Event Description:
UPD Seminar by Dr Ayona Datta on ‘Winners and Losers: Good Governance and #citizenships in India’s 100 smart cities’, 4th October, 2016
Contributed by Jeanne Firth 

Ryan Centner (right) introduces Ayona Datta. Photograph by Jeanne Firth.
Dr Ryan Centner (right) introduces Dr Ayona Datta (left) Photograph by Jeanne Firth

Dr Ayona Datta (King’s College London) presented her research ‘Winners and Losers: Good Governance and #citizenships in India’s 100 Smart Cities’. This research is part of the Utopian Cities project, a UK-India network on India’s urban futures, in which Dr Datta is a Principal investigator. Her research centres around India’s urban transformation, and works to understand the importance of the smart cities vision in shaping everyday life in India and notions of citizenship. A multidisciplinary team ran a series of workshops (on which Dr Datta’s presentation was based) in Varanasi, Chandigarh, Navi Mumbai and Nashik to explore ‘alternative (and subaltern) histories of the utopian city, which rely not on the rationality of the Cartesian blueprint, rather on visions of the remembered, experienced and imagined city’ (learn more about the workshops here). Currently, 98 cities have been nominated for India’s Smart Cities Challenge and eventually 100 cities will be awarded Smart City status. The initiative will be implemented in the selected cities by private companies under the direction of a CEO who will be given access to the city’s tax revenue.

Dr Datta’s presentation explored the Smart City in Indian context. She says the notion of ‘Ram Rajya’ (the mythical kingdom of Lord Rama known for ‘minimum government, maximum governance’) was invoked often in the workshops, and she argues that Ram Rajya has become connected to or used as shorthand for the idea of good governance in India. Dr Datta has identified three modes of operability in the Smart Cities initiative which all have to do with citizenship. The first, ‘fast tracked citizens’, examines how each nominated city has its own ‘smart citizen consultations’ where ‘citizen-driven solutions’ are supposed to be generated.  The consultations have largely taken place on the MyGov website and blogs, and also through social media (Facebook likes, Twitter, etc) and events.  In the workshops, Dr Datta found that participant concerns about issues such as infrastructure (water, garbage, etc.) were not prioritised because ICT had to be the focus of their input (even though citizen engagement listed ICT as a low priority). Her second mode of operability is explored in the questions ‘What does a smart citizen do? What are their actions? What are their thoughts?’. Dr Datta presented an article about ‘Simply Smart Citizens’ as an example of what she says are the expectations and codes of performance for the actions and thoughts of a ‘Smart Citizen’. She argues that this citizen is an entrepreneurial, online subject, and although there are different representations by different companies and city campaigns, overall a consensual subject remains at the core. Her third mode of operability regards translations of the ‘Smart Citizen’ in Indian arena.  Here she points to the MyGov.in quiz for ‘smart citizenship’, which claims that ‘performance might not be easy, but rewards of effort far outweigh the cost’.  Dr Datta says that at the workshops, the notion of the ‘Smart Citizen’ was perceived in a neutral and positive way, with many attendees unaware of the ICT focus (they thought it was about making the city cleaner, etc.)

In conclusion, Dr Datta suggests that the journey of 100 Smart Cities will be a far cry from the kind of seamless, slick presentations and visualisations that have been disseminated thus far. She argues that state/corporate partnerships are driving Smart Cities, and that there is a banality of aims and objectives. She is worried that the biggest causalities could be local democracy and local governance: for example, locally-elected politicians voiced concerns that they will be unable to represent their constituents because the implementation will be under the control of a private CEO.  Questions from the audience followed Dr Datta’s presentation.
Jeanne Firth is a research student in the Department of Geography and Environment