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Introduction. The Digitalization of Urban Governance in India

Ideas, Instruments and Practices
Khaliq Parkar and Stéphanie Tawa Lama

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  • 1 This special issue is based on a workshop co-organized by the Centre de Sciences Humaines, Delhi, t (...)
  • 2 See Ithurbide and Singh (2022) and Kamra, Williams, and Johar (2023).

1The digitalization of governance processes is most visible in cities—partly because information technology infrastructure and services were developed first in large urban centers.1 However, this phenomenon is not quite new: “e-governance” was already a fashionable term in the early 2000s. Since then, digitalization has expanded and further developed through various new techniques and technologies: simple web portals have given way to platforms and apps that connect residents and local authorities (for instance, for participatory budgeting, grievance redressal, access to citizens’ services and other schemes), CCTV cameras are equipped with facial recognition systems, traffic management systems now use machine learning for predictive regulation, etc. In addition, the pandemic of the years 2020–2022 seems to have accelerated this digitalization, although it is still too early to assess the magnitude of the “Covid effect”2 in this regard. Urban governance has arguably taken a digital turn.

2This special issue aims to examine the significance of this turn in the Indian context by questioning the transformative dimension of digitalization with regard to urban governance. Here, we consider digitalization as a process: more than a technique (i.e. digitization), digitalization refers to the transformed relations between ideas, actors, technologies and practices. It is useful, therefore, to think about digitalization in terms of dispositifs (Ferchaud et al. 2020), assemblages (Deleuze, Haggerty and Ericson 2000), or instruments (Lascoumes and le Galès 2005): these three concepts have in common the fact that they invite researchers to consider together technologies, representations and uses. This is precisely the approach adopted in this special issue through a collection of papers that takes stock of justifications and visions for the digital turn; describes how old and new actors implement these visions; observes the variety of digital technologies that are introduced; and analyzes the concrete outcomes of their implementation within cities.

  • 3 The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting counts 600 million smartphone users out of 1.2 billion (...)

3India is a country where the production and diffusion of digital technologies has been extremely rapid. This has been substantially driven by the commercial IT (information technology) boom since the 1990s (Chandrasekhar 2003), but also through various public initiatives identified below. India is the second largest country in the world in terms of both its ever-expanding base of mobile phone users, as well as internet connections.3 Cities like Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Pune have become commercial centers for the global IT industry, which substantially contributes to the promotion of digitalization through its products and ideas. Commercial platforms like Uber, Zomato and NoBroker have altered the way citizens access the city and its services.

  • 4 See Masiero & Shakthi 2020. Aadhaar is increasingly used in India, even as it remains deeply contes (...)
  • 5 In November 2016, the central government suddenly announced that 500- and 1,000-rupee banknotes had (...)

4But digitalization is even more visible in its promotion by national and regional governments who constantly put forward digital technologies as both a vector and a marker of progress and modernity. One prominent example, the Aadhaar scheme, launched in 2010, is the world’s largest biometric identification system.4 Another is the Digital India Mission inaugurated in 2015 (shortly after Narendra Modi became prime minister), which subsumed a variety of digitalization projects across ministries and departments. It paved the way, in particular, for projects under the National e-Governance Plan 2.0 (NeGP 2.0 2015) piloted by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, which extended and expanded older e-governance reforms introduced in the first NeGP launched in 2006. NeGP programs were intended to utilize digital technologies and mobile communication to transform various sectors such as agriculture, healthcare, taxation and banking. Even as the chaos of the 2016 demonetization5 slowly settled, digital payment systems and gateways like the Unified Payments Interface (UPI) significantly transformed financial and banking services (Fouillet, Guérin, and Servet 2021).

