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Digital Legacies and Distressed Capacities

Evaluating Platforms of Spatial Governance in Bhubaneswar
Khaliq Parkar


This paper shows how technology platforms affect the character and functioning of municipal governance. It does so by tracing the genesis, implementation, and effects of three technology platforms for spatial governance in Bhubaneswar. I show that these platforms are the result of the state of Odisha’s digitalization strategy, implemented alongside the widely discussed Smart Cities Mission. They are considered ICT-GIS platforms and leverage spatial and information technologies to monitor public lands, pinpoint households with alphanumeric codes, and algorithmically approve construction projects on private lands. I use interviews with state administrators, municipal staff, platform developers, and consultants, which shed light on the motivations for digitalizing existing governance processes, the early results of algorithmic governance, citizens’ use of digital tools, and the ways in which municipal capacities handle these transformations. The paper tries to identify digitalization’s role between technocratic solutionism and spatial surveillance in the governance of a city. I conclude that digital infrastructuring shifts control from weakened municipal departments to consultant-driven control over governance practices, and the three platforms limit access to democratic institutions.

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  • 1 This publication was made possible through support provided by the Institut de Recherche pour le Dé (...)

1This paper aims to understand how technology platforms affect the democratic character and functioning of municipal agencies.1 While technological tools have been used for urban governance in India since the 1990s (Sundaram 2019), they received a boost from the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Revival Mission (JNNURM) and the National e-Governance Plan (NeGP) in the mid-2000s, which encouraged the use of information and communication technologies (ICT). Multiple public agencies such as the National Informatics Centers, State Computer Application Centers, and city-level Development Authorities created and embraced ICT tools under these policies for city planning, delivering urban services, and enhancing citizen engagement. The national program Smart Cities Mission (2015) reinvigorated digitalization by stressing “smart solutions” and “data-driven governance.” Despite a legacy of policies and programs lasting over three decades, the literature seldom assesses the impact of digitalization on urban governance in India, which I seek to address in this paper.

  • 2 Digitization is the conversion of paper records to digital records. Legacy data here includes older (...)

2Since the 1990s, urban administrations have utilized a faster and wider internet network, begun to digitize legacy municipal data,2 used geospatial capacities for town planning, and introduced technological platforms and products created by multiple public and private agencies. States and municipalities use these new technologies to implement a variety of municipal functions ranging from urban planning and delivering services to actively engaging citizens. In policy documents, technologies are promoted as offering the following dual benefits (Purandare and Parkar 2021): service delivery is faster, generates new solutions for urban problems through data and automation, and improves information exchange; it has also been said that citizens have greater access to urban services, enhanced transparency, and scrutiny and are able to participate in the governance of the city.

3While there has been some literature on projects from the JNNURM and NeGP (Chatterji 2018; Kundu 2014), these works evaluate the progress and completion of projects across states under the larger missions and not the implementation and impact of technologies or digitalization practices at the city level. We only see analysis of digitalization policy at the national level (Parkar and Purandare 2023), some city-level, or technology specific studies during the Smart Cities Mission (SCM) (Parkar, Zérah, and Mittal 2023; Praharaj 2021; Prasad, Alizadeh, and Dowling 2022). However, these studies do not refer to the municipal transformations in functions, service delivery, and capacities or the impact of technologies on governance. This gap in understanding how the technological aspect impacts the practice of urban governance is quite clear in the Indian case. For this paper, digitalization is defined as the way in which the transformation of tools, ideas, and practices brought on by technological interventions affects urban governance.

4The literature has pointed out that “technological urban solutionism” tends to replace citizen participation and drive urban planning (León and Rosen 2020; Morozov 2013; Sadowski and Maalsen 2020). While the role of consultants in urban planning and policy is not new (Kennedy et al. 2014; Kennedy and Zérah 2008; Sundaram 2019) and the push for consultants under the Smart Cities Mission has been noted (Khan, Taraporevala, and Zérah 2018; Purandare 2021), the role of consultants has moved away from presenting policy briefs requiring bureaucratic or legislative approval in favor of consultant-driven technologies completely replacing entire governance processes. The digital interventions explored here are clear examples of this transition, whereby both the identification of problems and the tools offered for governance come from existing tech industry trends and not necessarily from democratic or bureaucratic channels.

  • 3 Information & Communication Technology-Geographic Information Systems. These platforms can acquire, (...)

5Using the case study of Bhubaneshwar in Odisha, I will show how specific technologies are used to reinvent conventional urban administration practices. This paper identifies the bureaucratic and techno-managerial justifications for these platforms and breaks away from them to identify how technologies are used by agencies, municipal staff, and citizens in practice and the ways in which this transforms urban governance. I will show how digitalization projects for urban governance use a vocabulary of efficient governance and increased accountability but instead result in weakened democratic institutions, burden existing municipal capacities, reproduce the errors of past e-governance reforms, and promote a logic of participatory surveillance. I will identify how the digitalization of urban governance also takes place outside the grand discourses of smart cities and urban-renewal missions through city- and state-level interventions. I conclude that legacies of digitalization under these older e-governance interventions lead to significant shortcomings in contemporary digital practices. To make my case, I will focus on the technical infrastructure of platforms, algorithms, and databases in three digital projects that have transformed the spatial governance of Bhubaneswar. The three specific technologies related to the administration of public and private land can be considered “ICT-GIS systems”3 (Baud et al. 2014), since they combine geospatial knowledge with ICT tools.

