urban development

What exactly is a smart city? The Indian government does not want you to know

It thwarted the Bureau of Indian Standards’ plan to fix clear criteria for defining a smart city, and came out with a fuzzy ‘Liveability Index’ instead.

Are the urban centres selected by the Union government to be upgraded into “smart cities” actually becoming smarter? How does the government define a smart city under its much-publicised Smart City Mission? This may never be known. An exercise to set clear benchmarks to assess when exactly a city is delivering a high enough quality of life to its inhabitants to be declared a smart city was shut down by the urban development ministry late last year.

The initiative had been started by the Bureau of Indian Standards in 2015. Though its work was in the final stage, bureau was asked to halt its work to set up benchmark standards for smart cities. Instead, the urban development ministry has now devised a “Liveability Index”, which will enable a city to carry the “smart city” label merely because it has been selected by the government for the mission. The index will assess the cities only on relative improvements over time in delivering services to residents and not in absolute terms. The index will merely rank the cities already earmarked as “smart” by the government.

To piece together how and why the government aborted the attempt to define smart cities, Scroll.in reviewed the draft standards the Bureau of Indian Standards had prepared and other documents from the bureau and the urban development ministry.

The ministry did not respond to detailed queries sent by Scroll.in.

Smart City Mission

Establishing smart cities was one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first flagship initiatives after coming to power. Launched in 2015, the Smart City Mission aims to develop 109 cities that will “provide core infrastructure, a decent quality of life to its citizens, clean and sustainable environment and application of Smart Solutions”.

Initially, only broad principles were set out about the mission and the idea of smart cities. No definition or hard criteria were laid down.

Cities bid to be selected for the plan. Municipalities were encouraged to hire consultants to prepare their bids. Candidates were expected to submit a plan listing the array of activities and ideas they would implement. After several rounds of screening, 90 cities were chosen. These cities then appointed empanelled consultants to carry out a portfolio of projects that would turn them smart cities.

Under the scheme, the Union government will pay the selected cities Rs 100 crore every year for five years. The state government in which the city is located will match that amount. Cities are expected to generate the rest of the funds from the market through bonds or public-private partnerships. Their municipalities are required to set up private companies known as “special purpose vehicles” to manage the project.

Setting the standards

After the government announced the Smart City Mission, the Bureau of Indian Standards, an independent body under the department of consumer affairs, decided to create standards to define what services and infrastructure a city should provide to be called a smart city in the Indian context. The bureau, which is in charge of defining national standards for goods and processes, noted that the idea of smart cities varied from country to country. In 2015, it formed a committee under former urban development secretary Sudhir Krishna to establish national standards for smart cities.

The committee comprised nine multidisciplinary working groups, which, after a year of deliberations until September 2016, came up with 46 core and 47 supportive indicators to assess city services and quality of life across sectors.

These included indicators on economics, education, energy, environment, health, governance, transport, shelter and safety. Other indicators related to particulate matter pollution, renewable energy consumption, the unemployment rate, the ratio of police personnel to population, and the infant mortality rate. The draft prescribed methodologies to measure data on each of the indicators. “Sustainability as a general principle” was at the heart of the standards, the committee said.

The standards were expected to raise the bar for Indian cities to be described as “smart” since many of these measurable indicators were not part of the existing assessment process.

Ministry not interested

But the idea of having strict criteria for smart cities did not find takers at the urban development ministry, which oversees the Smart City Mission.

In fact, it should have been evident from the beginning that the government was not keen on defining clear, sharp qualifications. In its initial guidelines for the Smart City Mission, the ministry had stated, “There is no universally accepted definition of a smart city. It means different things to different people…Even in India, there is no one way of defining a smart city.”

Records shows the ministry was wary of the bureau’s proposed standards from the outset. “Are we ready to fix standards for smart cities even before a single one has [been] set up?” the urban development secretary wrote in an internal file noting on the bureau’s request to the ministry to participate in consultations on the standards in July 2015.

Justifying the absence of strict standards, another official in the urban development ministry wrote in March 2016:

“The smart city mission is one-of-its-kind and does not start with a definition of a Smart City or sets a-priori Standards for Smart Cities to achieve. In fact, the Mission document only sets some definitional boundaries within which the competing cities have to develop their Smart City proposals. The Smart City Components, Indicators, Data sources etc. will have to be culled out from the smart City proposals of at least 50 Smart cities. As such the ministry is of the view that preparation of any standards…in BIS is premature.”

It seems the ministry wanted to put the cart before the horse. It wanted to see what projects and ideas urban bodies would propose in their bids and then tailor-make the standards to suit those projects.

“This is illogical,” said a senior official involved in the drafting of the standards at the bureau. “You set the standards for the output first and then design the products and the processes to ensure a certain quality of output. You don’t design the product first and then decide the standards based on what you have.”

