Delhi’s Wasteful “Smart City” for Its Elites: Bloomberg’s Parasitical Model for the Future?

Yves here. Lambert and I often discuss with our correspondents how it can possibly be that what passes for our elites have no concept of the distress, desperation, and decay that are evident in large areas of the US.

This article discusses how it takes place in Delhi, where poverty and pollution are more acute than here. One of the devices is enclaves for the wealthy, where the poor are kept well away. Its city in a city, “Lutyens’ Delhi,” is a “smart city” depicted as a model for development despite the fact that it is such a resource hog as to be utterly unsuitable for widespread imitation.
Even more troubling is the role of Michael Bloomberg’s foundation as “knowledge partner” for this effort. Note that while Bloomberg does not appear to have any personal involvement, this sort of scheme (and the fact that his foundation is involved) suggests that it is consistent with his vision and priorities. Bloomberg even more so than most New York City mayors was a believer in the idea of turning Manhattan into a bedroom community for high end professionals and the rich,, and driving the service/support classes to the outer boros.

By Sunita Narain, Director of Centre for Science and Environment. Originally published at Triple Crisis

Many years ago, when Delhi’s air pollution was as high as it is today, my colleague Anil Agarwal and I had gone to meet a high-ranking, responsible government official. This was in the mid-1990s, when air was black because we did not even have the most rudimentary fuel quality and emission controls. The official was genuinely stumped by our demand that government should take steps to control runaway pollution. He kept asking, “But is Delhi really polluted?” I was equally flummoxed; air was foul and black. How could he miss it?

Then I realised that his world was not mine to see. He travelled from his home, located in luxuriantly green Lutyens’ Delhi—also known as the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC), where government resides—to his office, also in the same verdant surroundings. Nowhere did he see any dirt; nowhere did he smell the air. And as it was not seen, it could not exist, so nothing needed to be done.

This incident came to my mind when I read that the Government of India had decided to select New Delhi—Lutyens’ Delhi—for the smart city makeover. Under this scheme, 20 cities have been selected based on “rigorous” criteria to improve urban living. The Government of India will now provide funds and expertise to make the city “smart”—defined as innovative approaches to improvement in urban services. This means that the government will spend on facilities to make its own living area even better and more removed from the squalor, poverty and pollution of the rest of India.

The announcement declaring New Delhi Municipal Council a winner of the smart city challenge came when the rest of Delhi was drowning in urban waste. Municipal workers had declared a strike alleging non-payment of their dues. The contrast between where the government lives and where the rest of the citizens live could not have been more evident and striking. The fact that the government was now investing even more to make its own world better is a damning indictment of its non-inclusive approach to urban India.

Just think. This is India’s gated community of elite access. Of the total land area of Delhi, Lutyens’ city—named after the British urban planner and constructed to reflect the grandeur of the colonial state—is only three per cent. The Government of India owns over 80 per cent of the land, including the buildings in the Lutyens zone. No democracy is at work here. The NDMC is a council and not a corporation, so it is headed not by an elected representative but by a bureaucrat.

It is also a parasite of a city; it has the highest water footprint as compared to any other part of India. Its daily per capita water supply is 462 litres, while in other parts of the same city people get below 30 litres. Even as per government’s own norms, which specify highest water supply as 150 litres per capita per day, this is excessive, indeed gluttonous and wasteful. This water inequity is shameful and should have, in fact, disqualified Lutyens’ Delhi from any smart city challenge in my view.

It is also highly land-extravagant. While the city of Delhi has been imploding with a decadal growth rate of almost 50 per cent, the NDMC area is so privileged that it has a negative decadal growth rate of 2 per cent, according to its own sub-zonal plan. In other words, people are not welcome in this gated city. In this city of India, over 30 per cent of the land is under recreational purposes. This is so out of sync with the rest of the city and indeed the rest of India that is fighting for its inches of green spaces.