6I will begin with an introduction to the urban expansion of Bhubaneswar, the administration governing the capital city, and some of the digital initiatives driving transformations in the city and the state. I will go on to elaborate the methodology that guides this work, which disentangles the development and implementation of digital technologies for urban administration by interviewing officers and staff from public agencies as well as technology designers and developers. I will then focus in detail on how the three technology platforms function. I will conclude by drawing on the interviews and evaluate the platforms to present my arguments.

7This paper attempts to establish a method for unraveling the complexity of digitalization in the context of urban governance. It suggests that while motivations for digital projects are grounded in administrative logics, its implementation is entirely beyond administrative control. For researchers aiming to assess the impact of digitalization, it is useful to triangulate these motivations, how the design and implementation of digital infrastructure copes with digital legacies, and the actual user experience of technology platforms at state and citizen level.

The Case of Bhubaneswar

  • 4 For more on SPVs, see Khan et al. (2018).

8The city of Bhubaneshwar’s urban sprawl has rapidly expanded over the past two decades. One estimate suggests that built-up area increased by 17% in the fourteen years between 2003–2017 (Anasuya, Swain, and Vinoj 2019). While the city has a dense historic quarter in the south renowned for its temples, most of contemporary central Bhubaneshwar was planned in 1948 as the new capital of Odisha. The recent expansion over the last two decades has taken place north of the city and includes its growing educational hub, IT firm campuses, and residential complexes. The city administration is divided between the Bhubaneshwar Municipal Corporation (BMC); the Bhubaneshwar Development Authority (BDA), which covers public lands outside municipal limits; and more recently, the Bhubaneshwar Smart City Limited (BSCL), which is a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) and not a public agency.4 The state-run Housing and Urban Development Department (HUDD) also has significant stakes in the capital city’s governance. The administration of land and housing, in particular, is shared between the BDA and BMC, with the former covering a larger area and having more administrative control over public lands and the planning of the city’s urban expansion. The BMC covers 146 km2, with a population of around 1 million (35% of which live in informal settlements), and the BDA urban region covers an additional 275 km2.

Figure 1

Figure 1

Administrative Boundaries of Bhubaneswar Municipality and Development Authority. Screenshot from Bhubaneswar.One, accessed on September 30, 2022

Figure 2

Figure 2

Bhubaneshwar Administrative Institutions Table

  • 5 Sujog is an e-governance platform for Odisha that allows citizens to access certifications, service (...)

9While I was conducting interviews for a larger project on Bhubaneswar Smart City, many administrators pointed out that Bhubaneswar and Odisha had a history of digitalization through multiple state and city policies and initiatives that preceded the Smart Cities Mission. Some of these have targeted the rapid urban expansion over the past two decades and are aimed at monitoring public land, formally recognizing informal settlements, zoning and transforming land-use, increasing the reach of municipal services to new areas, and tracking the spatial expansion of the city. The administrators’ motivating factor therefore seems to be the need to track and regulate this marked urban expansion. The Odisha Chief Minister’s Office launched the 5T Initiative (teamwork, technology, transparency, transformation, and time limit) in 2019, which has subsumed many of these projects and is a substantial indicator of the state’s push toward digitalization. Within 5T, there are other technology initiatives related to land and housing, such as drone-driven household mapping in Odisha’s Jaga Mission and new municipal services platforms such as Sujog,5 but these are applicable to the entire state. These initiatives therefore also indicate that the shift to ICT solutionism is substantially present in the state, even outside the SCM’s discourse.

10The three initiatives chosen for this paper include the Bhubaneswar Land Use Intelligence System (BLUIS), the Building Plan Approval System (BPAS), and the Digital Door Numbering System (DDNS). These three governance tools were chosen for the following reasons. First, they specifically target the governance of land use and housing, a topic that has preoccupied the state administration. Second, while they were deployed by consultants and vendors, the platforms were already integrated by the state and municipal agencies—unlike the SCM projects, which still had not been handed over to the municipal agencies and were managed by consultants and vendors at the time of writing. Third, they can be thematically grouped as GIS-ICT tools for urban governance and, as such, have certain common characteristics that will be identified.

