Smart City. Just City – Making ‘Smart Cities’ Inclusive

by Shivani Chaudhry, Guest Blogger

A view of a road at Connaught Place showing busy traffic.
By Kabi1990 – New Delhi, India. Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link



IHC Global is pleased to feature guest contributor Shivani Chaudhry, Executive Director of Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), India this week.

Last week, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi was sworn in for a second term as Prime Minister, after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a landslide victory in the national election. India’s Smart Cities Mission, launched in 2015, aims to create 100 smart cities in India. But, as Chaudhry points out below, urban digitalization and a narrow focus can pose as many challenges as it provides solutions. In particular, when smart city proposals fail to employ a human rights perspective, of which gender equality and non-discrimination are indivisible, they can be especially exclusionary to women and marginalized groups.

As HLRN’s 2018 Smart Cities Report noted, the lack of a mandate or guidelines to prioritize gender in the Smart Cities Mission has meant that selected cities are pursuing policies that are largely gender-neutral. It is of concern, HLRN argues, that with the prominence of violence against women in urban India, there are “no concrete plans to engender cities or to create safe public spaces and public transport options for women or to address concerns of marginalized women such as homeless women, migrant women, domestic workers, women of low-income groups, and single women.” Furthermore, a gender digital divide in India, mainly obvious in mobile phone ownership and internet usage, has “prevented women from benefitting from the opportunities accrued by smart cities.” Below, Chaudhry examines the key human rights gaps of the Smart Cities Mission across the rural-urban spectrum and presents five recommendations for the next phase of the Mission, with a view to improve its implementation and help promote the realization of the human right of everyone to an adequate standard of living.

By Natalie Gill
Program Associate, Research and Policy
IHC Global

Smart City. Just City- Making Smart Cities Inclusive

India is both celebrating and coming to terms with the outcome of its recent general elections. As the new government begins its second term, it is likely to intensify its focus on the initiatives it launched during its first term, one of which is the much-publicized Smart Cities Mission. 

Launched in June 2015, the Smart Cities Mission aims to create 100 ‘smart cities’ in the country by the year 2022. The new government, in its 100-day agenda, has already announced plans to revamp the Mission and to expand its coverage. While the Mission may have some noteworthy intentions, its implementation modalities have resulted not only in a slow pace of progress and limited positive outcomes but also several undesirable consequences – some of which could be inadvertent while others seem inherent to the architecture of the Mission. 

Despite an elaborate selection procedure and implementation mechanism, the Mission still lacks clarity on its goals and objectives. In the absence of clear benchmarks, the processes to achieve them remain ambiguous with an overall accountability deficit – both ethical and financial.

Housing and Land Rights Network India (HLRN) has been analysing the Mission, since its inception, with a human rights lens aimed at assessing its benefits for the most marginalized. A detailed analysis by HLRN of all 100 Smart City Proposals and the implementation of the Mission across the selected ‘smart cities’ reveals limited benefits for the majority of city residents, especially the most marginalized. These groups include persons with disabilities, older persons, sexual and religious minorities, as well as women and children.

As the Mission completes four years  later this month, it is important to examine whether the focus of the new government should continue to be on developing ‘smart cities’—which are still largely undefined—or whether a restructuring is required to better address India’s alarming urban socio-economic indicators, including high rates of multi-dimensional poverty and inequality. Given that the fourth anniversary of the Mission is likely to be celebrated with much gusto, it is important to pause and reflect on where it is headed and what could be done to ensure that the Mission also benefits marginalized groups in Indian cities – both in terms of process and outcomes. How do the currently divergent goals of digitalization and social justice be unified to generate advantages, including greater inclusion, for those suffering from violations of their fundamental rights?

This article presents five key areas that need to be addressed.