The ministry refused to endorse the standards or participate in the bureau’s meetings. Instead, it wrote to the consumer affairs ministry, under which the bureau operates, asking it to “defer” the formulation of standards. Despite this, the bureau went ahead and published the draft standards for public comments in September 2016.

The urban development ministry reflected on these developments in November 2016 file noting:

“Only a broad framework is given to cities in which they have to conceptualise their idea of of a Smart City and plan their pathway to ‘Smartness’. The broad framework can be called a ‘light touch, loose fit’ approach and is different from the cookie-cutter model followed largely in other programmes. As part of the light touch approach, only a guiding framework is given to the cities to prepare their ‘Smart City Proposal’ for competition. As a result following the approach, all standards for Indian Smart Cities will have to be called out from the Smart City Proposals of Smart Cities.”

The ministry raised the stakes. The same file noting shows that its senior officials decided to take up “the matter strongly with PMO [Prime Minister’s Office]…to keep in abeyance the process of specifications of standards of Smart Cities”. The officials said:

“The BIS [Bureau of Indian Standards] is following a conventional process largely relying on only one set of Smart City standards developed overseas leading to a very narrow way of looking at a Smart City. The diversity and plurality found in Indian cities will be completely missed out.”

The bureau, however, said its standards were derived from International Organisation for Standardisation benchmarks on “Sustainable Development of Communities: Indicators for City Services and Quality of Life” and were “modulated” by the standards notified by various Indian agencies. The International Organisation for Standardisation is an independent, non-governmental international organisation with 163 national standards bodies as members. The bureau’s draft also prescribed that while adopting its standards, aspirations of the cities – “for instance, if the city chooses to remain a heritage city, a tourism city, a business city, or an industrial city” – should be retained and nurtured.

The ministry won the argument. The bureau was asked to prematurely shut down its exercise. The draft standards, which had been opened to public comments, were pulled off from the agency’s website and the expert committee wound up.

Promoting chosen projects

In reaction to what may be seen as a turf battle between the ministry and the bureau, the ministry decided it would draft its own standards. In November 2016, it released the draft for public comments, and asked the states to give their views on it. The standards were released in June 2017. Only, there were no actual standards to define a smart city. Instead, the ministry had devised the complex Liveability Index to rate and rank cities. The introduction to the index read:

“The Ministry of Urban Development has developed a set of ‘Liveability Standards in Cities’ to generate a Liveability Index and rate cities. The source of the Liveability Standards are the 24 features contained in the Smart City Proposals, which have been grouped into 15 categories. These categories are part of the four pillars of comprehensive development of cities.”

The index is designed to simultaneously promote projects, events and technologies the government has already approved under various Smart City Plans and not just measure outcomes of these projects, technologies and efforts.

The bureau’s standards, by contrast, relied purely on assessing the end result of the mission, and its various projects and components. These standards were agnostic to how the targets were achieved, what technologies were used or projects implemented.

For example, when the bureau intended to measure if the city had become safer, it asked for data on the number of police personnel, number of homicides, rate of crime against women, response time of the police to crime scenes, and rate of violent crimes.

In contrast, the urban development ministry’s index asks whether the city has put up surveillance cameras all over. Most cities have already committed to installing surveillance cameras. There is little research in India to suggest installing cameras makes a city safer. Yet, the index will only encourage cities to put cameras to rank better.

There are other ways in which the ministry’s index will provide a more rosy picture than the metrics the bureau wanted to use. For example, when assessing air pollution, the ministry does not even ask for data on the most harmful pollutant – particulate matter. On water quality, it only wants to know the percentage of samples that tested safe; the actual quality of water is not considered.

Read without the fine print, the Liveability Index would only provide a plain rating of cities, say on a scale of one to 100, and nothing more. Users would have to pore over records, which may not be available publicly, to know what the index really measured and how. In contrast, the bureau had suggested an open data platform, where information on all the parameters is released for the public to freely review, assess and comment.

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Swara Bhasker: Sharp objects has to be on the radar of every woman who is tired of being “nice”

The actress weighs in on what she loves about the show.

This article has been written by award-winning actor Swara Bhasker.

All women growing up in India, South Asia, or anywhere in the world frankly; will remember in some form or the other that gentle girlhood admonishing, “Nice girls don’t do that.” I kept recalling that gently reasoned reproach as I watched Sharp Objects (you can catch it on Hotstar Premium). Adapted from the author of Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects has been directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who has my heart since he gave us Big Little Lies. It stars the multiple-Oscar nominee Amy Adams, who delivers a searing performance as Camille Preaker; and Patricia Clarkson, who is magnetic as the dominating and dark Adora Crellin. As an actress myself, it felt great to watch a show driven by its female performers.

