Have you ever wondered what would happen if the rich kept getting richer? I’m not talking about the 1%. They mostly consist of upper-middle-class business owners and real estate agents. No, I’m talking about the 1% of the 1%. The real power behind the throne. The financial and political elite. If their wealth and power continued to grow by leaps and bounds at the expense of everyone else, how do you think they would live their lives?
If you’re curious about the nature of this dystopian future, then look no further than India, where the government is preparing to break ground on the new “Gift City” which will segregate the elites from the rabble, and should be completed by 2021. It will be a glittering enclave with top-notch building codes, 24-hour electricity, and clean water.
High-speed sewage pipelines will rocket their waste out of the city at speeds of 90km per hour (you can’t make this stuff up) and the wide uncongested streets will carry an efficient public transport system. At the center of this gilded settlement, will be a “Command and Control Center” that monitors traffic, and utilizes an extensive system of CCTV cameras. Despite the sprawling surveillance that would make most sane people uncomfortable, compared to the rest of this impoverished nation it will be a veritable utopia.
What’s more, India plans to build 100 of these “smart” cities, while restructuring another 500 smaller towns in their image. Obviously, these will not be built for the benefit of the common man. If anything, they will be more like feudal estates that lord over the wider population.
Yet many experts and planners fear that such “insta-cities”, if they are made, will prove dystopic and inequitable. Some even hint that smart cities may turn into social apartheid cities, governed by powerful corporate entities that could override local laws and governments to “keep out” the poor.
In a monograph for a conference on smart cities in Mumbai in January, the economist and consultant Laveesh Bhandari described smart cities as “special enclaves” that would use prohibitive prices and harsh policing to prevent “millions of poor Indians” from “enjoying the privileges of such great infrastructure”. “This is the natural way of things,” he noted, “for if we do not keep them out, they will override our ability to maintain such infrastructure.”
Personally, this wouldn’t normally bother me. If you have the money and you want live in a gated community with 24-hour security, then more power to you. This is the same thing, just on a larger scale. I mean, if a bunch of rich people want to get together and build what is basically a corporate microstate, who cares? If they want to live separately from everyone else and they can afford it, that’s their business if you ask me.
The only problem is, it’s not their money. They’re doing this at the expense of everyone else. This city is not being funded out of their own pocket, it’s being built with tax dollars, and the land will probably be stolen from local residents through eminent domain. This is a classic example of wealthy elites and corrupt politicians working hand it hand to maintain their power and standard of living. They’re building their gilded atrocity on the backs of everyday citizens who, make no mistake, will not see any of the benefits.
The current template might have given us Palava City. This self-described smart city across 3,000 acres of Mumbai’s northeastern exurbs is being built by a city-based developer best known for treating skyscraper-erecting as a competitive sport. As its promotional video announces in a smug baritone, Palava City was inspired by the futuristic vision that brought Singapore, Dubai “and even Mumbai” into being.
What this translates into is “essential public infrastructure” such as 24×7 electricity, immaculate wide roads, public transport, malls, multiplexes and luxury housing, including “Mumbai’s first and only golf-course-equipped residential township”. To make sure that no one trespasses on its immaculate privatopia, Palava plans to issue its residents with “smart identity cards”, and will watch over them through a system of “smart surveillance”.
The emphasis on surveillance underlines the stratified, elitist nature of smart cities, according to the academic and author Pramod Nayar. “Smart cities will be heavily policed spaces,” he says, “where only eligible people – economically productive consumers (shoppers) and producers (employees) – will be allowed freedom of walking and travel, while ambient and ubiquitous surveillance will be tracked so as to anticipate the ‘anti-socials’.”
As such, Nayar adds, smart cities will be “more fortresses than places of heterogeneous humanity, because they are meant only for specific classes of people”. One class to be served, the other to be surveilled and contained.
What a nightmare.
This is the future. And just because this is in India, don’t think it won’t happen where you live someday. This is the world the financial elite want to build. A world where they can just plow over the little people, and build their own opulent fortified cities with public funds while the starving masses live just outside the gates, in squalor so thick they can never escape. A state within a state that has special rights and privileges for its members. This is nothing less than a form of high-tech feudalism, and its coming to a town near you.