  • Shift to ‘inclusive cities’ by focusing on human rights of the most marginalized

A city should first be inclusive and then focus on becoming ‘smart.’ If, however, the processes of achieving ‘smartness’ and inclusion are undertaken simultaneously, then the definition of a ‘smart city’ must encompass inclusion, equality, social and economic justice, and the realization of the human rights of everyone. However, historically and in the contemporary context, ‘smartness’ is not a synonym for inclusion anywhere in the world; in fact, the means to achieve it could well be exclusionary. The issue is not just of semantics but about identifying the most important priorities for a country faced with challenges of adequate housing, water, sanitation, electricity, and transport, and of then equitably allocating limited resources. When targets are not human rights or social justice-based, it is unrealistic to expect that related processes, including budgetary allocations, will be just, transparent, and equitable. 

An interesting initiative is the Indian government’s development of an ‘Ease of Living Index’ aimed at assessing the quality of life in 111 cities across 78 parameters. In order to make this Index truly reflective of the quality of life for all city residents, the government could incorporate human rights-based indicators within its ambit; link the Index more closely with Sustainable Development Goals, targets, and indicators; and, ensure people’s participation. For instance, indicators aimed at gauging housing adequacy in cities should be linked with the number of forced evictions in a year and the annual increase or decrease in the city’s homeless population. They should also assess provisions made for social housing and to improve access to rental housing for low-income groups.

A ‘smart city’ should be a city in which everyone’s human rights, including the right to the city, is respected and upheld. It should be a city that offers opportunities and benefits to all, including the right to participate in the development of the city and to decide on the how, what, why, and where of the city. This means providing a voice and space for everyone in the city – including children, women, transgender persons, persons with disabilities, older persons, homeless and inadequately-housed persons, and all others living in the city. It means prioritizing the needs of the vulnerable and the marginalized and placing people not profit at the centre of all policy interventions. This would require an immediate moratorium on practices such as forced evictions and exclusion of people’s concerns in city plans. Research by HLRN has found that forced evictions have been reported in at least 32 ‘smart cities’ – either directly for the implementation of ‘smart city’ projects such as roads and bridges or for ‘city beautification’ and ‘slum clearance’ purposes.

  • Expanding the scope of the Mission

India’s Smart Cities Mission has had a rather restrictive and fragmented outlook – first, by focusing only on 100 cities of India’s over 7,000 cities and towns; and, second, by focusing on small areas within these 100 cities. By the government’s own admission, over 80 per cent of ‘smart city’ funds are being devoted to ‘area-based development’, which, according to calculations by HLRN affects only 8 per cent of India’s total population. 

Though the government has announced plans to expand the Mission, merely adding more cities to the list will not resolve the problem. Instead, given the failed financial model and minimal results of the Mission until now, merging it with ongoing urban development initiatives across India and converging funds to improve basic services and housing, would be a better option.

The rationale for developing 100 smart cities, according to the Mission guidelines, was to “create a replicable model which will act like a light house to other aspiring cities.” Such an approach, however, fails to ensure integrated planning and also does not address the structural causes of rapid urbanization and its adverse impacts on the ecosystem, including on climate change.  In its next phase, the Mission should shift from a project-based approach to a more holistic and integrated approach. It should also link with rural development policies and schemes to overcome the rural-urban divide. A more inclusionary approach could focus on investing in social services and infrastructure in all cities and villages across India, in a more well-planned and well-funded manner.

The Mission should ensure a much greater focus on gender equality and non-discrimination as well as on affordable and adequate housing, and on improving accessibility of all within the city as well as to the city.

  • Improving convergence, monitoring, and accountability

In order to make cities inclusive, democratic institutions and processes, including urban local bodies, must be protected and strengthened. Parastatal bodies with private sector involvement should not replace or threaten democratically-elected local governments and bodies. Efforts must be taken to prevent the privatization of governance and corporatization of cities. States must work in collaboration with all involved actors to ensure accountability, transparency, and good governance. The Mission should also ensure greater convergence with other government schemes to overcome overlaps, and to improve efficiency and financial management. Progress reports must be based on realization of human rights-based benchmarks and not focus on restricted indicators pertaining to a small percentage of the population. Furthermore, mechanisms to ensure accountability of the private/corporate sector, which is involved in various ‘smart city’ projects, must also be developed.