But even with all this land, the gated city of NDMC does not manage its own waste. This is sent to the rest of Delhi’s landfills. Its land is too precious for its waste. It does a lot of “cute” stuff like segregation of waste and even involves rag pickers in collecting waste from households. But the bulk of its waste goes to Okhla, where the compost plant is dysfunctional, and the rest to Delhi’s overflowing Ghazipur landfill. This is when it has no shortage of funds as government spends on itself without any questions.

New Delhi is not a smart city for all these reasons. It is certainly not a city that can be replicated in the rest of India. It is resource-inefficient, highly iniquitous and highly environmentally unprincipled. This is not what smart cities should stand for.

Former New York mayor and billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies, is government’s knowledge partner for the Smart Cities Initiative. This initiative will define what smart cities will mean for India and what we must aspire to. It is important for this reason alone that they must choose wisely. The symbols of India’s urban renewal cannot be cities for the elite and by the elite. This is not smart—not by a long shot.

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  1. Disturbed Voter

    Expect this kind of development everywhere the 1% live. Cities are inherently parasitical on agriculture, just as agriculture is disruptive of hunter/gatherer groups. What this development is about, is a city fully automated, without employees. I see them as ultimate traps for the 1%, targets for terrorism.

  2. DakotabornKansan

    Lutyens’ Delhi, a “smart city,” India’s gated community of elite access

    Contrast with life, death, and hope in a Mumbai slum:

    “What was unfolding in Mumbai was unfolding elsewhere, too. In the age of global market capitalism, hopes and grievances were narrowly conceived, which blunted a sense of common predicament. Poor people didn’t unite; they competed ferociously amongst themselves for gains as slender as they were provisional. And this undercity strife created only the faintest ripple in the fabric of the society at large. The gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached. The politicians held forth on the middle class. The poor took down one another, and the world’s great, unequal cities soldiered on in relative peace.” – Katherine Boo, Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

    Yes, our elites have no concept of, nor concern for, the anonymous distress, desperation, and decay in the undercities of the world.


    “One sees a new lumpenbourgeoisie quick to express a sense of victimization, voicing their anger about being excluded from the elite while being callously indifferent to the truly impoverished.” – Siddhartha Deb, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India

  3. crow

    The writer describes the New Delhi Municipal Council as a gated community, though she doesn’t define what that means. I’m curious: Are there walls or barriers around the perimeter of this region, with gates to control who enters? The resolution of images in Bing Bird’s Eye View are far too low to see if there are. It’s also curious that the NDMC municipal headquarters building is some distance from the zone, which is another kind of barrier to entry to the zone, at least in my mind.

  4. samhill

    Brings very much to mind Margaret Atwood’s Pleeblands.

    Manhattan has already become a reverse of the Escape From NY Kurt Russell film, a safe, well guarded compound for the 1%. From today’s NYT:

    “As the city becomes more of a corporate and condo island,” Mr. Rosenthal said, “some of us wish for a better balance between money and art, between progress and preservation, and we hope that one day we will see a reversal of the destruction of conscience and community we are witnessing.”

    1. Ulysses

      “Manhattan has already become a reverse of the Escape From NY Kurt Russell film, a safe, well guarded compound for the 1%.”

      Pretty much accurate, outside of a few grittier pockets in Chinatown, Alphabet City, Washington Heights, etc. The other day I witnessed a well-heeled tourist: walking away from an ATM in what we used to call “Hell’s Kitchen,” blithely counting a thick stack of twenties with nary a thought of being jumped!

  5. ambrit

    Even this exercise in ‘exceptionalism’ is terminally short sighted. The highest walls cannot exclude the ‘untouchables’ of your society forever. To be sustainable, an ‘elite’ enclave needs functional and feasible methods of exclusion. When the local social contract goes fully rancid, physical methods of exclusion are necessary. The recent film “Elysium” shows the logical endgame of this process.
    The basic lesson that elites seem destined to re-learn every so often is that, once you have made yourself an ‘elite,’ you have also made yourself a target for someone else.