Studying Design and Practices of Technology in Governance

11Drawing on Orlikowski (2000), I seek to understand the structuring, modifications, and implementation of “technologies-in-practice.” To do so, I conducted nineteen interviews across institutional hierarchies at municipal and state department offices in Bhubaneswar over three visits between March 2021 and November 2022. The interviews with public officials were carried out at multiple levels. Elite interviews (Dexter 2006) were conducted with one state Housing and Urban Department bureaucrat, two Bhubaneswar Development Authority officials, two senior municipal administrative officers, two municipal engineers, and two officers from the Smart City. Three municipal staffers who handled the platform’s day-to-day operations were also interviewed.

12In addition, it was necessary to understand how technologies are developed, adopted, and implemented—specifically, how platforms and algorithms are developed, what determines database attributes, and how they are used within everyday governance practices. One of the methods Kitchin (2017) identifies for studying algorithmic platforms is interviewing designers and programmers as a way of “uncovering the story behind the production of an algorithm and to interrogate its purpose and assumptions” (p. 24). Interviews were therefore conducted with two vendors, two technology developers and programmers, and two consultants who are responsible for developing platforms and training staff how to use them. One interview was conducted with a subcontractor responsible for importing older municipal databases into a newer platform. I supplemented these interviews with municipal documentation, such as webpages and training videos that visually demonstrate how these platforms and algorithms function. Finally, notes on the observations of citizens accessing municipal offices and staff interactions with citizens are used to highlight how these technologies are experienced.

Spatial Governance through Technology

13I study three spatial technologies specifically targeted toward land use and housing governance. The Bhubaneshwar Land Use Intelligence System (BLUIS) monitors encroachment on public land using satellite data, and the Building Plan Approval System (BPAS) automates the approval of building construction plans, while the Digital Door Numbering System (DDNS) allots a specific digital code to all households in order to streamline and unify the delivery of municipal services. While BLUIS and BPAS are fully functional, only DDNS’s pilot projects have been rolled out in some wards of the city. I will begin with a description of each of these platforms and go on to highlight the challenges and lessons from their use within existing municipal institutions and processes.

  • 6 ORSAC is state-level agency, established in 1984 for developing space-technology applications.

14The Bhubaneswar Land Use Intelligence System (BLUIS) was developed for the BDA and BMC through a collaboration between the Odisha Space Applications Centre (ORSAC)6 and a private firm, Vassar Technologies. The former provided high resolution imagery, and the latter created the algorithms that drive the platform. BLUIS identifies encroachment on government land that has been preidentified and geotagged by leveraging satellite imagery. This identification works in three ways. First, citizens can download a mobile app and can upload geotagged photos and videos when they spot an encroachment. Second, BDA officials have a different version of the app on their phone through which they can upload complaints if they see encroachments during their field rounds. The third way is automated: satellite imagery from ORSAC is compared over a one-month period by the system and finds any changes in land use through an algorithm. Regardless of the method, the algorithms embedded in the platform compare satellite imagery of the tagged area over a period of time and identify the type of material used from an analysis of color wavelengths (plastic, metal, brick, etc.). If the system identifies it as a possible permanent construction, it sends a trigger to the zonal development commissioner and ward officer of the BMC (who have their own version of the app). They must verify in person, crosscheck the building-plan database for permissions, and upload geotagged photos to the app. The plot number, deeds, or licenses for that particular area are acquired through the platform. Based on the officer’s decision, illegal constructions can be demolished, and geotagged photo/video documentation of the demolition is uploaded as proof of action. Any citizen who files a complaint receives alerts on the app at every stage of action. Officials within the BDA and BMC can monitor city-level data through a dashboard and follow up with zonal officers to clear pending cases.

15Figure 3

Complaints on BLUIS 2020–2021
















Recorded Instances of Encroachment Complaint by Type on BLUIS (BDA 2020–2021).

Figure 4

Figure 4

Example of a BLUIS Officer’s Mobile App. Screengrab from a training video, retrieved September 29, 2021.

Figure 5

Figure 5

Sample of Satellite Comparison Evaluated by the System Algorithm. Screengrab from a training video, retrieved September 29, 2021.

  • 7 AKD, BDA, Interview with Author, September 14, 2021.

16BLUIS is aimed at reducing the burden on municipal staff when identifying encroachments by creating participatory surveillance of government lands. The BDA nodal officer for BLUIS said, “As the city expands, so does encroachment and land grabbing. Monitoring land is time- and manpower-intensive, so we needed a solution that could address these needs.”7 At the same time, the platform also tries to automate this process through machine learning. Based on the complaints and their resolution, it can better identify encroachment through satellite imagery, thus reducing the need for human complaints. The platform also escalates cases through a matrix of municipal hierarchies that are encoded within it. It additionally allows BDA and BMC officers to supervise ground staff by monitoring zone-wise encroachments and redressal through the dashboards. The nodal officer added, “It is clear from the dashboard that certain parts of the city, like the northwest are more prone to encroachment because of slums, which is why we can increase physical monitoring in that area.”

Figure 6

Figure 6

Example of BLUIS Dashboard for Monitoring Zone and Ward-Wise Encroachments and Their Escalation. Screengrab from a training video, retrieved September 29, 2021.

