Newspaper article International New York Times

Smart Cities Could Help Rural Poor

Newspaper article International New York Times

Smart Cities Could Help Rural Poor

Article excerpt

Some city dwellers may have romantic notions about the traditional Indian village, but it is a treacherous place for the poor.

When Narendra Modi declared last year before becoming prime minister that he would build "100 smart cities," Indians understood a part of what he said -- "100." But the quest to comprehend the rest of his vision has not been fruitful, even though his government set up a website called SmartCities.gov.in, organized an exhibition called "Smart Cities India 2015" and held news conferences during which a minister used the word "retrofitting" several times. Finally, in June, through a "mission statement," Mr. Modi agreed that he did not know himself what a "smart city" was.

"There is no universally accepted definition of a smart city," the statement explained, even though Indians had not been waiting to learn the universal definition of a "smart city," but what Mr. Modi had meant by it.

As he is a man who believes that transformation begins with a catchy phrase, he does not plan to abandon the terminology. What an Indian "smart city" now means, primarily, is a city with good roads, power, water and livable homes. For that to happen, a city would need "smart people," according to the statement. The moment this writer knows what that means he will let you know.

A few days ago, the Modi government finalized a list of 98 cities, some or many of which would become beneficiaries of an annual federal grant of one billion rupees, or about $15 million, each for the next five years to help them become smart. The grant would be matched by the local government that governs the city. Even so, these are paltry funds. Mr. Modi hopes that after the government intervention, private companies will invest in the revolution.

If Mr. Modi is indeed serious about an overhaul of Indian cities, he would be undertaking one of the greatest humanitarian tasks in the world. As things stand, all Indian cities are broken even by the standards of the developing world. They are hellholes for the poor and insufferable for the rich.

More than 30 percent of India lives in urban areas, not counting the floating population, and the figure is expected to rise steeply in the near future. …

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