  6. Clive

    The only thing that makes me smile in all this (and it isn’t just New Delhi, London, New York and Tokyo have their own examples of billionaire’s ghettos — those are just the ones I know of, I’m sure that they exist all over) is that the 0.0001%-er “residents”, who most likely never even live there or only seldom do so, get their pockets picked in exorbitant service changes, management fees and bloated maintenance invoices.

    And they’re just about the most illiquid asset you can own. A long time family friend of mine used to live in delightful St. Tropez but in their later years got infected with the neoliberal disease (didn’t like paying their “extortionate” taxes), sold up and moved to Monaco. The whole place is one large-scale, utterly dreadful, refuge for the kinds of people who, well, like the idea of a place like Monaco. Living there is like being a prisoner in Milton Freidman’s beach club. If John Galt moved to Monaco, even he would probably say “Oh, I do wish people round here wouldn’t be quite so self-centred”. Did I mention the corruption and the criminality ? And being surrounded by those who expect everyone and everything — including you — to be buyable and sellable ?

    My friend and her husband eventually coughed up to buy another place in the south of France (on a reduced budget — they’d sunk a shed load of cash into the Monaco place) but still have to drag themselves to Monaco for 6 months in the year (you need to maintain a 50% residency to comply with the tax rules). They’ve started to view it like some sort of self imposed tax exile purgatory.

    When I catch up with them periodically, I find myself feeling guilty for wondering what’s French for schadenfreude.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      OMG, yes, Monaco seems like one of the most unappealing places in the world, unless you really like being out on a boat most of the time. Overtanned middled aged men wearing expensive watches who have the air of ill-gotten gains about them, with young blonde tanned women who are clearly with them only because they are meal tickets, the housing so jam-packed that it feels claustrophobic, and the only apparent local culture being casinos and lounge singers.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      I visited Monaco for the first time last year – I couldn’t believe how truly awful it is – you really would have to have a pathological dislike of taxes to voluntarily live there given how many beautiful (and relatively cheap) places there are along the French and Italian coasts to live. I was walking around the harbour mentally calculating how many limpet mines would be needed to improve the world a little bit. They really do deserve each other.

    3. susan the other

      No but I think the german word for karma is schadenfreude. Since they are less passive about stuff.

    4. oh

      I visited Nice a couple of years ago and I was told to go visit Monaco; I resisted going there because I felt that it would be a hangout of the rich and famous (read crooked neo-liberal) and I decided to not go there. From the descriptions provided here I’m glad I didn’t!

  7. PlutoniumKun

    There is a clear pattern in so many cities for the wealthy to segregate, not just physically, but in a psychic sense. Even in relatively egalitarian European cities its amazing how easy it is for the wealthy to find a place where the only poor they have to meet are waiters. Sometimes its in prosperous centres (like Vienna) while the poor are pushed further out, other times its the opposite, where nice suburbs become slowly sealed off in numerous subtle ways. Even in quite a teeming and mixed city like London its quite possible for people to live in happy ignorance of how wretched many parts of that city can be.

    It has to be said though, that the Indian rich are particularly expert at this – Indian literature is full of stories based around the general cluelessness of the rich as to how most of their servants live.

    1. susan the other

      Is there a German city that festers in squalor? Maybe that is yet to come since Schaeuble et al will not relent with the austerity formula. Funny how irrational, how inorganic, it all is… that inner cities become filthy and toxic, then they are “gentrified” and the filth is shuffled outward to wherever it can be dumped, but it is never resolved unless there is an organized effort to do so. What is needed is a methodology – not a model city or a model neighborhood. A methodology that requires taxes spent in clean up, galoshes, and rolled-up sleeves. And good waste science – not dumping it all in the ocean. Forget showcase cities. Take it from nature: the best way to stop the rot is to ring fence it, keep it from spreading, and use good technology. And pay people well to do the job.

  8. rusti

    Someone please double check my math, but after looking at some articles they list the figure as something like 50,000 crore, to be matched by the individual states meaning a total budget of around $14 billion USD for the entire program.