17While BLUIS is aimed at tracking illegal constructions, the BSCL suggested the need for faster approval of legal civil construction, which led to the development of an (online) Building Plan Approval System (BPAS) for Bhubaneswar. While BPAS was originally imagined and implemented under the Smart City projects, it was limited to the city territory and was developed as a licensed proprietary product. This first BPAS platform was replaced by a new BPAS for all Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) in Odisha under the statewide platform Sujog in 2022. Regardless of the BPAS model being viewed, it functions in the same way. Architectural files for civil construction are uploaded by landowners or approved architects to an online portal, and an algorithm screens them for violation of building and planning codes. This algorithm encodes existing building plan laws as rules and “reads” the submitted files to look for aberrations. If any conflict is found, the application is either rejected with a note requesting rectification or forwarded to an officer for human scrutiny. The Sujog BPAS also features preapproved templates that citizens can use for construction. The online procedure is supposed to reduce corruption, speed up approval by reducing human oversight, increase transparency through monitoring dashboards, and deliver approval certificates digitally. Figure 7 shows that the system’s algorithms automatically flag nearly half of the pending submissions as “defective,” while the rest are under various processing levels in the escalation matrix. Based on this table sourced from the official dashboard, it is unclear how many of the approved applications were found defective at the time of submission.

18Figure 7

Building Plan Approval System (2020–2021)

Applications Received



Total Pending




Under Processing


Found Defective






Show Cause


Demand Notice Generated


Sanction Fees Paid



Total Closed






Process-Wise Escalation and Resolution of Cases under the Older Building Plan Approval System (BSCL, 2021).

19Household addresses are typically labeled through a postal coding system along with local land and revenue registration details. In recent years many cities (such as Hyderabad and New Delhi) have been implementing a Digital Door Numbering System (DDNS). The DDNS project in Bhubaneswar is the third platform analyzed in this paper. The DDNS project is currently being rolled out only in some wards and is not yet completely live or integrated. It is being implemented by a consultancy firm and subcontracted to two vendors, one providing satellite data and the other providing proprietary technology for the location codes.

20Figure 8

Example of a Household Tagged with DDNS (BMC 2021).

21The DDNS system tags all households with a 14-digit alphanumeric code that is geolocated and issued to all premises. This coding allots a specific key that binds each household to their municipal services. A particular household’s municipal billing and taxation is tied to this code and allows the municipal agencies to obtain a household-level picture of service consumption and tax collections. The BMC envisions that DDNS will streamline revenue generation, since the household will be mapped with property tax, commercial licenses, waste collection, and electricity and water meters. Any household misusing services or using commercial licensing will be identified through this. Households that use residential water and electricity bills but run a commercial enterprise can be identified according to the project and required to pay higher commercial rates. DDNS needs multiple stakeholders beyond the BMC—such as the water services company WATCO and the electricity company TPCOD —to use this system and has further plans to integrate other services like waste management. DDNS will also have monitoring dashboards and mobile applications for BMC officials to use.

22In the next section, I will show how the prevalence of consultants is expanding due to the neglect of existing state digital agencies, stunted municipal capacities with little training in the new digital infrastructure, and the promise of overcoming historical departmental silos and the lack of data sharing.

Implementing Digitalization: From State Capacities to Infrastructural Control

23All three platforms are presented as solutions, not by municipal agencies but by consultancy firms hired by the BDA and BSCL. The Bhubaneshwar Urban Knowledge Centre (BUKC) is based at the BDA, with a team intended to assist in town planning using specialized solutions for city planning, heritage management, and social media outreach, among others. The BUKC is led by the same consultancy firm that served as project manager for the Smart Cities program in the city. Despite being an offshoot of the BMC, the DDNS implementation team is entirely consult- and vendor-driven and does not have representatives from municipal agencies or even the municipal services companies. This is particularly visible in the case of Bhubaneshwar, where municipal elections were suspended for more than two terms, and the BDA and BMC were removed from public scrutiny. Even after elections were held in early 2022, the mayor and counselors had no fiscal or legislative powers to evaluate these “solutions.” Similarly, even though BLUIS is deployed through state agencies and has bureaucratic oversight, the platform and its algorithms are consultant-driven. In addition, although BPAS is touted as a state-level intervention by the state bureaucracy, it was developed by consultants for the smart city and implemented by a new vendor. In this case of weak municipal control, bureaucratic oversight offers some democratic supervision, but this is removed by the dependency on consultants and vendors. These are just three platforms among the myriad technologies implemented by the municipal agencies through these new institutions that are part of the Smart City and the Urban Knowledge Centre, setting the agenda for most spatial planning in the city without any visible citizen, political, or even bureaucratic engagement.

  • 8 KPIs are indices determined by consultants for evaluating how well the platform functions. KPIs can (...)
  • 9 AK, BUKC Team Leader, Interview with Author, March 23, 2021.

