The Smart City of Shillong: a danger to Democracy?

The Government of Meghalaya is desperate to acquire the nod for its smart city proposal from the Government of India, which did not include Shillong in the first phase. This week they are going to try again. Ever since the proposal for smart cities was floated more than two decades ago at the global level, there have been reservations about it. Currently, there are no dearth of skeptics in India as well. No one can deny that improvement of services and making general life comfortable is very important and under the smart city mandate all these are touted to be solved using ICT (Information and Communication Technologies). All this is well and good, but the use of technology to solve everyday problem is not something new. Gradually this is happening in any case. But what is different in this case is the scale at which this is being attempted, the whole city at a single stroke. And all of this is being done with the belief that technology is the panacea of all our problems, again a very old idea. But is it really so? Is augmentation of technological solutions all that is going to require for improving our lives? Or is there something that is being missed in all of this?

I don’t have much detail about the actual Shillong Smart City Plan except a few files on the proposal available online. There it talks about for example, use of sensors and cameras to report, monitor and optimize traffic; digitization of government records and projects; digital submission, processing, payment and dispatch of services, etc. But for me, what is missing from all this is the issue of governance, i.e., the institutions that are going to handle all these data, process them and help make decisions. This is very crucial because the ones who control this operation are going to be the ones who will control the city. Because of the supposedly vast number of technological solutions to be employed, the form of governance will also need to change and herein lays the concern.

Till now it is assumed (from what I can understand) that the solutions will merge with the existing governance structure. But I do not think that this will be the case. When you bring about such a large-scale change it is inevitably going to affect the whole system. It is important to remember that technology is not accessible to all and higher the sophistication greater the difficulty. When one talks of comprehensive adoption there is a requirement for substantial technical expertise at all levels. It is not possible that the whole populace of the city will have the required technical expertise to handle and understand the technology. This will automatically keep people out of the system, especially those who have little or no technical expertise, i.e., people from weaker socio-economic backgrounds. But being able to use the technology is not enough. My friend who is quite tech-savvy narrated his recent exhausting experience regarding cancellation of a plane ticket from an online portal. While it was much easier to book the ticket, it was highly complicated to cancel it. I know how to work on a laptop but completely ignorant if a snag develops. Simply having knowledge (whether sufficient or not) is not enough, control is more important.

Control can be in terms of regulation of the whole operation or the decision making process. While, with some training, lower level operations may be handled by the local workforce the higher level tasks are always going to be in the hands of the experts; most probably, to be provided by the vendors whose technology will be purchased. So this whole operation is going to be entrusted in the hands of an unaccountable body: unaccountable because they have not been chosen by and from the general public but selected through competitive bidding or as it happens in this country, preferentialism. One can argue that this is inevitable. If our people are not smart enough to handle the technology it’s their own fault. But if we retain ownership of the decision making-process we may still control the outcome. Most probably the Smart City Plan will be applied to the municipal areas only. No municipal elections have been held for the past many years and it don’t look to change soon. This is why the JNNURM project faced initial hurdles. In a situation such as this, decision making-process will further get concentrated into the hands of the technocrats, an unaccountable body as previously mentioned. But why is the issue of accountability very important? If we are getting good services, shouldn’t it be good enough? Unfortunately, no!

The issue of accountability is very important because the application of technological solutions is going to cover the whole gamut of services ranging from basic amenities like water supply to preventing crime. This is where the problem lies with this whole exercise. The difference between public and private institutions is that while the former cares more about social needs the latter has to take profitability into consideration. After all, it is not charity. Let take the example of water supply. Introduction of smart metering is being proposed as one of initiatives under the Smart City Plan. This will enable water consumption to be monitored and by levying appropriate levy discourage its wastage. But this can be done only in case of individual connections which is not available to people belonging to lower socio-economic backgrounds. These people either depend on common standposts or other sources where metering is difficult to implement. As a result, this group will be excluded from reliable service unless they acquire a private connection and pay for it. The same will be true for the other services as well. Smart cities are going to be built through the PPP (Public-Private Partnership) model and the second P is always going to dominate the first P. Thus, the Smart City Plan will widen the disparity within the existing city with enclaves having all the ‘smart solutions’ while the rest will experience deterioration in services unless they also pay to join the party. And since it is more profitable if a larger area is brought into the system, the undesirables (the non-smart people) will eventually be pushed away from the city.

But until now we have been talking only about an existing city, i.e., the present Shillong town. The government plans to upgrade NST to a smart city. And since it is much easier to start excluding people who are already not there, NST is going to become a very exclusive zone where entry will be barred except for those who can afford the smart solutions. To be fair, there are provisions for affordable housing and taking care of the needs of the poor in the Plan but I am not optimistic. The kind of governance that is necessary for the smart city to function efficiently makes it difficult for it to consider the needs of people who are not smart.

All of this may create an impression that I am anti-technology and against the benefits that modern science has brought to everyday life. I have no problem with technology but what has to be understood is that technology does not just get absorbed into the existing system, it also changes it. It was the discovery of agriculture that enabled large cities to develop leading to the emergence of civilizations, use of steam to power machines began the industrial age, and growth of information technology gave rise to modern globalization. Different technologies give rise to different kinds of societies because it cannot survive in the old ones.

In light of tremendous inequality in our society, the form of governance demanded by the philosophy of smart cities is going to be undemocratic. In a living and breathing city which is full of people from different strata and having different capacities, democracy cannot be ignored. Technology is a part of our everyday life and its growing influence is unavoidable. But the process has to be gradual and needs to take the local conditions into consideration. In India, GIFT and Dholera are being flaunted to be the first smart cities in the country. In this context, it is important to remember that both of them have been built as investment zones, not as cities for the general public. So, to whom will the city of Shillong eventually belong, the tech-savvy and affluent or those who lack either or both?

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Bhogtoram Mawroh Written by:

A geographer by training

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