The series is woven around a troubled, alcohol-dependent, self-harming, female journalist Camille (single and in her thirties incidentally) who returns to the small town of her birth and childhood, Wind Gap, Missouri, to report on two similarly gruesome murders of teenage girls. While the series is a murder mystery, it equally delves into the psychology, not just of the principal characters, but also of the town, and thus a culture as a whole.

There is a lot that impresses in Sharp Objects — the manner in which the storytelling gently unwraps a plot that is dark, disturbing and shocking, the stellar and crafty control that Jean-Marc Vallée exercises on his narrative, the cinematography that is fluid and still manages to suggest that something sinister lurks within Wind Gap, the editing which keeps this narrative languid yet sharp and consistently evokes a haunting sensation.

Sharp Objects is also liberating (apart from its positive performance on Bechdel parameters) as content — for female actors and for audiences in giving us female centric and female driven shows that do not bear the burden of providing either role-models or even uplifting messages. 

Instead, it presents a world where women are dangerous and dysfunctional but very real — a world where women are neither pure victims, nor pure aggressors. A world where they occupy the grey areas, complex and contradictory as agents in a power play, in which they control some reigns too.

But to me personally, and perhaps to many young women viewers across the world, what makes Sharp Objects particularly impactful, perhaps almost poignant, is the manner in which it unravels the whole idea, the culture, the entire psychology of that childhood admonishment “Nice girls don’t do that.” Sharp Objects explores the sinister and dark possibilities of what the corollary of that thinking could be.

“Nice girls don’t do that.”

“Who does?”

“Bad girls.”

“So I’m a bad girl.”

“You shouldn’t be a bad girl.”

“Why not?”

“Bad girls get in trouble.”

“What trouble? What happens to bad girls?”

“Bad things.”

“What bad things?”

“Very bad things.”

“How bad?”

“Terrible!!!”

“Like what?”

“Like….”

A point the show makes early on is that both the victims of the introductory brutal murders were not your typically nice girly-girls. Camille, the traumatised protagonist carrying a burden from her past was herself not a nice girl. Amma, her deceptive half-sister manipulates the nice girl act to defy her controlling mother. But perhaps the most incisive critique on the whole ‘Be a nice girl’ culture, in fact the whole ‘nice’ culture — nice folks, nice manners, nice homes, nice towns — comes in the form of Adora’s character and the manner in which beneath the whole veneer of nice, a whole town is complicit in damning secrets and not-so-nice acts. At one point early on in the show, Adora tells her firstborn Camille, with whom she has a strained relationship (to put it mildly), “I just want things to be nice with us but maybe I don’t know how..” Interestingly it is this very notion of ‘nice’ that becomes the most oppressive and deceptive experience of young Camille, and later Amma’s growing years.

This ‘Culture of Nice’ is in fact the pervasive ‘Culture of Silence’ that women all over the world, particularly in India, are all too familiar with. 

It takes different forms, but always towards the same goal — to silence the not-so-nice details of what the experiences; sometimes intimate experiences of women might be. This Culture of Silence is propagated from the child’s earliest experience of being parented by society in general. Amongst the values that girls receive in our early years — apart from those of being obedient, dutiful, respectful, homely — we also receive the twin headed Chimera in the form of shame and guilt.

“Have some shame!”

“Oh for shame!”

“Shameless!”

“Shameful!”

“Ashamed.”

“Do not bring shame upon…”

Different phrases in different languages, but always with the same implication. Shameful things happen to girls who are not nice and that brings ‘shame’ on the family or everyone associated with the girl. And nice folks do not talk about these things. Nice folks go on as if nothing has happened.

It is this culture of silence that women across the world today, are calling out in many different ways. Whether it is the #MeToo movement or a show like Sharp Objects; or on a lighter and happier note, even a film like Veere Di Wedding punctures this culture of silence, quite simply by refusing to be silenced and saying the not-nice things, or depicting the so called ‘unspeakable’ things that could happen to girls. By talking about the unspeakable, you rob it of the power to shame you; you disallow the ‘Culture of Nice’ to erase your experience. You stand up for yourself and you build your own identity.

And this to me is the most liberating aspect of being an actor, and even just a girl at a time when shows like Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies (another great show on Hotstar Premium), and films like Veere Di Wedding and Anaarkali Of Aarah are being made.

The next time I hear someone say, “Nice girls don’t do that!”, I know what I’m going to say — I don’t give a shit about nice. I’m just a girl! And that’s okay!

Swara is a an award winning actor of the Hindi film industry. Her last few films, including Veere Di Wedding, Anaarkali of Aaraah and Nil Battey Sannata have earned her both critical and commercial success. Swara is an occasional writer of articles and opinion pieces. The occasions are frequent :).

Watch the trailer of Sharp Objects here:

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This article was published by the Scroll marketing team with Swara Bhasker on behalf of Hotstar Premium and not by the Scroll editorial team.