    I spoke with a coworker who comes from one of the cities announced as winners and he saw the issue quite differently than the author. By his estimation, the issue isn’t so much that it’s a particularly wealthy neighborhood of Delhi that is benefiting but that it’s being spent on improving conditions for the more well-off members of India’s burgeoning middle class like himself in more affluent cities rather than the much larger segment of the population that is still dirt poor.

    This seems like a reasonable assessment to me too, having traveled around Northern India (including Delhi) last month. They were introducing an alternating odd-even license plate number driving restriction to cut down on smog, and one of the local papers interviewed people and found that there are a lot of two-car families and others who would find ways to circumvent the restrictions, not just in Lutyen’s Bungalow but all over.

    This was a huge contrast with the rural areas, where entire neighborhoods live without electricity and the majority of people are illiterate. And the contrast is even more dramatic in the large forests of Central India where there are still active insurgencies against the government, or in the Himalayan foothills where many villages have an arduous journey to the nearest road.

  9. Joel

    Luyten’s Delhi has no physical barrier so it’s not gated in that sense. The individual “bungalows” (love that term) are primarily owned by the government and house high ranking ministers, generals and such. The bungalows have high walls barbed wire and heavily armed military guards.

    I sort of washed up here and have been living in South Delhi for the past month. It is very middle class and contrary to my initial expectations quite a fine place to live. I’ve been especially impressed by the huge, gorgeous and well-used parks and other green spaces. Yes much of it has clearly been neglected but it is also clear that major resourses are now going into restoration and reclamation.

  10. Matthew G. Saroff

    Am I the only one who thinks that this wounds like the “Corporate Arcologies” that featured prominently in the Cyberpunk SF stories of the early 1990s?

    1. ambrit

      Love that typo! Very appropriate.
      Arcologies go way back. I remember Niven and Pournelles’ “Oath of Fealty” from 1981 as one example. I believe the Judge Dredd stories present one version as well in Mega City One; this from a comic book from 1977 on. E. M. Forsters’ “The Machine Stops” from 1909 (!!!) posits a form of arcology.

  11. Paul Tioxon

    “Some time in the next year or two, a woman will give birth in the Lagos slum of Ajegunle, a young man will flee his village in west Java for the bright lights of Jakarta, or a farmer will move his impoverished family into one of Lima’s innumerable pueblos jóvenes.” This imaginary but imminent event, he argues, shifting and swaying swiftly from vivid sketch to hyperbole, “will constitute a watershed in human history”. “For the first time the urban population of the earth will outnumber the rural”; there will soon be more people living in cities than in the country.”

    And this is bad news, because the cities that Davis examines and describes are not the rich, vibrant cultural centres beloved of Sunday-supplement dandies and middle-class flâneurs, but vast “peri-urban” developments, horizontal spreads of unplanned squats and shantytowns, unsightly dumps of humans and waste, where child labour is the norm, child prostitution is commonplace, gangs and paramilitaries rule and there is no access to clean water or sanitation, let alone to education or democratic institutions.”
    Excerpt above from
    A book review of ‘PLANET OF SLUMS’ by Mike Davis, can be read in full, here:

    And here as well, a more in depth review:

    Obviously, the vast wealth transfer will place distance as well as opulence between the 1% and the dregs, the lumpen and fallen middle class and the merely affluent remainder of the affluent society. Here in Philadelphia, the Manhattanization of Center City, the Central Business District and Historic core, between the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, is going gang busters. The sky line of the city, for the first time in my life of not quite 60 years, is dominated by construction cranes. Not a a couple or a few, but a dozen or more, I’m not sure and more on the way. And the buildings are the tallest ever for the city. 40, 50 stories, the newest reaching to over 1000ft in height, surpassing the current giant, and of course, I am talking only about Comcast and its second towering edifice next to its HQ.