5In the Indian states, multiple digitalization projects have taken off in the past decade. States such as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Haryana are leaders in the digitization of land records, Odisha has launched multiple technology platforms for urban governance, while the Digital Telangana program covers various rural and urban initiatives for digital literacy and governance reform. In Delhi too, the state government has placed digitalization at the center of its communication—thus Delhi’s Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal loudly proclaimed his satisfaction when Delhi became the city with the largest number of CCTV cameras in the world.6

6The digitalization of urban governance in particular was given a boost through the Smart City Mission (SCM) launched in 2015, which was aimed at urban renewal and retrofitting; cities then turned to digitalization as a strategy for improving delivery of municipal services. The SCM has been an object of intense political communication and has received multiple extensions in parliament for the completion of projects. One must note, however, that although the SCM is one of the most visible projects of state-driven digitalization of urban governance, digitalization has also taken place outside it. Thus, even though the SCM has been extended for another year (till June 2024), the National Urban Digital Mission (2019) has already started to expand digitalization beyond the 100 cities selected by the SCM. Outside these missions, Indian cities have been embracing Enterprise Resource Planning software to manage assets and employees, deploying sensors and other infrastructures for managing services such as water and waste collection, and developing e-governance platforms for speedier access to taxation, billing, licenses and certifications, to name just a few examples.

7Beyond state policies and urban programs, the digital turn is visible in various public and private forms. Citizen engagement takes place through Twitter and Facebook, WhatsApp groups are used for political and bureaucratic communication, and civil society organizations like the Internet Freedom Foundation7 contribute to debates on internet and data governance, surveillance and digital activism. Even as we grapple with inequalities of digital literacy, the digital turn is an inevitable feature of contemporary citizenship.

8This introductory article will proceed as follows. We first offer a brief review of the increasingly vast literature on digitalization as transformation, with a focus on two opposing perspectives that one could sum up as techno-optimism (sometimes bordering on techno-fetishism) and techno-pessimism; we also highlight the many points of convergence between the issues addressed by digital studies and governance studies respectively. We then narrow down our own approach to the study of digitalization of urban governance in India by clarifying what is at stake in this question. The third, fourth and fifth sections introduce the six case studies that make up this special issue, and show how their respective focus on discourses, infrastructures and/or practices yield convergent observations. Finally, the conclusion reflects on these collective findings beyond the diversity of cases, cities and situations. It highlights the remaining knowledge gaps and identifies some crucial points requiring further investigation.

I. Digitalization and urban governance: a brief literature review

9Three aspects are worth noting with regard to the fast-proliferating literature on the relationships between digitalization and urban governance. The first one, indicated above, is the persistence of a dichotomy between (i) the techno-optimist visions of public policies and IT firms and (ii) academic works that take a more techno-pessimist position. A large part of the literature on “smart cities” illustrates the first category. A useful, neutral definition of this ubiquitous concept, which encompasses many different realities, is that a smart city consists of “the urban planning and administration project of embedding digital technologies into the urban fabric, and a reconfiguration of digital urban economies” (Kitchin et al. 2015 quoted in Burns et al. 2021). Several works on smart cities describe the optimistic, “solutionist” (Morozov 2014) visions embedded in policy, the justifications of policy makers, and the technology-as-panacea approach of IT consultants (Caragliu and Del Bo 2019; Purandare 2021; Vanolo 2014). Thus, one of the problems of policy discourse on smart cities, in India as anywhere else, is that it is replete with corporate “storytelling” (Söderström, Paasche, and Klauser 2014) in which citizens are viewed as a single, unproblematic category. The smart city rhetoric thereby resembles other neoliberal attempts to depoliticize the urban space (Coelho, Kamath, and Vijayabaskar 2013; Pinson and Journel 2016; Swyngedouw 2009).

10Other studies critically reflect on the outcomes of digitalization projects with and without so-called smart cities. They identify problems of digital access (Mossberger 2008), reduced public participation (Cardullo and Kitchin 2019), failures of digital infrastructures (Graham 2010), and lack of municipal capacities for accommodating digital transformations (Baud et al. 2011). A substantial body of critical work is found in surveillance studies (Galič, Timan, and Koops 2017). The focus on the use of digital technologies for security and policing leads these authors to pay attention to the pervasive quality of the surveillance enabled by these tools, which makes privacy more and more elusive (Rathi and Tandon 2019). These different bodies of work thus paint starkly contrasting pictures of the potential impact of digitalization on urban life: while the literature on smart cities sketches a digitally enhanced urban utopia (Miller et al. 2021), surveillance studies warn us against the dystopian, Orwellian dimension of digital technologies (Purandare and Parkar 2021). What this dichotomous vision strongly suggests is that between policy pronouncements and practices, digitalization often has ambiguous effects.

