Modi now has a plan to build 100 so-called Smart Cities in the coming years – cities designed from the ground up with functioning sanitation, streets where traffic flows freely, water and electricity supply.
Most Indian cities currently offer these services only sporadically. These new cities are to be created from scratch.
GIFT City in the western state of Gujarat, which is set in the semi-desert that lies between the economic centre of Ahmedabad and the capital Gandhinagar, will be the first Smart City.
Thus far there are just two glass towers, each 28 floors high, that protrude upwards from the desolate site of about 358ha.
Sewage will be pumped at a speed of 90km/h
But Dipesh Shah fills in the future buildings and facilities with hand gestures as he describes how Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT) will look in years to come.
“We will have a tunnel stretching over a kilometre, through which the buildings will be provided with portable water, electricity, gas and a central cooling system,” the GIFT City vice president says with evident enthusiasm.
Sewage will be pumped at a speed of 90km/h – faster than the average Indian train.
GIFT City could be an anomaly in a country where 300 million people lack access to electricity and around half the population of 1.2 billion have no toilet in their homes.
The master plan ambitiously compares GIFT City with La Defence in Paris, Shinjuku in Tokyo and the London Docklands. Shah sketches the prospect of a million jobs, an artificial lake a kilometre long, hospitals, schools and hotels.
Not everyone is that optimistic. There is no need whatever for an international finance centre in India, in the view of political analyst Rajiv Shah.
The fact that GIFT City is Modi’s pet project means that at best state-owned Indian banks will be pressured into relocating a couple of offices there, Shah believes.
GIFT City people openly acknowledge that thus far they have been able to interest only Indian concerns in their “international” project.
GIFT City is to be surrounded by a wall
There has also been criticism of the exclusive nature of the Smart Cities. GIFT City is to be surrounded by a wall, with those entering being compelled to prove their identity.
There will be no place for the beggars, street hawkers, rickshaw drivers, paper collectors and shoe shiners that typify established Indian cities. Small-scale car mechanics, tailors and carpenters will also be excluded.
“The artificial city will always be dependent on other genuine cities,” says Chinmay Patel, an architect.
According to a document from the Development Ministry in New Delhi, the Smart Cities are to be comparable with any developed European city, although studies show that what India really needs is housing for its poorer people.
There is a housing shortage of almost 19 million homes, almost all of them for the lower income groups, according to the government’s own report on the economy. And there are millions of empty homes in the upper middle class segment.
The almost a billion dollars earmarked for the Smart Cities should be used for integrated cities, not for the pampered middle class, in the view of architect and author Gautam Bhatia.
“Solutions can only be found when the rich and the poor live together, as was common in old Indian cities,” he says. For example some of the floors in the high rises could be for service staff.
“Instead we put up fences to keep out the other, the impoverished India.”