Ayona Datta, Reader in Urban Futures, Department of Geography, King’s College London

‘Smart’ urbanization: Digital citizenships in the making of India’s urban age

For some time now, the Indian state has sought to ‘leapfrog’ towards a smart urban age by deploying a popular futurology of ‘planetary urbanization’. Since 2014, citing apocalyptic predictions of urbanization, migration and climate change, it has legitimised a mega-scale regional urbanization programme through the construction of infrastructure corridors, new townships as well as the transformation of 100 small and medium towns into smart cities. The national urbanization programme has been critiqued on several grounds as the – expansion of state’s territorial ambitions, reinforcement of urban privilege and the valorization of technocratic and digital solutions to global challenges. Less scrutinised has been the simultaneous production of a figure of the ‘smart citizen’ – a young urban professional male, who reorganises the very terms and conditions of citizenship in India. This smart citizen normatively excludes vast swathes of population who have been socially and historically excluded from the state’s urban aspirations – Dalits, minority religions, women and LGBTQ groups. Drawing upon a range of city workshops conducted as part of an AHRC funded network, as well as publicly available documents and infographics on India’s smart cities programme, this paper seeks to locate the figure of the ‘smart citizen’ as a globally circulating imaginary of smart cities and its contested postcolonial translation as the Machiavellian ‘chatur citizen’ in India. It argues that smart urbanization in India is more than just territorial expansion – it is fundamentally about reducing citizenship to mere digital presence and establishing technology as a measure of democracy.

Ayona Datta is Reader and research Domain Chair in Urban Futures in King’s College London. Her broad research interests are in the critical geographies of smart urbanism, gender citizenships and urban futures in the global south. Her earlier research developed theoretical and empirical work on slums and informal settlements in exploring how subaltern citizens live through the violence of law and urban development in India. Her more recent research seeks to advance theoretical and empirical work on postcolonial urbanism through the examination of smart cities as experiments in digital citizenships. She is author of The Illegal City: Space, law and gender in a Delhi squatter settlement (2012), co-editor of Translocal geographies: Spaces, places, connections (2011) and Mega-urbanization in the global South: Fast cities and new urban utopias of the postcolonial state (2017). She is working on another co-edited book Ecological Citizenships in the global south under contract with Zed Books. She has authored over 30 articles in international refereed journals and maintains a personal blog titled ‘City Inside out’.

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