  • Ensuring that technology can be used to address human rights gaps and in improving urban and rural living conditions

With its strong focus on technology, digitalization, and big data, India’s Smart Cities Mission and other similar initiatives in other countries must work at multiple levels to protect the rights to privacy and information and to ensure the free, prior, and informed consent of all residents with regard to data use and access. 

Efforts must first be taken to ensure that everyone has access to technology. In countries like India, there exists a very large digital divide – not only between urban and rural areas, but also within urban areas. The digital divide is a class divide as well as a gendered divide. Much work needs to be done to ensure that this gap is closed and that everyone, including women, has access to technology. Once that is assured, realistic needs assessments are required to identify the real problems and accordingly determine solutions. The benefits and limitations of technology also need to be realistically assessed. Generally, there is no information or awareness about the impacts of technological interventions, especially with regard to security, privacy, and transparency. Adequate data legislation is required in all countries to protect citizens from data theft, misuse, and other threats.

Technological innovations could be used to improve access to information and the quality of basic services and civic infrastructure in urban and rural areas; to promote participatory governance and democracy; to share information on issues of concern to low-income and marginalized groups; to promote sustainable development practices and climate justice; to develop disaster risk reduction strategies and early warning mechanisms; to promote the use of renewable energy and energy-saving measures; and to create more equitable and participatory frameworks for monitoring and implementation.

Ultimately, we must understand that technology may be morally neutral, but its uses and implementation are not. Attempts must thus be made to ensure that it promotes equality and does not exacerbate inequality by excluding those who do not have access. This also requires taking steps to prevent discrimination and exclusion on the basis of language used in technology. Furthermore, steps need to be taken that technology is not used to strengthen or perpetuate discrimination by using information on religious, sexual, and other preferences to exclude certain groups from civic services and city benefits or to target them negatively.

Technology is not the panacea to all problems. It is one tool that could assist in developing durable solutions. But a combination of approaches and strategies is needed to promote inclusive and equitable development; the most important of which would be the adoption of a human rights approach that strives to ensure that “no one is left behind” – as per the slogan of the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, but also to ensure that “no one is pushed behind” by acts of commission or omission by state and non-state actors.

  • Re-assessing priorities to meet national and international legal obligations

Since work is underway in 99 of the 100 ‘smart cities’ across India, it is imperative that the central government issues guidelines for human rights-based monitoring, assessment, and implementation of the Smart Cities Mission in its fifth year. This should include: conducting public hearings and consultations with different population groups in each city to gauge and incorporate people’s needs and concerns, and to assess whether the Mission has benefitted them; carrying out social and human rights audits using a set of human rights-based indicators to document the differential impacts of the Mission on different groups and communities; ensuring that ‘smart city’ projects do not result in forced evictions, forced relocation, and segregation/gentrification in any city; and, linking the implementation of the Mission with the Sustainable Development Goals and other international human rights obligations, on which India is reporting to the United Nations.

The goal needs to shift from creating ‘smart cities’ to creating ‘human rights habitats.’ It is only then that we can hope to achieve greater equality, social justice, and the realization of everyone’s right to live with dignity in urban and rural areas.

Shivani Chaudhry is the Executive Director of Housing and Land Rights Network India and is based in New Delhi. She can be reached at:

Read more about the Smart City. Just City initiative here

Shivani Chaudhry is the Executive Director of Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN), New Delhi, India, where she has been working since 2004. Prior to this, she worked with the Center for International Environmental Law in Washington, D.C., U.S.A.

Shivani received her B.A. (Economics) from Bombay University, and her M.A. (Environmental Studies) from Brown University, U.S.A.  

She has been working in the field of human rights for twenty years, with a specific focus on economic, social, and cultural rights, especially the human rights to adequate housing, land, livelihood, and the environment. She has been engaged actively with issues related to forced evictions, displacement, homelessness, land rights, the right to the city, disasters, climate justice, discrimination, sustainable development, women’s rights, and human rights education. She has carried out several human rights education and training workshops and has also contributed to the development of international standards and tools to monitor housing and land rights. 

She is associated with several national and international networks and social movements, and regularly writes and speaks on human rights issues.

She lives in New Delhi, India and can be contacted at: