An estimated 22,630 people had been evicted due to infrastructure development under the Smart Cities Mission in India between 2017 and 2019. Cases of forced eviction occurred in 32 and 34 of the 100 cities being developed as smart cities in 2019 and 2018, respectively. Affected families have received rehabilitation in some of the cases. These are among several other findings of a recent report, Forced Evictions in India in 2019: An Unrelenting National Crisis, by Housing and Land Rights Network.

The report notes that the estimated number of people affected over the three-year period is conservative data, and the actual number could be more. The report provides in detail cases of forced eviction in urban and rural India in gross violation of international and national laws, highlighting systemic dispossession, violation of human rights, and lack of access to justice to the people affected.

It also gives recommendations to the Central and state governments for the prevention of such cases of arbitrary evictions, and for the protection of the human right to adequate housing of vulnerable groups.

Cases of forced evictions, denial of the right to shelter and the right to the city as a result, call for an urgent relook at the way urban spaces are being developed and governed. The Smart Cities Mission which aims to develop 100 smart cities and pushes for digital governance, in this context, demands an overhaul.

The Integrated Command and Control Centres under the Mission are being deployed as war rooms for detecting and providing technological support solutions for managing the Covid-19 pandemic in the country. I believe there is more that is required to be done for making cities inclusive for all beyond developing technological powerhouses for data collection and urban governance.

In this article, I will highlight a few cases of eviction caused due to smart city-related projects as revealed in the report, and will discuss the Smart Cities Mission, its progress, how smart cities are responding to Covid-19. I will conclude by making a case for the restructuring of the mission in the backdrop of the pandemic to ensure that affordable housing becomes a reality for poorer sections of society, thereby asserting their right to the city.

Over the past three years several cases of eviction for development of projects under the mission have come to light. These include city beautification projects, housing projects, and development of other urban infrastructure including road widening.

The Rs 600-crore Kashi Vishwanath Corridor project to be completed in 2021 in Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, has resulted in the displacement of about 4,500 people. The corridor project is a part of the Varanasi Smart City Project for the beautification of the city and temple side areas for the smooth movement of devotees and foreign tourists. Those displaced had been living in the area for generations.

Reportedly, the project has resulted in the demolition of shops, residential complexes and temples making way for the project. It has been alleged that many of the affected families didn’t receive adequate rehabilitation and compensation. Some of the affected families have criticized the project that has led to the destruction of their houses, forced them to relocate, affecting their livelihoods, and destroying small temples, neglecting the centuries’ old legacy of the area. Many in the area feel that the project has inevitably resulted in the destruction of the Kashi culture for which Varanasi is known.

In Bihar’s Patna, the municipal body in 2019 evicted 300 families from informal settlements for the development of a smart city project in the city. The evictions of 200 families from the Haj Bhawan area and of 100 families in Budhha Colony were carried out by the civic body at a time when the residents were suffering under the impact of waterlogging after heavy rainfall in the city. The affected families reportedly did not receive any rehabilitation from the state after their forced removal. They said they were denied any time to shift to another place before their houses were razed.

In Masjid Colony, Tamil Nadu, an estimated 552 families were evicted by municipal officials in 2019 in an encroachment removal drive leading the way for the restoration of water bodies under a smart city project. The affected families were relocated to a resettlement site in Ukkadam. Additionally, in 2018 for the restoration of water bodies, 1700 people were displaced from different locations in Tamil Nadu. The affected families were provided with rehabilitation options at housing units constructed by the Tamil Nadu Slum Clearance Board in Keeranatham. These resettlement sites are located at the outskirts of the city, and are inadequate in terms of access to basic services, livelihood of the families, and children’s education, among others.

The municipal corporation in Indore demolished houses of 445 families in Machhi Bazaar area in 2018. The drive was carried out for the civic body’s road-widening project under a smart city project. They were provided with a resettlement option under the previous Basic Services to the Urban Poor scheme.

To protect green cover from encroachments as part of the Visakhapatnam Smart City project, the officials of the Greater Visakhapatnam Municipal Corporation demolished six residential houses along with other commercial establishments in Thatichetlapalem area in 2017.

These are a few of the prominent cases of eviction as a result of the implementation of smart city projects in some cities. It is likely that there would have been more such cases.

This year, June 25, marked the fifth anniversary of the launch of the Smart Cities Mission. The centrally sponsored programme was launched to develop 100 ‘smart cities’ within a span of five years following an area-based approach, and also including pan-city information and technology-led solutions within each selected city. The hundred cities, which were selected within a span of nearly two years after following a competitive process at the state and national levels, have opted among three models of development – retrofitting, redevelopment, and Greenfield.

While the first lot of 20 cities were chosen and allowed to implement projects under the Mission from 2016 onwards, the last batch of cities were selected in 2018. Therefore, these cities are at different stages of development, and the completion years for each batch of cities has been shifted further from the earlier deadline of 2020. Delay in having a head at the helm of a special purpose vehicle for each city to implement projects, among other factors, has been cited as the reason for the slow progress of the Mission. A study has also found that the process of selection of cities, and proposal preparations for smart cities lacked a human rights-based approach.

