India's 'Smart City' plans - problems with slums

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India's 'Smart City' plans - problems with slums

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi started a $15 billion plan last year to develop 100 ‘smart cities’ by 2022. This should bring big changes and modern roads between cities. But not everyone is happy, especially the people who suffer because of progress. Nimisha Jaiswal reports from Bhubaneswar.


In Bhubaneswar a woman walks past empty apartments. It was a bad scheme. No-one can decide who can live there. © Nimisha Jaiswal

Prashant Kumar Das, 58, sat outside his home near a block of grey apartment buildings. He lives in Bhubaneswar, 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 says. Behind him is the house he built himself, from tin sheets and old signboards, with a line of washing in front. There are eighty other similar homes near his. ‘We’ve been waiting more than a year – even for temporary houses.’

Until last year Das lived in a brick-and-mortar house he had built in Venkateshwar, one of the oldest slums in the city. Then in January 2016, Das and 80 other families got $100, a plastic bag for their things and had to leave the area. The government built offices where the slum had been. They took the families to an area of grass behind the offices and told them to make homes ‘for a few months’ until they could get transit houses.

Venkateshwar is in the choice for the first part of Bhubaneswar’s Smart City project. India’s ‘Smart City’ plan is not successful because of the slums.

The clever idea of Prime Minister Narendra Modi is to transform a few cities across the country into new models of technological change.

The Ministry of Urban Development will look after every Smart City – and there should be houses for all. They should also have a complete system of public transport, green spaces, streets where you can walk, good water supply, electricity and connection to the internet. And the government should be friendly to its citizens.

‘They get angry with us for making illegal houses. But they don’t see that we clean their homes, we cook their food.’

In 2015, 98 cities across the country took part in the Smart City Challenge by suggesting plans. There were 20 cities on the short list but Bhubaneswar, the capital of Odisha, won the competition.

The advertisements still say how great this was. But the 300,000 people who live in the slums are not happy.

‘They want to create a new class, a city within a city,’ says Suresh Panigrahi of the Odisha Basti Basinda Mahasangha, (rights for people in slums). ‘The authorities will steal land from the Smart City project.’

‘We made this city’

Like other major cities in India, Bhubaneswar has seen many people moving from the countryside to towns over the last two decades. Most of the people who live in the slum came looking for work. They had to move because of poverty in the countryside.

So there are more people living illegally on the land. There is no organisation to the building, mostly of bricks and cement. They get electricity and water illegally from the main lines.

But the families living in the oldest slums did all the hard work, for little pay, to build the apartments, office towers and even the railway lines of the rapidly growing city.

‘They say it’s wrong for us to build 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 cook their food.’

Krishan Kumar (managing director of Bhubaneswar’s Smart City project and the city’s Municipal Commissioner) says the plan will not forget the people who live in the slums.

Kumar says that half the people in the Smart City area live in slums and city administrators are determined that no-one will need to move. The plan includes four housing programmes. They plan to build 6,000 houses for 5,600 urban poor families. Kumar expects construction to begin in September.

‘The basic idea is that housing for all should happen quicker than 2022,’ Kumar explains. ‘This plan should improve the lives of slum-dwellers. They should feel happy about the Smart City.’

Us against them

But up to now, the poor in Bhubaneswar have little reason to be happy about the plan. Mostly because they do not know what the plan is.

‘Smart City is about keeping your home and the roads clean,’ says Apna Rao, a 28-year-old resident of the Banphul slum. There was rubbish all over the field near us.

Several women listened to Rao. Their skin was yellow, probably from jaundice.


Prashant Kumar Das in front of his temporary home. Last year he was forced from a brick-and-mortar house, his home for 25 years, so municipal offices could be built at the site of the old slum. Nimisha Jaiswal

‘I hear about the plan when they say: “Oh, they’re destroying something for Smart City”. That’s all I know,’ adds TN Behra, a 45-year-old from Sai Nath slum.

People who lived in five different slums said no-one had told them anything or asked for their opinions.

There is a big communication gap between city administrators and slum-dwellers. So the poor people in Bhubaneswar believe that the city wants to get rid of them because they don’t fit into the plan for rapid development.

But some like it. ‘I like it here. There is free water, electricity and shelter,’ says Yana Janaki, a 65 year old woman who was moved from a Narayan slum seven years ago. ‘Why would I leave?’

In 2010, they moved more than 100 families from Narayan to transit houses. But 80 families stayed to fight in court. They won.

Janaki was a part of the fight, but now she is happy with her new place. It is still just one small room per family, but many people have made extra spaces from tin for a bigger living space.

A Very Big Task

Putting 300,000 people in new houses is a very big task. ‘We want to start 10,000 houses this year,’ says Commissioner Kumar, ‘near the original slums.’

In February 2017, the state government began to try to get specialists to improve the communication between authorities and people who live in the slum. It could take years to find out all the information about everyone.

At the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation (BMC) office of Anand Patnaik, there are many documents from the RAY surveys that the last government did.

They are building 3,660 houses now. They will complete 120,000 houses under RAY and they will give 902 transition houses to people ‘soon’.

BMC and Smart City officials know the statistics well. 80,000 families fit into their calculations well, but city authorities find it difficult to give people the few houses that have been built. The city authorities know there is a challenge.

We asked BMC’s Patnaik if it is possible to complete the Smart City project before 2022, he smiled and said, ‘No comment.’

Nimisha Jaiswal is a writer in Delhi. She often writes for New Internationalist.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).