11A second important aspect of the literature is its disproportionate emphasis on, and concern with, the global North context.8 Yet cities in the global South face specific types of problems linked to rapid expansion, inadequate infrastructures and stark social inequalities. Thus, India takes up particular challenges of using digital technologies to make cities function in ways that better respond to residents’ needs (Praharaj, Hoon, and Hawken 2017; Prasad, Alizadeh, and Dowling 2022). The first challenge is linked to the issue of inclusion in a context where strong social hierarchies make access to technology—starting with access to a mobile phone—very unequal depending on one’s gender, caste and class (Al Dahdah and Quet 2020; Kamath 2018; Mohan et al. 2020). The second challenge is the large informality of cities—be it in terms of housing, transport, or work (Roy 2009). A third and more recent challenge is perfectly summed up by Birkinshaw and Taraporevala (this issue) as the “contradiction between the increasing rhetorical and physical support for digital communication and the apparent decline of the idea of internet access as a right.” For instance, the Indian government issued over 3,417 orders to block Twitter URLs in 2022 (as opposed to eight orders in 2014).9 Thus, even as digital modes of communication continue to develop at a fast pace, censorship is on the rise.10

  • 11 See Parkar, Zérah, and Mittal (2023).
  • 12 This first phase was dominated by the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (2005–2014) a (...)

12The third point of interest is that the literature on digitalization revisits some of the major tropes of urban governance studies in the Indian context. To what extent do new modes (such as platformization, digital infrastructuring and datafication11) and new tools (such as social media) of public action redefine the multiple issues at stake in urban governance? Here one notes a difference of approach between (i) works on the first phase of urban digitalization,12 which focused on policy analysis (Sadoway et al. 2018), on the progress of projects (Chatterji 2018), and on budgeting for these projects (Kundu 2014); and (ii) works on the latest phase of digitalization, which use the conceptualization and vocabulary developed in digital geography and science and technology studies in order to understand urban transformations in light of the challenges mentioned above. These forays into assessing outcomes of digitalization are mostly concerned with the SCM: for instance, they identify heterogeneous visions of “smartness” across cities (Prasad and Alizadeh 2020), analyze supplementary policy documents guiding cities in their digitalization strategies (Parkar and Purandare 2023), examine digital infrastructure and its claims regarding citizens’ participation (Praharaj et al. 2017), document the extraction of urban data (Antenucci 2021), and assess the results of municipal service delivery and optimization (Parkar, Zérah, and Mittal 2023).

  • 13 The SCM asked cities to create a SPV to build proposals and roll out projects. The SPV is a non-gov (...)

13There is a need today to expand these pioneering investigations beyond the SCM, and to pay greater attention to the political issues at stake. For instance, it has been shown that policy, infrastructure and governance services are frequently outsourced to private consultants and contractors because existing bureaucracy may not have the technical capacities to implement digitalization or process data (Blok et al. 2018; Courmont 2018). In the case of India, where most digitalization projects require the technical skills of consultancy and IT firms, it is important to question how they reconfigure the equations between public and private actors. Some works have already shown the substantial impact of these firms on policy and implementation through early urban digitalization projects in the 1990s and 2000s (Sundaram 2019) and in the SCM (Purandare 2021). How does the contemporary proliferation of new private actors (IT vendors, consultants), combined with institutional restructuring (Special Purpose Vehicles13 [SPVs] set up by the SCM) affect the current lack of coordination between authorities, and the resulting overlaps in jurisdiction? Who makes the decisions that transform the governance of services, and where does the accountability of these projects lie? In other words, now that the IT industry has become a major actor of urban governance, “who is in charge” (Mathur 2016) of Indian cities?