    The ultra lux market, something that did not exist in the city at all until the 21st Century snuck up on dowdy downtown Philly. The top of the line newest is 31 stories with 31 residences that cost from $4-12mil. You have a whole floor to yourself. This is on Rittenhouse Square. And a similar indulgent development that allows you to look directly down on Independence Hall and The Liberty Bell, prices you will have to get on your own. And the amenities and high tech parking features I will also leave to your idle curiosity and google, if you are THAT interested. But let me just say, it is over the top for the wealthy of this city, and certainly, we have had our share of wealthy indulgent types. But there seems to be a new global standard of Platinum excellence that is infecting the world, like some ambulant pus of greed oozing from an open wound of avarice. And this distinction, this new conspicuous consumption of opulent luxury, within a luxury zone buffered by an even larger zone of affluence, place a distance between the extreme wealth enclave and the warehoused poor within the city limits.

    To our credit, the poor and the homeless are addressed and resources are marshaled more so than in other cities, so that people are not left out on the street, but brought inside for respite from the weather and day long wandering about. It staggers my mind with homeless populations approaching 50,000 in LA, for example, and that does not include the so called hidden homeless that are camped out in back yards and hillsides of LA County that are quite as apparent as the shopping cart pushing, blue tarp encampments all over the city of LA. While the weather is not life threatening there, it seems that so many people never leave the streets at all, even for a shower and meal and place to sleep at night as an emergency shelter. NOTHING!

    The wealthy are building up Center City Philadelphia, rich with good paying jobs for the very well educated with advance degrees in medicine, university research or business incubation start up dreams. The rest are working in the exploding hospitality sector with 15 new hotels and 100s of new restaurants serving the extremely large convention center and tourist destinations. Philadelphia has just been awarded the first USA city to be a UNESCO World Heritage City destination. Mostly on the strength of 1776 and the founding of a large scale democratically controlled republic that shook the world then and now. It’s a pity that our greatest, and rightfully so authentic contribution to Civilization will be overshadowed by the luxury tower looking down on the quaint artifacts of democracy, laid out in the beautifully landscaped Independence Nation Park, like some Disney diorama backdrop, enhancing the pleasure of the ‘urban opulence'(TM) lifestyle.

    1. Russell Scott Day/Founder of Transcendia

      They make all those movies in India, and I wonder how it can be that the poor do not see how their democracy excludes them from decency. But then LA and 50,000 were mentioned, and there is it all in real life as then even reality TV all on Bravo.
      How fast it got this way?
      I can feel 1995, and Ed Baptist (The Half Has Never Been Told) had reasons to identify 1994 and all that the Clintons did that year.
      I looked at his reasons and they made sense. I remember how badly it turned on me. “You’re like a barometer.” The then VP of Rochdale College Toronto said to me. I feel a bit like Zelig to go with that.
      My investment in a nation of airports that picks up where the UN leaves off is conflicted because of the need for a perimeter fence, armed fuelers, the linemen, and whatever else “Best Practices” apply.
      So it is to be answered in the US or and around the world, What are Best Practices and how can we employ them. I think of what I have heard or Uruguay, fantastic! They didn’t get there easily but seem to “know what they are about”. They kicked the salesmen for the TPP, out.
      Best Practices, no matter how far gone any nation in the world has gone down are understood.
      Once we go at it as if we are all in it together, we can change for the better, but it takes that conviction of being together in it, to make that a reality, and we do not see any evidence of enough of us believing we are in it together to stave off apocalyptic riot, a picture of collapse like Jared Diamond described in his history book.

  12. Gaianne

    This essay makes a nice background for the recent news story that the main water-supply canal to Delhi has been shut down in a complex and nasty caste dispute.


    1. Chauncey Gardiner

      Yes, segment on PBS Newshour last night. As riots and protests in Haryana and elsewhere demonstrate, seems not everyone is passively accepting the trend of these developments, and are targeting key infrastructure.

