Ayona Datta, 'Fast Cities: New Utopias of Smart Urbanism in India'

A few weeks ago Ayona Datta, a senior lecturer in “Citizenship and Belonging” at the University of Leeds, spoke to an audience in Maynooth about the emergence of smart urbanism in India and the proliferation of the smart city discourse in the country. Titled ‘Fast Cities: New Utopias of Smart Urbanism in India’, Dr. Datta’s talk was the second seminar of this academic year from the ongoing Programmable City Project. Focusing mainly on the development of fast/smart cities in her native country, the talk also complimented a number of additional critiques of smart city initiatives that have gained resonance such as: associated technological solutionism; the depoliticalisation of the concept; the development of a project solely for an emerging tech-savvy, middle class; and the strategic framing of the concept in the near distant future amongst other notable issues.

Echoing an article published by Dr. Datta in the Guardian in April of this year titled ‘India’s smart city craze: big, green and doomed from the start?’, the nature of the talk began by illustrating tentative Indian engagement with this sector, paying particular attention to declarations like Narendra Modi’s ambition to build 100 smart cities across the country. Speaking about her

Local residents in the village of Khun near Dholera.

Local residents in the village of Khun near Dholera.

experiences with the reality of schemes of this nature, Dr. Datta discussed both the ideological underpinnings of the smart city model in an Indian environment and the subsequent rationale for any potential progression thereafter. The construction of cities in this nature is framed as cities that use renewable energy systems, underpinned by an overarching smart grid, and the presence of a central command centre for the provision of transport, pollution, and surveillance. The rhetoric related to an Indian smart city, epitomised by its speed of conception and design, isn’t a distant relation of its previous iterations, either from additional top-down approaches in areas like Songdo or with respect to the retrofitting of already pre-existing cities.

Speed as a factor of cities in both the necessity of their conceptualisation and construction as a result of an urgent need for change is a concept that can be construed as one of the overarching proponents of Indian smart cities and was one of many thought provoking issues that emanated from the seminar. Heralded as a remedy to issues surrounding increasing migration and exponential urbanisation, smart cities are being portrayed as a quick, utopian ideal for an alternative urban environment. Smart cities as interpreted through the gaze of a fast city also have lead to the manifestation of increased competition amongst cities to be the country’s first, acknowledged smart city. A form of macho-politics aimed at one-upping China’s economic ascension has coincided with this increased competition, whose inclination is to attach itself to this current popularised form of hype and hubris that is so seductive at present to both municipalities from an efficiency perspective and corporations and financial consultants from a monetary position. Dholera is one such ‘city’ being touted in this vain.

Positioned within the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor, Dholera is a prototype venture of India’s attempted séance with the utopian, technologically instrumented smart city. A glossy promotional video, produced by Gujurat Infrastructure Development Board, regarding the proposed development of Dholera outlined the seamlessness of life in a technological haven which simultaneously sought to envision a perfect picture of future urbanism. The premise of the video echoed any generic form of promotional material that may accompany any proponents of technological utopias. This was a baptism John would have been proud of. The content of the video however failed to imbue its audience that day with any sense of wonder as the digital neighbourhoods portrayed evidence of future plans for industrial shopping malls, high speed rail transport, expansive road networks, and conference centres while any sense of belonging to a place or an institution such as schools, churches (of any denomination), coffee shops, sports clubs, and pubs were conspicuous in their absence. The content of the slides

A futuristic conceptualisation and representation of the smart city of Dholera

A futuristic conceptualisation and representation of the smart city of Dholera

associated with Dr. Datta’s project highlighted the ambitious nature of the project throughout with respect to the proposed pace of completion. Proposed to be twice the size of Mumbai, its unique geographical position was to be utilised as an attempt to link India’s political capital, Delhi, and its economic equivalent, Mumbai, thus improving economic development also. However, the Dholera that Dr. Datta discussed belied any tangible imminent connection with such a project while the post-democratic reality surrounding the initiative attempts to cover over any impediments such as the history of the region and any interconnected sources of friction that might unsettle the projects kinetic energy.