  • 14 The 74th Constitutional Amendment Act (1993) mandated the setting up of Urban Local Bodies as decen (...)
  • 15 Even though multiple public and private actors and agencies handle and exchange data, there is no c (...)

14The literature on Government-as-a-Platform (GaaP) suggests that governance can be conducted through digital platforms instead of conventional state institutions and processes (Barns 2019). If the state is displaced through digitalization, how does this affect conventional systems of political representation and citizenship in cities? The digitalization of city life has specific political salience in India because, although cities are the latest site of democratic deepening (through the 74th Constitutional Amendment Act14 implemented throughout India, and the development of participatory schemes in a few megacities), the democratic character of urban governance has remained problematic (Tawa Lama-Rewal and Zérah 2011; Zérah, Dupont, and Tawa Lama-Rewal 2011). Examining what digitalization does to urban governance therefore involves revisiting issues of participation, transparency and accountability. How does digitalization affect the existing weakness of political representation in urban local bodies (ULBs)? What role do citizens play in digitalized urban governance, and what are their experiences in accessing the city and its services? We also need to consider other political values that are at stake in digitalization, such as privacy and digital sovereignty. After all, while digitalization results in big data acquisition and improves the organization of municipal records, we must remember that this happens in a context where regulatory laws are weak, and data protection is inexistent.15

II. A practice-oriented approach

15This special issue sets out to test the hypothesis that digitalization has an ambiguous impact on urban governance (and urban democracy), by looking at its multiple dimensions: it aims at “a practice-oriented understanding of the recursive interaction between people, technologies, and social action” (Orlikowski 2000). Thus, the six case studies presented here collectively document the ambiguousness inherent in the digitalization of urban governance, by assessing its actual, observable impact on the scale of a neighborhood, a city, and a state. Since they focus on India, they revisit problems and contexts specific to urban governance in this country. The main research questions addressed in this special issue are: how do new technologies and the associated discourses, policy instruments and practices fit in with, disrupt, expand\enable or bypass existing governance equations? Can we identify a cohesive model of urban digitalization across India, or are the strategies and practices observed in different cities largely shaped by local contexts? Even as state-driven digitalization remains central, how does it interact with the mobilizations and interventions of citizens and their associations?

16The six papers observe the impact of digitalization through context-sensitive investigations: our case studies focus on specific policies (the SCM, solid waste management), technologies (social media, apps, platforms, data), municipal governments and agencies (in Bhubaneswar, Delhi, Mangaluru), and a political party (the Aam Aadmi Party). The diversity of empirical objects is reflected in the diversity of methods mobilized by authors. Thus, discourse analysis is crucial to Uttara Purandare’s examination of a series of policy documents, showing how the Government of India, via the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MOHUA) legitimizes its urban policy framework that comes under the SCM label. Matt Birkinshaw and Persis Taraporevala demonstrate how critical social media research, beyond “digital positivism,” is required to understand what is at stake in the use of social media by ULBs and by SPVs, again in the context of the SCM. Several papers, including the one by Marie-Hélène Zérah, Barathi Nakkeeran, and Gaurav Mittal, rely on interviews with urban governance actors (elected representatives, party workers, NGOs, bureaucrats, teachers, consultants, vendors, neighborhood associations). These authors, just like Stéphanie Tawa Lama and Khaliq Parkar, also use direct observation—of participatory devices in Delhi, and of the work of municipal staff in Bhubaneswar. Finally, Ruchi Dwivedi et al. present a case of participatory research: their investigation of the place of marginalized communities in the governance of air quality involved a community-oriented methodology including a public workshop, offline questionnaires, and the monitoring of low-cost sensors set up in six Delhi neighborhoods.

17The papers presented here can be divided into three sets, focusing respectively on discourses, infrastructures, and specific devices and practices.

III. Discourse, communication, storytelling

18One of the striking aspects of the current focus on digitalization by central and state governments is the abundant communication it generates—giving the impression that digitalization really started in India with the launch of the SCM (2015–2024). This is not the case, as shown above. But discourse is so important in the SCM that some observers see it as a “symbolic policy” (Campbell, Marsden, and Reardon 2023). The first two papers of this special issue investigate precisely the form, contents and uses of such discourse.