      From Reuters:

      “Disruption has been huge, with at least 850 trains cancelled, 500 factories closed and business losses estimated at as much as $5 billion by one regional lobby group. India’s largest car maker, Maruti Suzuki, shut two factories at the weekend because its supply of components was disrupted.

      The army on Monday retook control of a canal that supplies three-fifths of the water to Delhi, a metropolis with a population of over 20 million. A key sluice gate was reopened, but protesters sought to cut the water supply at another place.”

      1. SuzieQ

        It is even more complex because Jats, who are actually quite a powerful community in their home state(s) both politically and financially, are clamoring to be politically deemed a ‘backward caste’ so they can reap further benefits at all levels of government, in education reservations etc. The riots, the destroyed infrastructure and threats to shut down whatever they can get their hands on, was in support of their outrageous demands until a weak Central Government gives in (despite the Supreme Court of India having stayed these shameless petitions). It is a very sinister trend in India for the economically upper class and the fringe middle class (all from the so-called upper castes) to resent the poor and ‘born’ outcasts for any miniscule gains or improvements they might have managed in the face of stiff opposition. The upper classes will explain away their centuries of wealth, political and social domination with airy discourses on ‘current discrimination’, whilst not yielding one iota of their many many advantages. Not much you can expect from a people who think a fellow human could be born an untouchable.

    2. SuzyQ

      It is even more complex because Jats, who are actually quite a powerful community in their home state(s) both politically and financially, are clamoring to be politically deemed a ‘backward caste’ so they can reap further benefits at all levels of government, in education reservations etc. The riots, the destroyed infrastructure and threats to shut down whatever they can get their hands on, was in support of their outrageous demands until a weak Central Government gives in (despite the Supreme Court of India having stayed these shameless petitions). It is a very sinister trend in India for the economically upper class and the fringe middle class (all from the so-called upper castes) to resent the poor and ‘born outcasts’ for any miniscule gains or improvements they might have managed in the face of stiff opposition. The upper classes will explain away their centuries of wealth, political and social domination with airy discourses on ‘current discrimination’, whilst not yielding one iota of their many many advantages. Not much you can expect from a people who think a fellow human could be born an untouchable.

  13. John

    There is a wonderful book, Our Bones Are Scattered, by Andrew Ward that describes the trials and tribulations of some of the residents of the British East India Company during the Indian mutiny of 1857.
    Gated communities overrun, men, women and children slaughtered.
    Of course the British East India Company was a private concern, free enterprise and all that. They ran India until this little uprising.
    Private enterprise knows best. I wonder why our neo liberal masters never mention this as a good example of how private enterprise should run a country.
    Of course, the mutiny was not successful and necessitated the British government coming in and cleaning up the mess. But that’s neo liberalism, isn’t it, privatize the profits, socialize the cost.
    Have the masters of the universe live in isolated splendor, grow clueless and have a harsh awakening when the torches and pitchforks arrive.
    Let the government come in after the killing and the chaos and clean up the mess.
    And I won’t even get into the sticky territory of empires and private enterprise.

    1. oh

      The East India Company was the British Govt. They looted and robbed India and kept them out of the Industrial Revolution until 1947. Resources looted were used to fuel the British Industry which were sold back to the Indians at a huge markup. The US has picked where the British left off.

      1. ambrit

        Until the “Government of India Act” of 1858, right after the aforementioned Mutiny of 1857, India was literally run by the private joint stock company known as the East India Company. Company rule lasted almost exactly 100 years, from Plassy to the Mutiny. India was under Company control in a more fragmented form for many years prior. (The Company was founded in 1600, with a charter from the first Queen Elizabeth!) From 1858 to 1947, India was the Rajs’ responsibility.
        Let us not forget that India didn’t expel the last vestiges of European Colonialism until 1961, when Goa was forcibly appropriated from Portugal. (Interestingly, due to an accommodation after 1962, Goa is the only Indian State with a civil code not based on a religion.)

