Smart Cities: Lack of gender equality approach amidst poor indicators of marginalized groups


Excerpts from the Housing and Land Rights Network (HLRN) report, “India’s Smart Cities Mission Smart For Whom? Cities For Whom?”, 2018

A significant finding based on HLRN’s detailed analysis of all 99 selected Smart City Proposals is the lack of a gender equality and non-discrimination approach in the Smart Cities Mission. This is all the more startling given the alarming indicators related to the socio-economic development of women, children, Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes, older persons, minorities, persons with disabilities, and other marginalized groups and communities in India.

Women According to the ‘Human Development Report 2016,’ India ranks 131 out of 187 countries on the ‘gender inequality index.’107 In 2016, approximately 41,761 incidents of crime against women were reported in the metropolitan cities, of which 25 per cent were cases of “assault to outrage modesty,” 22.2 per cent were instances of kidnapping and abduction, and 11.8 per cent were related to rape.108 Despite the serious concerns of violence against women in urban India and the grave inequality faced by women in cities, the Smart Cities Mission has adopted a largely gender-neutral approach.

Most references to women’s issues are limited to women’s safety through increased surveillance and the installation of CCTV cameras, and the creation of women’s shelters and working women’s hostels. There are, however, no concrete plans to engender cities or to create safe public spaces and public transport options for women or to address concerns of marginalized women such as homeless women, migrant women, domestic workers, women of low-income groups, and single women. The proposals also do not emphasize the prevention and elimination of violence against women through human rights-based solutions.

While speaking about the development of ‘smart cities,’ none of the proposals address the significant issue of the gendered digital divide in India. It is reported that only 29 per cent of India’s internet users are women. There also exists a gender gap in mobile phone ownership. While 43 per cent of Indian men own a cell phone, women lag behind with only 28 per cent ownership. It is estimated that the chances of women benefitting from opportunities accrued by the information society will be one-third less than for men.109 The need for addressing women’s concerns with regard to these indicators is also important.

Scheduled Castes/Dalits

There is no acknowledgement in the Smart City Proposals of the caste-based divide and pervasive discrimination against Dalits in Indian cities, who comprise 12.35 per cent of the urban population in India and constitute 20.4 per cent of the ‘slum’ population in urban areas. The lack of sensitivity towards caste-based issues and the invisibilization and denial of the caste divide in cities is also apparent in the absence of any provisions to reduce discrimination and improve living conditions of Scheduled Castes in urban areas.

Consequently, this has resulted in the failure to develop specific projects focusing on the needs and concerns of Scheduled Castes/Dalits in all of the proposed ‘smart cities.’ A question was raised in Parliament on whether adequate waste management and sanitation mechanisms had been incorporated in the Smart Cities Mission to ensure the prevention of manual scavenging. Though the SCM Guidelines or Smart City Proposals do not discuss this serious issue, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs affirmed that no ‘smart city’ projects would violate the Manual Scavenging Act.

Scheduled Tribes

A few cities have listed projects that cover tribal populations, however, the specific concerns of Scheduled Tribes, including the need for special protections for them, have not been addressed adequately in the Mission. Scheduled Tribes continue to suffer disproportionately from the impacts of ‘development’ in India and record low socio-economic indicators related to ownership of property, access to drinking water, livelihood opportunities, and financial inclusion. Moreover, tribal people suffer predominantly from poverty-induced migration, also known as forced migration leading to occupational change and influx to cities.


While children are mentioned in almost all Smart City Proposals, a rights-based approach to their issues is lacking in the Mission. Most projects for children revolve around their safety, largely through improved surveillance, and the creation of parks. According to the National Crime Records Bureau, in 2015–16, there was a 4.7 per cent increase in crimes against children in the metropolitan cities, with 67.7 per cent of total reported incidents related to kidnapping and abduction, and 24.2 per cent under the Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act.

Yet, the Mission is silent on the rampant sexual abuse, trafficking, and violence against children as well as on issues of child labour, street children, and juvenile justice. While a few ‘smart cities’ have proposed the creation of safe spaces for children and improved facilities in schools through ‘smart education’ initiatives, the vision of a child-friendly city does not seem to be at the heart of any Smart City Proposal. A few cities, such as Bhubaneswar, with the active involvement of local communities and organizations have developed some child-friendly initiatives.

Persons with Disabilities

The late Javed Abidi, former Global Chair of Disabled People’s International, had pointed out that the Smart Cities Mission had failed to integrate “disability as a key issue,” and the first 20 shortlisted cities “completely neglected the role of digital inclusion for PWDs (persons with disabilities).” Though this changed with almost all proposals selected in subsequent rounds mentioning provisions for persons with disabilities, they mostly revolve around issues related to “universal access,” creation of “barrier-free environments,” and upgrading and improving existing infrastructure.

This does not, however, incorporate a rights-based approach to addressing concerns of persons with disabilities. Given that around 8–10 per cent of India’s population lives with disabilities, their issues need to be integrated into the development of all cities, towns, and villages in the country. All ‘smart cities’ should also indicate how they are implementing the United Nations (UN) Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as well as the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act 2016, which mandate adherence to standards of accessibility.

The development agenda under the Smart Cities Mission should be disability-sensitive, as disability is not an isolated issue. In response to a question raised in the Rajya Sabha in February 2018 on provisions for persons with disabilities in the Smart Cities Mission, the Minister of Housing and Urban Affairs affirmed that it was “imperative that all projects taken up under the Area-based Development and pan-city smart solutions should be disabled-friendly”.

Certain positive developments have been documented in Bhubaneswar, Chennai, Indore, Kochi, and Visakhapatnam with regard to the promotion of “universal accessibility through the creation of a “barrier-free built environment.” Bhubaneswar is developing a sensory park for children with special needs over an area of 0.4 acres. Similar parks are also being developed in Chennai, Kochi, and Visakhapatnam.


The prevalent discrimination against other excluded groups such as religious minorities and the LGBTQI community, including with regard to the barriers they face in accessing housing, employment, and basic services in Indian cities, has been ignored in the Mission. When marginalized individuals, groups, and communities are not at the centre of any scheme, it is unlikely that it will address their concerns and achieve inclusion and an improved quality of life, as claimed in the Smart Cities Missions’ objectives.

Download full report HERE 

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