On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the Mission, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs launched the ‘Cycles4change Challenge’ programme to promote cycling as a response to tackling the Coronavirus disease. The initiative under SCM would see cities developing dedicated tracks and other networks to promote the use of non-motorised transport. It is likely that the initiative will result in demolition and eviction of low-income families in cities.

As the HLRN report finds out since 2017 authorities in Mumbai following an order of the Bombay High Court have forcibly evicted over 15,000 people living along a water pipeline in the city to undertake a project for laying a dedicated track for cycling.

The affected families were shifted to polluted sites in Mahul, and they have been fighting a legal battle for their adequate rehabilitation out of the polluted zones. It is not clear if the project falls under the Smart Cities Mission. However, it does reflect a scenario where evictions of people are likely to happen in a bid to develop dedicated lanes for cycling under the Cycles4change Challenge initiative in different cities.

SCM requires each city to establish an Integrated Command and Control Centre (ICCC) for data collection and analysis using the internet and technology to address the civic needs of people. Establishment of ICCCs has to an extent given the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs a reason to cheer on the occasion of the fifth anniversary of the mission.

The tech-based solutions through these ICCCs are what the government has found useful in tackling the spread of Covid-19. The ministry finds solace in the functioning of ICCCs, so far set up in about 50 of the 100 cities, deployed as war rooms in tracing and treating Covid-19 positive persons. However, there are challenges in terms of how technology is being deployed in an effort to control the pandemic in smart cities.

According to a research study, Chinese smart cities saw a more effective technology-based approach in controlling the pandemic, while smart cities in some western nations deployed a less effective human-centric approach in using smart technologies to control the pandemic. The Chinese smart cities employed a top-down approach with lack of freedom and privacy rights to its citizens, while the western approach, though less effective, factored in human rights and bottom-up approaches in deploying smart technologies for addressing the Covid-19 outbreak.

In India, reportedly so-called smart cities have seen deployment of drones to mobile-based smart apps in tackling the pandemic. The use of tech-based applications in addressing the pandemic situation in India also reflects a top-down, and technology-centric approach. They have mostly relied on GIS-based mapping in tracing and other social media applications for disseminating information to people with less regard to privacy and other human rights. Concerns over infringement of fundamental right to privacy that excessive surveillance results in emanates from the absence of a human rights-based approach and an adequate data protection law in the country.

When it comes to the overall progress in implementing projects under the Mission, most cities are lagging behind. In about one-third of selected cities, not even a single project has been completed. The SCM entails an investment of over Rs 2 lakh crore for completing 5151 smart city projects. As of November 2019, only 25 per cent of the projects are completed and tenders have been issued for 81 per cent of the projects, and of these tendered projects work orders have been issued for 81 per cent of projects.

The Smart Cities Mission was launched to address the challenges of urbanisation and for meeting the growing needs of people in cities to improve their quality of living. Integration of high-end technology in the day-to-day state-citizen-market interactions is the backbone of the mission.

The pandemic has unleashed further challenges to the process of urbanisation and forced governments across the world to renew their efforts in developing cities and address the rapid process of urbanisation, and improve health infrastructure. In the case of India, lagging health infrastructure and forced reverse migration of people in the wake of the pandemic have raised further questions in the way our cities are being developed as smart cities.

The Smart Cities Mission, among others, aims to provide affordable housing and to develop ‘slum-free’ cities. However, the empirical evidence of demolitions of ‘slums’ and places of living of low-income families without adequate rehabilitation from some cities to be developed as smart cities present an alarming situation. It reflects the deprivation of human rights of low-income people in cities, and denial of their claim to the city, for they are being constantly forcibly removed.

The demolition of houses of people -- which is still continuing as I write this article -- reflects that the government has to restructure its urban mission of developing cities for all its inhabitants. Smart cities are not just about creating spaces at the cost of those who end up being rendered homeless and displaced out of them, thereby denouncing their claim to the city.

The pandemic, thus, provides an opportunity to reflect upon the urban development scheme, urban governance, and the pressing need to prevent arbitrary evictions. An adequate space of living for all has to be among the priorities of such urban schemes. Access to affordable housing for inhabitants, rental accommodation of migrant workers, state-industry taking the responsibility of workers’ need of a place of living, and access to basic services should be the goal of the SCM as it seeks to develop smart cities which are truly inclusive and smart.

The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has come out with an Affordable Rental Housing Complex programme under the Pradhan Mantri Aawas Yojana (urban) to provide affordable housing for migrant workers, and formal housing for the urban poor. This is a welcome move. How it is going to benefit migrant workers is ultimately yet to be seen.

Deepak Kumar is Research Scholar, Centre for the Study of Law and Governance, Jawaharlal Nehru University