19Uttara Purandare offers an analysis of key SCM policy documents in order to acquire a better understanding of the emergence, institutionalization and evolution of the debated concept of “smart city” in India. Using discourse analysis, she shows in particular how a hollow definition of citizenship, used to justify data-centric approaches to urban planning, indicates that the SCM does not consider the everyday reality of social stratification in Indian cities, and is not concerned with the poor. Her paper also highlights the many promises of the SCM, some of which are critically examined in subsequent papers.

20One such promise is that digital communication will enable or enhance participatory governance. Indeed, as Birkinshaw and Taraporevala state, in the competitive process at the basis of the SCM, “the Government of India positioned SCM as participatory and citizen-led development and demanded that cities demonstrate how and how much participation the ULBs conducted with their citizens to create their smart city proposal.” Their paper investigates the reality of this vision by exploring and contrasting the use of Twitter by ULBs and SPVs. More precisely, they document the creation, use and cessation of these social media presences—as well as public responses to them, thus delineating the contours of self-promotional “civic storytelling.”

  • 16 In a seminal work that remains widely used by both academics and activists, Sherry Arnstein identif (...)

21They show that agencies overseeing smart cities are active on Twitter to different degrees; and that during the Covid-19 pandemic, increasing social media use by citizens forced cities to respond to online complaints and critique. Indeed, Twitter opens up a new channel of communication between individuals and agencies that is both faster, more public and less formal than official procedures. The question, however, is to what extent is communication, including complaints, just one of the “degrees of tokenism” identified in Arnstein’s “ladder of participation” (Arnstein 1969)?16 Does it border on some form of “citizen power”—and, if so, for which citizens?

IV. e-governance infrastructures

22The next two papers delve into the functioning of digital infrastructures on the scale of a city (Bhubaneswar) or of a sector (solid waste management).

23Khaliq Parkar’s paper considers the impact of an e-governance infrastructure on the scale of a city, studying how algorithms and data reshape municipal institutions. On the basis of interviews and observations in the capital city of Odisha, his analysis goes well beyond the techno-managerial discourse on the benefits of platforms, as he looks at how platforms concretely impact on people’s (municipal staff, councilors, citizens) lives. Contrasting with the “solutionism” (Morozov 2014) that pervades corporate (and now, government) story-telling about the benefits of “algorithmic governance” (Gurumurthy and Bharthur 2018), Parkar shows that the three platforms under study suffer from the same problems for which they seemed to have solutions; indeed, understaffing and a lack of technical capacity are some of the reasons for the limited usage of these systems. One new development, however, is what can be called “participatory surveillance” “illustrated by one of the platforms under study, BLUIS, which is “aimed at reducing the burden of municipal staff in identifying encroachments and involving the public in surveillance of government lands.”

24Zooming in on a sector, Marie-Hélène Zérah, Barathi Nakkeeran, and Gaurav Mittal examine the functioning of app-based solid waste management (SWM) in the context of the Mangaluru smart city. Focusing on the distribution of powers that results from this technological intervention, they describe the new institutional architecture of the sector and the micro-politics of the associated management transformations. Like Parkar, they observe that digitalization has not brought about the expected results, such as the “rationalization” of waste collection, but has on the contrary made the process more complex, and has even introduced doubts among the public (especially about the purpose of data collection). This is due in particular to the unclear accountability chain and complex relationships inside the dual governance system, i.e. ULBs and SPVs. Though there is no competition between these two institutions, a lack of coordination leads to the duplication of infrastructures (such as GPS technology) and poor project implementation.

V. Devices and practices

25The last two papers of this special issue move away from focusing on the state to look at how specific digital devices and practices affect governance at the level of a party, or a poor neighborhood.

26Stéphanie Tawa Lama examines the changing technological infrastructures of the Aam Aadmi Party’s experiments with participation in Delhi, the city-state where this party has been winning elections since 2015. Showing that citizens’ participation—initially a major party theme—underwent a “high tech turn” from 2019 onward, she examines what this development has done to participation and observes two major outcomes of increasing digitalization: high-tech participation has dwindled in terms of the number and profile of actual participants; and the very meaning of participation has changed because participation is not so much concerned with discussion as with control—of bureaucrats, teachers, school pupils, passersby, etc.

