Since the Congress party is determined not to let Parliament work, Prime Minister Modi has an unexpected opportunity to focus on executive action. So much can be achieved through good execution, and voters too will generously reward those who visibly improve their lives. Urban reform is one area crying for such vigorous attention.

The intriguing phrase ‘smart cities’ conjures a vision of a technological and sustainable future for an aspiring India. Yet no one quite knows what it means, including those in charge. I believe the Indian city will only become ‘smart’ if it builds around the way Indians actually work and live; and second, if it seizes autonomy from state governments. Until our cities have directly elected, empowered mayors who can raise funds for the city, and to whom municipal commissioners report, urban India will not become ‘smart’.

Since Nehru’s time it has been fashionable to create elitist master plans that were hugely wasteful of land and capital, and ignored the way Indians worked and lived. The plans imposed rigid ideas about separating the workplace from the home, which was reflected devastatingly in a Supreme Court judgement a few years ago that destroyed the livelihoods of lakhs of poor in Delhi. It is the same mindset that encouraged Nehru to create the visually exciting Chandigarh, with its acres of greenbelts, which only served elite bureaucrats and was always hostile to the needs of the masses.

Modi should not make the same mistake. His people talk about smart cities mainly in technological terms. This is fine, but I believe a smart city is also about doing ‘smart things in a city’. One of these is to design it around the livelihoods of the aam aadmi. Such a city should humanely place the urban poor and our informal economy at the centre of its thinking; take inspiration, not from leafy Chandigarh, but from the sprawling slum of Dharavi in Mumbai.

HUMAN BONDS: Dharavi teaches how a city grows organically when people move from villages and learn to live and work in the same place


Modi’s critics call it old wine in a new bottle. They are right — many of the ‘smart city’ ideas were a part of the old JNNURM (UPA’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission). But twenty years from now, which one will you remember: Smart cities or JNNURM? Now that we have a name to rally people around, let us not focus on technology alone but on innovative solutions to transform the future of the Indian city.