This ambition of attempting to run a marathon at a sprinter’s pace with respect to city development has had a consequent effect on both the practice and speed of land acquisition. The construction of hastily designed laws such as the new Special Investment Region ACT (SIR) in March, 2009, mirrors this ambition. By giving the state more power to acquire land for building smart cities, the act has been criticised as merely a way to bypass India’s Land Acquisition Act. It is within this context of political manoeuvring that the reality of current life in Dholera is placed in the spotlight. A landscape which is routinely flooded, the largely undeveloped region is generally occupied by approximately 40, 000 inhabitants, whose largely agriculturally dependent majority store rainwater throughout the year to irrigate fields of cumin, millet, wheat and cotton. Merely referenced as ‘December 2012 Land Allocation Started’ in the promotional video, the reality of the introduction of aforementioned SIR has meant that new urbanisation policy has resulted in increased incidents of land dispossession at the behest of its rural population. Land acquired, identified as unoccupied, referred to as terra nullius, has resulted in the legitimisation of dispossessing land. This manipulation of the country’s legal parameters is reminiscent of a desire to produce a specific scenario of which Gilles Deleuze would refer to as ‘any-space-whatsoever’. A Deleuzian interpretation of India’s fast/smart cities could be construed as an attempt to completely overlook a regions’ historical context, thus leaving it as a convenient blank canvas, both ideologically and legally. In direct contestation with this form of disregard for historical context, bottom up movements for land rights, such as Jameen Adhikar Andolan Gujarat (JAAG) have formed in opposition. JAAG is comprised of native farmers, activists and opposition leaders across the region. Dr. Datta referenced how members of JAAG have been arrested previously as the Indian government has tried to collate smart city development with activity at the state level, thus limiting the possibility of any informed debate or dissention against the introduction of any utopian ideal.

This disengagement with dissent in any form, coupled with an Indian politics of forgetting (a political division between the upper echelons of Indian society and the poor and working classes, who are often excluded, unforgivably, from the political spectrum) led in to a section of a seminar that discussed what type of demographic this form of urbanisation was being aimed at. Evidence from the promotional video was found wanting as vast swathes of the video excluded any human context while the digital images that subsequently appeared showed a population of Caucasian descent. Dr. Datta’s subsequent slides and responses throughout the talks’ concluding questions and answers were quite sympathetic towards those held by various critics of the utopian smart city concept with respect to the notion that utopian smart cities are being convened ideologically for the benefit and the purpose of a young, entrepreneurial, tech-savvy middle class, thus widening the division between the rich and the poor in India and further afield.  The analogy of gated communities for the rich was addressed upon in this regard.

The absence of any notable timeline for construction together with the reality of proposed sites of excavation like Dholera is reflective of a wider critique of smart city discourses that suggests that they are often positioned just out of arms reach, just around the corner. This critique is referenced by Adam Greenfield in his latest book ‘Against the smart city: The city is here for you to use’, who references Genevieve Bell and Paul Dourish’s construction of the phrase “proximate future” to represent a period of time that is perceived as being so close, but never quite materialising. Bell and Dourish propose this repetition of a select number of words from a wider mantra, such as ‘can’ and ‘will’, within a given rhetoric as a way of obfuscating responsibility if a project fails to materialise. From an Indian perspective this is a likely scenario due to issues of finance and land acquisition, a sentiment echoed by Greenfield himself, “afford advocates of the smart city the luxury of avoiding having to deal with the problematic here and now. They don’t have to reckon with the messy accumulations of history, with existing neighbourhoods and the claims and constituencies they give rise to” (Greenfield, 2013, p. 26)

The talk itself and the discussion that followed as a result was undoubtedly engaging, both for members of the Programmable City Project itself and for the other interested parties. While previous seminars associated with the all encompassing smart city have left me wondering whether or not privacy’s epitaph is being written posthumously, the tone of this talk could be more acutely connected with the projection of an ideal whose politics reflect a desire to be smart in name not nature. Prominent issues surrounding scalability and finance leave the inevitability of this project materialising as prescribed inherently bleak.


Greenfield, A. (2013) ‘Against the smart city: The city is here for you to use’. Do Projects: New York

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