24“We were asked to identify key planning problems for the city and suggest solutions for them…. As the KPIs [Key Performance Indicators8] identify gaps and problems in implementation, we improve the solutions accordingly,” said the team leader for the BUKC.9 This closed-loop method of problem identification, solutions, and evaluations driven by the same technical consultancy firm is the hallmark of digitalization projects in the city, giving substantial control over urban governance to consultancy firms instead of municipal bodies and escaping public accountability (Johnson et al. 2017). Bhubaneswar thus corroborates the literature on the increasing presence of consultants in planning, decision-making, implementation, and auditing of governance technologies.

25In the next section, I will show how consultants continue to sideline existing state digital agencies, by introducing new platforms that offer “solutions,” such as “interoperability,” to address departmental silos and understaffing but burden untrained municipal capacities that cannot keep up with the new digital infrastructures.

Sidelining Existing Capacities and Agencies

  • 10 SM, Joint Secretary, HUDD, Interview with Author, May 10, 2022. Acronym expanded for explanation.
  • 11 RK, OCAC Staffer, E-governance Projects, Interview with Author, May 14, 2022.

26State agencies like the Odisha Computer Application Center (OCAC) were set up under the NeGP and state e-governance initiatives in the early 2000s. “Our digitalization ecosystems, such as the OCAC, have already been in place for the past two decades … . [T]he 5T Mission is an extension of this … . [T]hey are important for meeting our goals of transparency,”10 said a senior HUDD officer when asked about the multiple technology platforms. The OCAC has historically developed e-governance technologies and platforms for the state, but has recently been completely left out of any digitalization planning and implementation. “We merely handle the database management now … . [I]f any state or municipal agency wants to run their platform, we manage their data.”11 While the BUKC has already removed the task of planning from municipal agencies, even the state agencies’ technical capacities are therefore being underutilized and instead treated merely as database managers. While BLUIS uses satellite imagery sourced through the Odisha Space Application Centre (ORSAC), the public land database used to corroborate encroachment comes from the BDA’s legacy spatial data. Even though the website cites the BDA, OCAC, ORSAC, and BMC as partners in developing the platform, none of the municipal or technology agencies’ in-house capacities were used to develop the algorithmic platform, since this was done by a private vendor.

Departmental Silos, Data Sharing, and Interoperability

  • 12 The older e-governance platform and database was created by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in a pr (...)
  • 13 AB, BMC Subcontractor, Interview with Author, May 12, 2022.

27The lack of shared spatial data sets within city agencies was frequently mentioned in multiple interviews conducted in the city. Even though spatial data exists within the BDA and the GIS city platform developed by the BSCL, Bhubaneswar.One, the DDNS project does not use any of these, instead relying on another vendor. The DDNS team says this is because the .One data is not accurate, while BLUIS data is not shared by the BDA. The .One vendors were not given access to HUDD or BMC GIS files. At the same time, some departments in HUDD had redundant datasets created by multiple vendors over the last decade. Apart from data sharing, another frequent complaint involves legacy municipal data, which might be error-prone or given in proprietary formats. For instance, the new citizens and services databases behind the platform and DDNS requires older municipal records to be transferred. The old records were in a proprietary format created by the last vendor for the e-governance platforms in the late 2000s and were missing multiple attributes, such as gender. A vendor was hired to clean up this data and had to guess the genders from the names on the records. As a result, the new datasets contain multiple attribute-related errors despite using a new interoperable format. The BUKC and BSCL consultant team leaders often said in interviews that they follow “industry standards” in file formats and attributes designed to be interoperable, unlike older e-governance records. This interoperability is also essential owing to the large number of vendors who set up various platform components of and relies on the “standards” set out in their technical contracts. For Bowker and Star (1999), the standardization of ICT systems (such as municipal databases) are sociopolitical actions that account for past shortcomings and allow future access and control. Pine says that beyond achieving the goals of standardization, it is essential for interoperable information systems to account for “future uses of data and the relative importance of these future uses to data workers and their managers” (Pine 2019:545). These motivations are visible in the newly launched standards for digitalization of urban governance put in place by the national ministry for urban development. These standards include interoperability guidelines, the definition of ICT-GIS systems, and even technical specifications about sensors and platforms (Parkar and Purandare 2023). In the city, however, this does not seem to have trickled down in practice. Even as the consultants and vendors working on these platforms grapple with the legacy data, they continue to use proprietary systems and data creation practices that do not account for future use. “My task is to clean up missing attributes in the old TCS municipal database12 so that they can be imported into Sujog. I copy-paste from the older format into a new interoperable format and add missing attributes if possible,”13 said a subcontractor hired to transfer data from one database to another. The future employment of data here is therefore restricted to the newer platform and does not account for other possible data uses or practices.

28Some literature on the smart city has shown how public policy for digitalization strategies suggests that technological interventions and their datasets can be used to overcome the challenge of government departmental silos (Praharaj, Han, and Hawken 2018; Prasad, Alizadeh, and Dowling 2021). In the case of Bhubaneswar, it is clear that even this supposedly redeeming power of digitalization fails.

