The App-ization of Development Discourse

In the recent aftermath of the Deonar dumping ground fire in Mumbai and the non collection of garbage due to union action in Delhi; the conversation on urban environmental governance has been brought into the limelight again before it disappears in the face of other eminent news such as a celebrity scandal . The Swatchch Bharat programme now has a World Bank expert helming it as lateral entry into the bureaucratic leadership which is rare. India, is distinctly urban nowadays  with a constellation of townships around the metropolitan city creating an urban agglomeration; case in point being the Mumbai Metropolitan Regional Development Authority auspices and the National Capital Region.

The cities are simply revenue generating centres with the real political capital emanating in the hinterland. Western Maharashtra vis-a-vis Mumbai and Noida versus the districts of western Uttar Pradesh. Indian cities do not posses the ‘real’ political architecture for contemporary governance. The Mayor of Mumbai is still subordinate to regional authorities sitting in Mantralaya. Delhi as a semi-state is better even sans law and order powers based in the federal home authorities. New York and Bloomberg or Blasio is a dream for the well heeled crowd in Bandra or Malabar Hill. But, does the South Bombay boy vote on polling day rather than taking a drive to the cooler realm of Lonavala?

With the anvil of Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor cities of Dholera, GIFT City and Shendra Bhidkin touted as Smart Cities being built as India’s answers to Shenzhen and Pudong Delta, urban solutions have resorted to the technocratic cookie cutter approach rather ground up community centered governance such as ‘Mohalla Sabhas’ or community forums, which the AAP Government in Delhi is pioneering through the Delhi Dialogue Commision. The Shiv Sena is a largely urban party having ruled the Mumbai Corporation for the last 25 years but it has a very different operating system unlike the Aam Admi Party. Delhi certainly voted in last year a very smart ‘App’. Well, that is to be seen in the aftermath of the dengue break and the garbage crisis.

Smart Cities may have the waste management facilities and recreation spaces figured out, but how will the political governance with a small ‘g’ flesh itself out?

The technocratic model of building a smart phone application for all developmental ends seems like a band aid fix. The data needs to be acted upon, and big data needs thick data for the questions to make sense. Geographic Information Systems spatial set and information platforms at a go enables good decision making, but will it tackle the landfill cartel in Mumbai? Or will it simplify land acquisition for the next Metro Project expansion?

Start Up India is well and good with all the sops, but where is the 24×7 power and data grid for such an initiative. The entrepreneurs need to be politically savvy to hack the bureaucracy. Are the App developing start up kids developing a killer app to enable smoother traffic in our cities. Simply more e-commerce unicorns won’t make a better India.

The Development agenda is a political animal. Voters in Mumbai and other metros have voted for the status quo apart from Delhi as the entrenched actors have been re-elected. Urban Development needs a multiplicity of actors  working in sync to execute a level of livability which is aspirational. Sadly, not every problem has a big data fix. South Asia is the hotbed of mega cities, a few solutions need to be drawn from London, Singapore and New York in terms of decentralization of power at the mayoral level.


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