What we need are not smart cities but more jobs.
Few days ago, hot on the heels of Republic day, the government announced its ambitious urbanisation plan. Known as the Smart Cities Mission, the project aims at developing world class cities across the country. For the first year, the focus will be on 20 existing cities which will get funds worth Rs 50,000 crore for transforming themselves into smart cities.
So what are smart cities exactly? Imagine the Jetsons minus the flying cars, you will get the drift. By definition they are an urban region advanced enough to offer you a good quality of life through smart solutions. Like assured water and power supply, sanitation and solid waste management, efficient urban mobility and public transport. The USP of these cities will be their reliance on information technology for providing these services to residents.
Fifteen years ago China undertook a similar project. It expanded its urban areas to a point that it transitioned smoothly from an agrarian economy to a manufacturing hub. Now India is attempting the same without addressing the question—who will stay in these cities? Will we build ghost towns to accommodate an increasing urban population? Why will these cities attract youth if there are no jobs? Although the government does claim that the project will generate 5 lakh new jobs by 2017. By 2020 they aim to up the number to 16 lakhs.
Let’s look at the last census for some perspective. 11.6 crore are unemployed. Out of which 3.2 crore Indians are illiterate. Among the 8.4 crore literates, they are educated and actively seeking work . Unemployment is higher amongst those who are better qualified. Take for instance, 29-year-old Simranjeet Singh, even with an engineering degree he is taking care of his father’s farm simply because he hasn’t been able find a job since he graduated. “I looked actively for two years. I stayed in Delhi first and then Mumbai for three years in the hope that something would work out. For every opportunity there was, there was always intense competition. I started to feel like a failure and eventually just came back home,” he says. Over a crore people with a technical diploma or a certificate other than a degree do not have any job opportunities. At all levels of education, unemployment rates were higher in rural than in urban areas.
42-year-old labourer Santram never had a comfortable life. From the time he was a boy, he worked hard every day as a daily-wage worker, “In the rainy season, it used to be impossible to find work. The money was little. Some days not enough to even get food grain and I had to rely on charity from the rich people I usually worked for. But my life is much easier now, although a little work would be satisfying,” he says puffing on his bidi thoughtfully. In 2015, the labour bureau did a survey and confirmed that the unemployment rates in India have gone up. From 4.7 per cent in 2012-13 to 4.9 per cent. Unemployment rates were alarming in rural areas where MNREGA has seemed to accelerate the program because of the government hand-outs and people are not actively looking for work.
Therefore an increased dependence on technology, might have catastrophic repercussions for those in rural areas looking to get jobs through this project. “My son paid Rs 4 lakh to get a job in a factory as a supervisor. His salary is Rs 20,000. It was a lot of money. But out of our entire village, he is the only one who has made it,” says Santram. In September last year, 23 lakh candidates applied for 368 vacancies in the government secretariat, most of them over qualified for the very basic job of a peon. According to our estimates, India needs more than 5 crore jobs before this smart city model can be called successful. In middle of all this, dependency on high end technology and American model of production and IT based infrastructure can never create jobs like the way India needs.
If anyone country is proof of the sham that is the planned urbanisation model, it is China. Today, China is known for its cities. But it also known for its ghost towns. The more their youth moves towards urbanisation, the more they stay away from those eerie concrete blocks, choosing to inhabit their historical cities instead. Simply because the opportunities there are unparalleled. It is also a fine example of how the industrial model has to be suited to the needs of the economy. China has chosen to rely on industrialisation to generate jobs not demolish them. We should focus on the same. India cannot afford IT backed cities, simply because it takes away basic wage earning opportunities for the majority of its population. The virtues of massive public works programme for development and job creation have often been extolled. The only point to ponder is if we can get new purchasing power to rural communities which include 80 per cent of Indian population.