Untrained Capacities for Technical Infrastructures

  • 14 National Institute of Urban Affairs.

29Baud et al. (2014) refer to a recurring “strong” discourse in the rationale for implementing ICT-GIS systems, “administrative efficiency and effectiveness” (p. 505). In the case of all the platforms mentioned here, both bureaucracy and consultants have regularly noted this rationale. A NIUA14 staffer with the BDA said, “Systems like BPAS compensate for capacities. Issuance of digital certificates is time-bound and can be done without human oversight.” Automation is thus seen as reducing the burden on existing personnel, ensuring timely resolution of complaints or certifications.

  • 15 IC, NIUA Project Coordinator, Odisha HUDD, Interview with Author, May 11, 2022.
  • 16 ND, BDA Town Planning. Interview with Author, September 15, 2022.

30However, this seems to falter owing to the lack of personnel and technical capacity within municipal agencies. “The BDA is severely understaffed … . [T]here is at least a 50% staffing gap at the municipal level … . [T]he shortage is mindboggling … . [R]ecruitment takes 3–4 years, during which time the workload has already increased,” 15adds the NIUA staffer. “There are only three of us in the town-planning department who used to monitor BPAS. While we are trained in helping citizens enter information on the platform, we do not know why it rejects some plans,” said a BDA official.16 The DDNS consultant said, “The proposal says DDNS will improve garbage collection … but how is this possible simply through a digital solution and without improving staff on the ground?”

31During my visit to the BDA offices over a period of two months in 2021–2022, I saw long lines of visitors seeking to understand why their BPAS applications were rejected. BDA officials had trouble retrieving applications on the portal or answering technical questions, rendering the claim of transparency moot. Recent news reports on BPAS mention user complaints ranging from lack of user-friendliness, a complicated file-entry system, OCAC server crashes, and multiple delays in approval (TNIA 2022). The BPAS statistics in Fig. 7 also show a significantly low rate of resolution despite the dashboards and escalation matrix. Twitter users and Google Play app reviews complain of a malfunctioning app, the inability to record pictures, and a lack of action despite complaints.

32Since platforms like DDNS and BPAS require working across municipal agencies, consultant teams like the ones at the BUKC or BSCL are given the power to implement these projects through “Request for Proposal” documents and contracts. The obligations laid out in the proposals and contracts are not public, and the viability of the solutions they offer falls outside the scope of any review. Similarly, once the contractual period for programming the platform ends, the actual implementation of these technologies is handed over to a vendor and later transferred under an Operations and Maintenance contract. Any problem with the implementation cannot be reviewed after the handover. The contractual nature of ideation-implementation-operation means that the “solution” offered by the firms is not under scrutiny. According to my multiple interviews in the BSCL and BDA, any failure of technology is often blamed on obligations between the vendor and the operator. The inability to find a solution is thus never the fault of the technology infrastructure itself, but is instead attributed to institutional failure, contractual mismanagement and infrastructure, or, ironically, on municipal capacities. Beyond the contractual justifications, none of the bureaucratic agencies have the technical capacity to evaluate how the platform and its algorithms function. The new technical platforms therefore add a layer of complexity with which neither institutions nor citizens are able to cope, leading to newer digital technologies that consultants offer as simplified solutions. An example of this is the replacement of the older BPAS developed by the BSCL with a new vendor that changed the code and the platform without questioning the platform’s ideation. As a result, this replacement did not change the recurring errors and delays.

  • 17 MK, Grievance Redressal Officer, BMC, Interview with Author, May 9,2022.

33Capacity-training videos for BLUIS are available on the official YouTube channel so that officials can simply follow the required steps. However, ground officials do not file complaints. Of the 655 complaints identified, not a single one was from an official using the app. The BMC ground officials interviewed indicated they are overwhelmed by the multiple platforms they are required to use. “We are part of multiple WhatsApp groups, with senior officers issuing directives in them. On top of this you add two-three other platforms which we constantly need to check,”17 said a BMC staffer explaining why he spent so much of his time on his phone apps. “Some wards and zones see immediate response by the officers on BLUIS, but in some areas staff are busy with other tasks and may not resolve the alert on time,” said the BLUIS nodal officer. Staffers required to use multiple apps do not have the luxury of rejecting or demanding that these apps imposed upon their heavy workload be reduced and instead refrain from using them wherever possible, calling it a “deliberate choice” (Kellner, Massou, and Morelli 2010:1).

34There are multiple signs that these municipal agencies cannot keep up with the new digital infrastructure, including understaffing, heavy workloads, and a lack of specialized capacity training for the new digital infrastructures.

Outcomes of Governance through Platforms

35While I have already identified some of the platform’s failings, I shall highlight the outcomes of these three ICT-GIS systems’ implementation. According to my findings, the shift to governance platforms results in reduced access to democratic institutions and processes, the transformative powers of algorithms in shaping laws and regulations, and an expanded scope for participatory surveillance.

