AJMER, India — Ajmer’s famous 13th-century Sufi shrine draws millions of pilgrims from around the world every year. The city recently launched a new Web site called “Amazing Ajmer.” But life in this ancient city of 550,000 people in northern India is anything but amazing.
Running water is available for just two hours every two days. Only 130 of 125,000 homes in the city are connected to the sewage system. Dirty water flows in open drains in cramped neighborhoods. Stepwells and lakes have become garbage dumps. Illegal buildings and slums dot the city. And only two traffic lights work.
But soon, Ajmer could be transformed into a 21st-century “smart city” — an urban-planning term for the gleaming metropolises of the future that Prime Minister Narendra Modi wants to create by 2022.
These modern marvels would be connected by grids in which water, electricity, waste removal, traffic, hospitals and schools are seamlessly integrated with information technology to run them more efficiently.
The government has set aside $7.5 billion to make it happen, and Modi officially launched the program Thursday. But it’s a grand vision that the residents of Ajmer — one of the 100 cities designated for the modernization — are not quite ready for.
Even as it becomes a buzzword, many people here are unclear about what it means to be a smart city. And others question whether Modi’s fascination with smart cities in South Korea, China and Abu Dhabi can be duplicated in India.
The ambitious project also signals a marked shift in Indian politics, analysts say. For decades, the village dominated the country’s political and economic decisions, a stubborn legacy that dates to Mahatma Gandhi’s constant refrain that “India lives in its villages.” But now the pace of urbanization is so rapid that policymakers can no longer look away.
More than 350 million Indians live in cities. According to a McKinsey Global Institute report, urban expansion will grow in the next few years “at a speed quite unlike anything India has seen before.” By 2030, more than 600 million Indians will live in crowded cities crumbling with creaky infrastructure.
In a radical departure from the previous government’s rural focus in the past decade, Modi wants to boost cities as engines of economic growth. By 2030, officials say, 70 percent of India’s economic output is expected to come from the cities.
“Cities in the past were built on riverbanks. They are now built along highways. But in the future, they will be built based on availability of optical-fiber networks and next-generation infrastructure,” Modi said last year, shortly after taking office.
In the past eight years, the smart-cities rubric has become fashionable among global urban planners who want to use digital technology and big data to create surveillance-heavy intelligent systems that control how people live, consume energy, go to work, and stay healthy and safe.
India’s program involves radical renovation of deteriorating cities as well as constructing new municipalities from scratch, similar to a Wall Street-like financial hub called the GIFT city in Modi’s home state of Gujarat — where the progress is nowhere near its promised hype.
When Modi and President Obama met in Washington in September, U.S. companies selected three Indian cities, including Ajmer, to become smart cities. Last month, IBM, Oracle and several other companies met officials in Ajmer to discuss using smart technology to solve some of the city’s challenging water, traffic and waste problems.
“While we are trying to bring 21st-century technology, we also need to sort out some 19th-century challenges in Ajmer,” said Mukesh Aghi, president of the U.S.-India Business Council, which organized the meeting. “Basic services like sanitation, health, roads and electricity have not kept up with the pace of growth in these old cities. We can leverage smart technology to leapfrog some of these problems.”
Aghi said that the U.S. companies are considering a pilot project to install smart electricity meters that will help consumers track consumption and promote conservation on their own.
Ajmer’s residents have already posted a billboard in the heart of town declaring themselves a smart city. But many wonder whether the initiative is just an urban fantasy of technology and real estate companies that is being imposed on Ajmer.
“Can we first work toward becoming a functioning city before aspiring to be a smart city? We lack even the basic services that a city should typically provide,” said Suresh Mathur, a retired schoolteacher who runs a city cleanliness drive called “My Clean School.”
Other critics have dismissed Modi’s smart-cities plan as a 21st-century urban utopia, as a distant Neverland and Orwellian. They say that the idea is more suitable for richer nations whose citizens can afford to take basic urban services such as drinking water, toilets or electricity for granted.
“The Western definition of the smart city is spineless, if not altogether redundant in India — a mere glossing over of civic services and infrastructure,” Gautam Bhatia, an architect and author on urban design, wrote in The Hindu newspaper.
Some worry about damaging or destroying Ajmer’s famous cultural heritage.
“We can’t import a first-world concept of a smart city and plant it here. It has to be culturally appropriate,” said Onkar Singh Lakhawat, chairman of Heritage Preservation and Promotion Authority of Rajasthan.
Officials have held 22 meetings with residents in the past five months to convince them of the merits of the smart-city plan.
“Before you take part in the Olympics, you engage in warm-up exercises, build your stamina, physical fitness and change your attitude,” said Dharmendra Bhatnagar, divisional commissioner. As first steps, his office is arranging a flower show and a photography contest.
The big challenge, Aghi said, is figuring out where the funding for the program will come from. Most city corporations in India are severely cash-strapped. Modi wants Indian and foreign companies to invest in the program, but there is no estimate yet.
One idea is that private companies charge residents a fee to recover their investment. But that could be problematic. Last year, when a private company in Ajmer received a contract to collect and recycle trash, residents protested in the streets and refused to pay.
“There is a mind-set among people that the government should give everything free,” said the city’s mayor, Kamal Bakolia.
In the cramped and labyrinthine lanes leading to Ajmer’s Sufi shrine, there is plenty of chatter and jokes about Ajmer’s new designation. One pilgrim covers his nose with his scarf near an open drain and asks a resident, “When will your city become smart?”
Earlier this year, before Ajmer was chosen for smart-city status, Modi had also included it in a list of 12 “heritage cities” he planned to develop. And a few years ago, the government launched a program to make Ajmer a “slum-free city.”
“Real estate prices have shot up since all this talk of smart city began,” said Syed Munawwar Hussain, the shrine custodian. “We are a world-renowned city, but we are still waiting to become a world-class city.”