Magazine article New Internationalist

'Smart City' Plan Stumbles over Slums

Magazine article New Internationalist

'Smart City' Plan Stumbles over Slums

Article excerpt

Prashant Kumar Das sat outside his home staring into the distance. A few hundred metres away a block of unpainted grey apartment buildings lay deserted. The 58-year-old lives in Bhubaneswar, a city in Odisha state about 400 kilometres southwest of Calcutta.

'When they brought us here they told us they'd give us concrete houses in three months,' he recalls. Behind him his selfbuilt house consists of tin sheets, discarded signboards and thatched wicker, with a line of washed clothes strung in front. Eighty other similar homes crowd around his. 'It's been over a year now and we haven't even been assigned transit houses yet.'

Until last year Das lived in a brick-andmortar house he had built in Venkateshwar, one of the oldest slums in the city. Then in January 2016, Das and 80 other families were given $100, a plastic bag for their belongings and told to clear the area. A decision had been made to construct municipal offices at the site of the slum. They were driven to a deserted plot of grassy land behind the apartment complex and told to construct temporary shelters 'for a few months' until they could be assigned transit houses.

Venkateshwar falls within the area earmarked for the first phase of Bhubaneswar's Smart City project. India's 'Smart City Mission', the brainchild of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, aims to transform select cities across the country into models of technological and infrastructural innovation. Under the wing of the Ministry of Urban Development every Smart City is supposed to feature housing for all, comprehensive public transport, green spaces, walkable streets, dependable water, electricity and internet connectivity, and citizen-friendly governance.

In 2015, 98 cities across the country took part in the Smart City Challenge by submitting proposals detailing plans. There were 20 cities shortlisted but Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, won the competition.

Today, hoardings across the city still boast of this achievement. But the 300,000 slumdwellers in this city of a million people are far from pleased.

'They want to build up a new class, a city within a city,' says Suresh Panigrahi of the Odisha Basti Basinda Mahasangha, a slum-dwellers' rights group. 'The corporate loot of land will take place under the Smart City project.'

'We made this city'

Like other major cities in India, Bhubaneswar has seen a steady stream of rural to urban migration over the last two decades. Most of city's slum residents came in search of work, driven from small towns and villages by rural poverty and debt.

This migration has sparked a steady rise in the illegal occupation of land and the chaotic construction of new slum housing. Many of these homes are made of bricks and cement. None of the tenants have legal deeds or the city's sanction. Electricity lines and water supplies are ingeniously diverted from the main lines.

Yet, the city's relationship with the slums is symbiotic. The oldest slums house families that provided cheap the manual labour, workers who built the apartments, office towers and even the railway lines of the rapidly growing city.

'They scold us for making illegal houses,' says Ramraj Sharma, a slum-dweller and activist. 'But they don't see that we've made this smart city with our own hands. We clean their homes, we make their food.'

Krishan Kumar, managing director of Bhubaneswar's Smart City project and the city's Municipal Commissioner, denies that the plan will leave slum-dwellers in the lurch.

'We were certain that issues relating to social equity had to be addressed because the plan had been criticized for being an elitist programme. That is why we included slum redevelopment, social equity centres and affordable housing as part of the proposal.'

According to Kumar, half the people in the Smart City area are slum-dwellers and city administrators are determined that no-one should be uprooted. The plan includes four housing programmes aiming at building an ambitious 6,000 houses for 5,600 urban poor families. …

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