Reduced Democratic Avenues

36The turn to digital technologies and platforms for municipal governance does not offer any avenues of conventional access to democratic institutions. A person whose potentially legal construction is voided by BLUIS or whose building plan is rejected by BPAS has no option of turning to conventional municipal bureaucracy or local counselors, since they do not have the capacity to scrutinize automated decisions. Visitors to the BDA seeking recourse must pass through another technological hoop in that a visitor’s pass has to be issued with a facial-recognition camera at the entrance. Even then, officials are unable to solve their inquiries. If the cross-linking of services under DDNS is fully implemented, it is unclear whom citizens can approach for redressal if their household is flagged for nonpayment of services due to an error in the database. In a context whereby the BMC does not have planning powers, the BDA outsources auditing to the BUKC, and projects under the BSCL lie outside of public accountability, since these governance platforms are devoid of any scrutiny.

Impact of Algorithms

  • 18 AJ, Former CTO, EGov Foundation, Interview with Author, April 6, 2022.
  • 19 AC, Consultant Town Planning, BDA, Interview with Author, May 11, 2022.

37With these technologies, we see the implementation of what is often understood as “algorithmic governance” (Gurumurthy and Bharthur 2018), whereby administrative functions conventionally performed by municipal personnel are now performed through the platform. The need for algorithmic platforms to take over these functions is touted regularly in interviews with municipal actors as well as platform designers and programmers. “BPAS is a good example of performance management through e-governance … . [I]t improves ease of doing business, increases capital inflow to the city, expands urban boundaries,” said the NIUA staffer. BPAS in particular can be understood as “automated management” that automatically makes decisions using algorithms (Dodge and Kitchin 2007). In order to understand how these decisions are made without human oversight, I spoke to the programmers of the Sujog BPAS platform. “The algorithm does not make decisions on its own but has to rely on a set of rules we provide,”18 said one of the platform’s developers. The existing municipal rules for construction are the rules provided. A consultant for the Housing and Urban Development Department (HUDD) explained that Odisha changed its building rules in 2020 in order to streamline with BPAS (HUDD 2020), saying, “Instead of each municipality or district having different construction rules, which would have to be coded differently into the platform, the HUDD issued a uniform set of rules for the entire state.”19 The HUDD officer also explained the logic of new rules in a similar way: “A single-system platform for all services makes things easier; we saw the benefit of BPAS and realized that creating a single rule across the state will ensure an easier rollout.” The implementation of DDNS also changed existing municipal-household labeling rules to a uniform system that incorporates postal indexing, allots an area code, and streamlines street and house numbers.

38There are three takeaways concerning algorithms in governance. First, automation does not necessarily mean an algorithm is making decisions within a black box (Kitchin 2011), since the rules that drive it can be existing laws and codified rules. Algorithms cannot make decisions that deviate from the coded rules. The second takeaway is that specific algorithmic technology can lead to changes in municipal rules. The adoption of governance technology can thus be seen as having the power to reform legislation. Third, the impact of algorithms therefore extends far beyond its purported black box, burdening institutional capabilities even further—as seen in the case of BLUIS.

Hierarchical and Participatory Surveillance

39While BLUIS and BPAS are aimed at reducing the dependency on human interventions, they both require human action, either for scrutiny when the system flags it for official review or escalation, through ground visits for final building approval, or for on-site surveys for encroachment. Governance platforms are supposed to ensure that tasks are performed more quickly. While files with human personnel may be pending beyond the stipulated time periods, automated platforms like BLUIS have an inbuilt escalation matrix, which ensures that files get transferred to supervisors if they are not resolved within the encoded time period. If encroachment is not dealt with within a seven-day period, the platform escalates the matter to a zonal officer and so on until it reaches the Chief Minister’s Office (CMO). Escalation matrices and dashboards result in hierarchical surveillance that pressures lower-ranking officers to take action faster. In interviews, multiple officers within the BDA and the BMC often refer to phone calls from the “CMO” if files remain pending beyond stipulated time periods.

40Aside from internal institutional surveillance ensuring that tasks are completed and putting pressure on municipal officers, all three technologies create mechanisms for monitoring and surveillance in the city. While automating surveillance through satellite imagery, BLUIS also encourages citizens to act as agents in participatory surveillance to monitor public land. BPAS adds to the formalization of landholding records of the city while also monitoring the residential and commercial expansion of the city through its dashboards. DDNS promotes the municipal scrutinization of service consumption, economic activity, and the creation of a household-level database of residents that can be obtained by any of the partner agencies. “Before, the ward officer was like the neighborhood tax collector, but this is now difficult in a dense city … . [N]ow a dashboard can provide all household-level activities and the revenue that is obtainable,” said the DDNS consultant.

