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Narendra Modi

Smart city

The city of Ahmedabad sprawls across the scrubby coastal plain of the northwestern state of Gujarat for what seems like an eternity. And perhaps it is an eternity, because it is reportedly the fastest-growing city in India. The 2011 census put its population at 5.6 million; it’s now well over seven million, with a million or so more in the metropolitan area, making it either the fifth or sixth largest city in India, and the seventh largest metropolitan area. By the next census in 2021, 60 years after it first passed the million mark, it could have nine million.

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Ahmedabad was not on my radar until June 2015 when I visited with my UNICEF colleague, Mario Mosquera, to check out the Mudra Institute for Communication (MICA), which had bid to host a workshop on communication for development for UNICEF staff. I had no idea the city was as large as it was, nestled in the population table just below Bangalore and Hyderabad. Flying in from Delhi, I assumed the terminal where we arrived was the airport itself and thought it looked rather empty. I soon saw signs pointing to three more terminals. Ahmedabad was building for future growth.

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Ahmedabad was originally a city of textile mills—some called it the “Manchester of India.” It’s in the cotton-growing region of Gujarat, and also imports raw cotton through the ports of Mumbai and Kandla. Climatic conditions are suitable for spinning, and water from the Sabarmati River for dyeing. The city had a large pool of skilled labor, investment capital and good road and rail connections to Mumbai and other cities. The textile industry remains an important part of the economy, but Ahmedabad has diversified. Over the last decade, the main growth has been in sectors such as auto parts and pharmaceuticals, with a business-friendly state government offering cheap land and tax breaks to industry. It was the so-called “Gujarat economic miracle” that helped propel the state’s Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, onto the national stage. He went on to leadership of the Hindu Nationalist Party, the BJP, and then to become prime minister.

From the airport, Mario and I drove for almost an hour on a freshly tarmacked four-lane ring road across a construction site landscape. Workers were laying water and utility lines on both sides of the highway and planting shrubs on the median. Large areas of former farmland were dotted with signs and surveyors’ stakes announcing future industrial and technology parks. In the sweltering heat of the early afternoon—late June is the start of the monsoon season—workers with scarves tied around their heads clambered between the steel and concrete pillars of half-finished factories and office buildings, hoisted bamboo scaffolding poles into position, mixed cement, and carried bricks, effortlessly balancing them in baskets on their heads. Billboards marked the designation of economic zones, often expressed as acronyms, such as the Gujarat International Finance Tech (GIFT) City, a “smart city” initiative.

Ahmedabad is one of more than 100 urban areas across India designated by the national government to become a “smart city.” It’s a catchy, if vague, slogan. Officially, a smart city is an urban region with top-notch infrastructure, making it attractive to businesses and residents. That means wide roads, commercial and industrial real estate, modern apartments, schools and medical facilities, all wired together with high-speed links. Ahmedabad was one of 20 cities selected in the first round in January 2016 for government funding.

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Knowing the average connection speed of Indian bureaucracy, it may take some time for the money to arrive. The state and city governments were not waiting on Delhi but plowing ahead with infrastructure. Ahmedabad will likely always be a work-in-progress, because there are few geographical limits to expansion although eventually the city planners will run up against the Char Desert, which covers a wide area of the northwest in the states of Rajasthan and Gujarat. In late afternoon, as we drove away from the MICA campus through the borderland between construction sites and cotton fields, we passed camels hauling carts of hay for animal feed. Somehow, it did not seem incongruous to see camels and herders on a modern highway among the yellow Tata trucks and SUVs. The line between the urban and rural in modern India is constantly shifting.

I began to wonder if Ahmedabad was anything more than highways and construction sites. I was happy to discover an older city on a one-hour sortie to have my suitcase repaired. The screws securing the pull-out handle on my suitcase had fallen out. One advantage of working in a developing country is that it’s almost always cheaper to have something fixed than to buy a new one. The hotel gave me the name of a shopping center where luggage was sold. My auto rickshaw driver had a better idea. He pulled up beside other drivers who rooted around under the seats in their vehicles for screws. After 10 minutes, I signaled that I wasn’t prepared to wait and we set off again. The next stop was a hole-in-the-wall hardware shop, but again nothing fit. We set off again through the maze of streets of the old city and eventually reached a roundabout. The luggage repair wallah sat under a canopy on the narrow sidewalk, his sewing machine in the road, piles of used luggage behind him. He inspected the suitcase, dipped into a bag, pulled out two bolts and nuts, screwed the suitcase together and fixed a torn zipper. “How much?” I asked. He shrugged. “Whatever you think is right.” I gave him 150 rupees (about $2.25), got back into the auto rickshaw, thought about it again, and gave him another 100. I fear that his days are numbered. There’s no place in the smart city for people who hang out a shingle at a busy roundabout and fix things. Maybe they’ll give him a cubicle on the ring road and a web site domain. And no one will come.