A ‘Smart Vizag’ for whom?, by Debapriya Ganguly*

This post is a shortened version of the paper presented by Debapriya Ganguly at our Utopian Urban Futures conference on 27-28 June 2016.

[The facts and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and have not been verified or endorsed by the project team in any way]

Transitions in politics and economy see the emergence of new ideas and concepts, informing policies and programmes. The ‘urban’ in this respect is seen as a stage for displaying the ‘developmental’ activities of the state and, as Harvey (2000)[1] says, become ‘infected by utopian modes of thought’ in the larger sense. Categories like ‘world class cities’ and ‘smart cities’ often appear to be emblematic of such understandings. Even though there is no precise definition for the ‘smart city’, the term suggests (as deduced from the way it is used and operationalised) the digitisation of services for urban governance. The Government of India’s Ministry of Urban Development website lists out some of the areas these smart city projects aim to cover in a given urban centre. However, the question that has been raised regarding the idea since the time of inception is; how realistic is it? Is the smart city another outcome of ‘utopian’ planning?

Urbanisation in India, like in other parts of the world, has its own trajectory which influences its distinctive pattern of urban planning and vice versa. Urban planning was overseen in three different regimes of power: in colonial India the ‘urban’ proliferated under the gaze of the imperial needs; the post-colonial Indian cities carried forward these ideas and chose ‘development’ as a guiding force to direct their growth; and in neo-liberal times the commitment has been towards inserting the Indian cities within the global networks, so as to facilitate the ‘flows of capital’. Thus, planning involves consideration of not only the urban reality at the micro level, but also has to take into account the developments taking place at the macro level; both of which are rarely compatible. However, as Harvey (2000) comments, the project of globalisation itself is infused with the motives of ‘particular powers in particular places’, which use it greatly to their own advantages. Therefore, urban planning, driven by such ideologies, would invariably face the question: planning for whom?

The city which I am focusing on for my research is Visakhapatnam (often shortened as Vizag), currently the largest urban centre in the new state of Andhra Pradesh. Visakhapatnam had undergone different moments of transition – from a fishing village to a colonial port town and an industrial city, to a financial hub and a smart city in the making. At each stage, planning for the city became essential to direct its systematic growth. With the consistent flow of migrants in search of ‘better opportunities’, Visakhapatnam has often been referred to as the ‘city of destiny’. In the planning for the city, promises of growth and prosperity of the people is well portrayed. It is relevant to mention here that Visakhapatnam was one of the mission cities within the JNNURM, an urban renewal programme initiated by the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s UPA Government in 2005, and had been acclaimed for its successful performance especially in the area of BSUP (Basic Services to the Urban Poor). In 2014, Visakhapatnam was one of the first cities earmarked to be included in the ‘smart cities’ list, a project initiated by the present Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s NDA government.  Visakhapatnam’s selection was apparently not only contingent on it being the largest city in the new state but also on account of its public sector undertakings, industries, naval command and metropolitan population. According to newspaper reports, IBM has shown interest in developing Vizag into a smart city, akin to Rio de Janeiro, with emergency management plans for its vulnerability towards cyclones. Moreover, Visakhapatnam also holds an important position in the Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh’s Vision 2050, whereby the IT sector is given a lot of attention to build the city as a financial capital of the state. As a result, there are several projects that are being launched, land being allotted and investments being encouraged for the city’s ‘bright’ future. However, the question that remains is: will this nature of planning trigger holistic growth for the city? Is it addressing all sections of city dwellers? Whom do these ventures cater to?

According to the Census of 2011, Visakhapatnam had been identified as the city with the highest slum population (44.1%) to its total urban population amongst million plus cities in India. The Andhra Pradesh Human Development Report of 2007 states that urban poverty has consistently been higher than rural poverty in the state and Visakhapatnam bears testimony to the same. Urban poverty has been of essential concern in the city since the early decades of the post-independence period. In the first Comprehensive Development Plan on Visakhapatnam, prepared by the Town Planning Trust in 1968, the thrust on slum clearance and resettlement is clearly evident. With the opening up of the port in the 1930s, the establishment of the public sector enterprises in the 1940s and 1960s, followed by the construction of the Visakhapatnam Steel Plant in the 1970s; migration to the city was rampant, not only from the different parts of the Visakhapatnam district but also the neighbouring Srikakulam, Vizianagaram and East Godavari regions. The population which could not be subsumed within these sectors of employment came to compose a considerable number of poor in the city. In the subsequent planning of the city, there have been mentions of measures to be undertaken to address the conditions of this section of the population as poverty remained a persistent cause of concern. According to the City Development Plan (2005) of the urban local body, with the expansion of Visakhapatnam’s boundaries in 2005 there was inclusion of 32 villages which were already poverty stricken. This further added to the numbers of the poor and the proliferation of slum settlements in the city. However, with the emphasis on new projects related to urban infrastructural development, city beautification, road constructions and so on, the focus has been more towards evicting and relocating these ‘illegal occupants’ without heeding to their impending problems. In the garb of accommodating them in the city building process through rehabilitation programmes, what can be witnessed is further exclusion. With the smart city project and the allied ‘visions’ for Visakhapatnam, the attention is drawn away from these real challenges.

The urban history of a place may have certain peculiarities and the context under which it urbanised itself also may be specific to it. However, some definite processes are clearly visible during the formation of the urban which lies in its centrality in the creation of social and productive relations as has been pointed out by several urban scholars. Projects like ‘smart cities’, which are the products of corporate ideation of the future, focus more on the ‘productive’ than the ‘social’ networks, thus diminishing the particularities of these urban spaces. As Uprichard (2015)[2] says it is the ‘local and contingent differences’ which help in understanding how the urban is ‘constituted and changing’. Planning for these ‘urban futures’ become utopian as a result in the way they appear to obfuscate realities. On one hand these plans and projects foster images and notions which are alienating, on the other they make strong claims about being inclusive. Most of these utopias therefore get ‘perverted’ when they end up ‘compromising’ with the social processes they are designed to address (Harvey, 2000). Whether we call it a ‘smart’ city or give it any other name, the desired reality that is projected remains lopsided and from the evidences in the past fail to deliver on its promises more often than not.

[1] Harvey, David. (2000). Spaces of Hope. Edinburgh University Press: Edinburgh.

[2] Uprichard, Emma. (2015). ‘Policy Briefing: A Smart City’s Perspective’, Discovery Society, Issue 23. Accessed from, http://discoversociety.org/2015/08/03/policy-briefing-a-smart-citys-perspective/ on 27 July 2016.

*Debapriya Ganguly is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Hyderabad.

IMAGE BY Av9, courtesy of Wikicommons

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