  14. LeitrimNYC

    This is happening all over the developing world, “smart cities” or smart districts are being built or planned in Kenya, Ghana, Egypt, among others. The same group of development consultants, huge contractors and architects get together and design over and over the same awful, ugly variation on the glossy, high rise towers that you see in Dubai and East Asia. They are fortresses for the local kleptocrats and well paid expats, there’s not even a passing attempt to integrate them into the existing city scape or reflect vernacular architecture. It’s a great way to divert investment away from real improvements in education, health, infrastructure, etc. But they look really flashy in those nice renderings that Richard Rodgers produces for whatever Minister wants it.

  15. Joel

    After a month living in Delhi (specifically Shahpur Jat in South Delhi, very working to middle class) how I suffer compared to life in the Capital of the Universe NYC. Let’s see, cool & friendly people, great parks & open spaces, a modern fast & clean metro, excellent & very affordable health care. And after a month of not bothering to discuss it, the nice girl I am subletting from just proposed the rent for the great little studio where I stay, 13000 Rs, a little less than $200. Life is sweet.

  16. Communal

    We have petitioned President Obama to direct Indian Prime Minister to carve out a separate country for 300 million Untouchable/Dalit communities in India;

  17. MJ

    Sorry for the long comment but I thought I might present a different angle to the Smart Cities Scheme in India.

    These reports are helpful for understanding the way national urban policy in India is “attempting” to shape urban development in India. Bloomberg Philanthropies is “officially” playing a “partner/adviser” role, but there are reasons to be cautious with claims about the nature of their influence. Notwithstanding the pollution (which still affects central Delhi), Lutyen’s Delhi is like a dreamland compared to most urban neighborhoods around the world. Nevertheless, actual selection of the cities that make it through the “competition” (cities have to score points across something like 15 indicators) must always thread the needle of a now very dynamic fiscal federal politics and aspirations to reform local government administration. Where I suspect Bloomberg has had the most influence is in structuring the grant program as a “competition” (which fits squarely with the intellectual orthodoxy in intergovernmental finance in developing countries) and in dividing the grant usage into two general frameworks — greenfield development or city-wide (i.e. metropolitan) systems. For decades the Union government has attached various administrative-legal reform conditionalities to what are called their centrally sponsored schemes. Last year during the summer (immediately before the launch of the smart cities mission) I was meeting with representatives in the Ministry of Urban Development to discuss the contours of the eventual program. Bloomberg philanthropies, nor any of the work they might have done up to that point, was ever mentioned.

    At the more micro-level, there is much to like about the Smart Cities Mission. Just one brief point — the program attempts to encourage the adoption and utilization of public financial management information systems in local governments, whose public finance systems arguably are the most poorly administered in the world. This is opening a market for big software companies (who are in it for rent extraction — there is no commercial logic for them operating in this space) but also for citizen interest groups who can manage to combine administrative-public finance domain knowledge with the surplus of programmers and coders to offer customized digitization services over much longer time horizons. One group attempting to do this in a city has re-purposed the Software as a Service (SaaS) cloud computing model into a “administrative reform” model that can rapidly aggregate disparate financial and administrative information (collected at the bureaucratic source, some from newspaper articles, some from bureaucratic “informants”), translate that information to inform political opportunities available to government actors to improve the financial system (this often occurs asymmetrically), and distribute it to other interested citizen groups pressuring the local government on revenue/public investment administration. Municipal finance in India is a looming crisis that no one really wants to acknowledge and address, particularly in the context of the inevitable ecological crisis on the horizon. So while “smart city” schemes like these often end up favoring elites and exclusive neighborhoods, there are elements to them that provide potential pathways to more substantive, broad based improvements to components of the overall municipal system.

    A lot of this reminds me of NC coverage of the Greek crisis and the material (i.e. software systems) constraints to exiting the EU. While the EU has had 30 years with this stuff, public financial management information systems at the local level are an emergent domain of action in India and so there is a lot of experimentation (and resistance) going on, most of which those on the urban development/municipal finance beat are entirely unaware of.

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