41In practice, platforms thus tend to reject to older democratic options and avenues, and algorithms have the potential to streamline legislation, even as capacities struggle to cope with its functionality. Meanwhile, the platforms are designed to encourage hierarchical and participatory surveillance.


42As the case of Bhubaneswar shows, the inevitable pathways for the digitalization of urban governance in India are not only set out through grand projects and policies like the Smart Cities Mission and the National Urban Digital Mission, but also through state- and city-level projects. While these pathways reflect the national tendency to rely on external consultants and vendors as sources of digitalization, urban administrative agencies in Bhubaneswar are also motivated when it comes to seeking platform solutions for urban-governance agendas.

43Contemporary platforms depend on scattered historical-digitalization strategies that have at times relied on either setting up state capacities, state institutions, and infrastructures or industry trends. While state capacities have declined and institutions have been sidelined, newer digital infrastructures have been designed to incorporate older databases or processes and follow current standards. Despite this, newer platforms show similar patterns of failure and dysfunction related to the difficulties of interoperability with legacy data, a lack of technical supervision or knowledge within municipal agencies, and a lack of data sharing, which are the hallmarks of municipal departments. However, the core issue is understaffing and a lack of capacity training within municipal agencies, which are unable to meet the expectations of the speedier and efficient resolutions that these platforms promise.

44In practice, the turn to platforms transforms the nature of urban governance. It does so by taking away redressal powers from democratic avenues and situating them further within technological solutionism. It suggests that algorithms are substantive enough to transfer most decision-making to platforms and modify existing governance rules to fit with these platforms. At the same time, the staff that are supposed to supervise or monitor these systems cannot understand the algorithmic decisions. The way these platforms are designed to incite participation, escalate matters, and send alerts and notifications increases surveillance within municipal hierarchies, allows municipalities access to household-level data, and promotes participatory surveillance by citizens.

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1 This publication was made possible through support provided by the Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD) ARTS program and as part of the Agence française de Développement (AFD) funded project “Urban governance in India through the prism of the 100 Smart Cities Mission.” The views expressed in the article are solely of the author and do not reflect the position of the above institutions.

2 Digitization is the conversion of paper records to digital records. Legacy data here includes older paper files, such as land records, licenses, certifications, and taxation records.

3 Information & Communication Technology-Geographic Information Systems. These platforms can acquire, combine, and process urban data along with geographical attributes.

4 For more on SPVs, see Khan et al. (2018).

5 Sujog is an e-governance platform for Odisha that allows citizens to access certifications, services billings, and licenses as well as address grievances. For more on the e-governance platforms in Odisha and Sujog’s performance, see Parkar et al. (2023).

6 ORSAC is state-level agency, established in 1984 for developing space-technology applications.

7 AKD, BDA, Interview with Author, September 14, 2021.

8 KPIs are indices determined by consultants for evaluating how well the platform functions. KPIs can include changes to the number of users, the number of tasks fulfilled successfully by the platform, and comparative performance with older systems.

9 AK, BUKC Team Leader, Interview with Author, March 23, 2021.

10 SM, Joint Secretary, HUDD, Interview with Author, May 10, 2022. Acronym expanded for explanation.

11 RK, OCAC Staffer, E-governance Projects, Interview with Author, May 14, 2022.

12 The older e-governance platform and database was created by Tata Consultancy Services (TCS) in a proprietary format.

13 AB, BMC Subcontractor, Interview with Author, May 12, 2022.

14 National Institute of Urban Affairs.

15 IC, NIUA Project Coordinator, Odisha HUDD, Interview with Author, May 11, 2022.

16 ND, BDA Town Planning. Interview with Author, September 15, 2022.

17 MK, Grievance Redressal Officer, BMC, Interview with Author, May 9,2022.

18 AJ, Former CTO, EGov Foundation, Interview with Author, April 6, 2022.

19 AC, Consultant Town Planning, BDA, Interview with Author, May 11, 2022.

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List of illustrations

Title Figure 1
Caption Administrative Boundaries of Bhubaneswar Municipality and Development Authority. Screenshot from Bhubaneswar.One, accessed on September 30, 2022
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Title Figure 2
Caption Bhubaneshwar Administrative Institutions Table
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Title Figure 4
Caption Example of a BLUIS Officer’s Mobile App. Screengrab from a training video, retrieved September 29, 2021.
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Title Figure 5
Caption Sample of Satellite Comparison Evaluated by the System Algorithm. Screengrab from a training video, retrieved September 29, 2021.
File image/png, 441k
Title Figure 6
Caption Example of BLUIS Dashboard for Monitoring Zone and Ward-Wise Encroachments and Their Escalation. Screengrab from a training video, retrieved September 29, 2021.
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Caption Example of a Household Tagged with DDNS (BMC 2021).
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Electronic reference

Khaliq Parkar, Digital Legacies and Distressed CapacitiesSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 30 | 2023, Online since 01 August 2023, connection on 05 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Khaliq Parkar

CESSMA, Université Paris Cité

By this author

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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