cities to actually have a high standard of living, issues such as poverty, sanitation, and pollution will need to be addressed, and systems in general will need to become more efficient. Indian citizens will be the main beneficiaries of this, but of course expats will also benefit from India’s smart cities.

For example, one of the most challenging aspects of life in India as an expat is setting up the basics, such as utilities and bank accounts, and in a smart city this would ideally be a much simpler, smoother process. Transport is another challenge for expats, and the country’s smart cities can be expected to have better roads and more efficient, safe, and well-connected public transport systems. All of these are factors that expats consider when deciding to move to a country, and therefore any improvements will only lead to expats being more inclined to move to and remain in India. The fact that 98 cities are to be developed will likely also mean that expats have more options than the handful of Indian cities that are currently considered to be habitable by international standards.

Another thing that will draw many expats to India is the development of the smart cities themselves. Not all of the investment and expertise required for the project will be available within the country itself, so the expectation is that there will be a considerable amount of international involvement in order to meet the gap. The Indian government is very keen on attracting the best international talent to work on its smart cities, and will do everything it can to draw them in. In fact, collaborations are already being discussed with Israel, Spain, Japan, the US, Germany, and a few more countries, and it is probably fair to expect an increase in the number of expats from these locations.

Of course all this depends on how well the Smart Cities Mission is implemented, and with the initial list of 20 cities having only just been announced, that remains to be seen. Nonetheless, it’s safe to say that if the project is successful, we’ll see many more expats moving to India and being more satisfied with the quality of life there.

Sources: [1], [2], [3], [4], [5], [6]