27The last paper, by Ruchi Dwivedi, Muzamil Yaqoob, Aasim Khan, Praveen Priyadarshi, Saad Ahmad, Sudhir Attri, and Raghava Mutharaju, focuses on sensing practices and questions the claim that data-centric governance will democratize decision-making by simplifying knowledge through data. The authors critically examine the datafication of air quality management in Delhi (one of the most polluted cities in the world) through their investigation of six poor neighborhoods located in highly polluted areas. Using multi-modal methods, they study whether the Air Quality Index (AQI) used to communicate the air quality level in India leads to more awareness in these neighborhoods. They conclude that, contrary to the claim that quantification/datafication will democratize decision-making by simplifying knowledge through data, this process can actually further alienate those on the margins “by ignoring the practical level of exposure and the sociopolitical context in which people live and engage at the community level.” This research highlights the limits of AQI as a tool of data-centric governance in Delhi, and shows how even benign-looking digital devices and practices can put urban citizenship at risk. Indeed, the experimental use of low-cost sensors, described in this paper, demonstrates how knowledge gaps about air pollution sources are compounded by the data-driven approach, and suggests the need to develop “citizen sensing,” that is, “a set of sensing practices that is meant to enable and empower people to sense for political effect” (Gabrys 2019).


  • 17 One limitation of this special issue is its patchy focus on the role of the market—although this do (...)

28This collection of papers, with their empirical richness and diversity, situates Indian specificities within the global academic literature about smart cities, and more generally digitalized urban governance. They show how digitalization relies on a series of instruments (social media, civic platforms, specific apps, or measures such as the Air Quality Index) connected to new policies, actors and uses which produce destabilizing effects on existing forms of urban governance. To put it differently, digitalization affects the political, economic17 and social dimensions of urban governance by bringing in different kinds of stakeholders and decision-makers.

29The papers bring to light the new digital infrastructures that are shaping India’s cities, their politics and their governance. These infrastructures range from commercial communication platforms like WhatsApp and Twitter, government platforms for service delivery and optimization, potential community platforms for AQI, to the wide array of sensors, algorithms and databases that generate and collect big urban data. Many papers also discuss the different ways in which this data is regulated, utilized, and to what extent it drives governance. They demonstrate the usefulness of a detailed study of such technological objects in order to precisely assess the ways they are shaping urban governance.

30All the authors consider critically the promise of digital technologies to be “solutions” to pressing problems of urban governance. In this regard, both Parkar and Zérah et al.’s papers engage with the old debate about urban governance and the kind of legitimacy it should be based on: should it be output-based legitimacy, i.e. efficiency? Or should it be input-based legitimacy, i.e. democracy? The recourse to digitalization for improving or optimizing services lies in the logic of efficiency but is unconcerned with democracy. Both papers actually suggest that, while digitalization does not necessarily make urban governance more efficient, it definitely makes it less democratic.

31Indeed, a common concern runs through all the papers about what appears to be a redefinition of urban citizenship, that is, of the rights and responsibilities of city dwellers vis-à-vis urban authorities. On the one hand, the conceptualization of citizens as users, consumers or clients is manifest in the SCM’s policy documents, in the communication of ULBs and SPVs on Twitter, and in interviews with people in charge of implementing digitalized urban services in Bhubaneswar as well as in Mangaluru. In what looks like a “customer service” “model of democracy, participation is overwhelmingly conceived as the possibility of soliciting government through complaint. On the other hand, however, citizens are increasingly invited to act as wardens. Here, participation takes the form of horizontal control—as exemplified again in one of the platforms used in Bhubaneswar, in which citizens are expected to be “surveillance agents for the state” (Parkar), or in the participatory devices experimented by the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi (Tawa Lama), in which, over the years, one observes a shift in the definition of participation to what can only be described today as a form of participatory surveillance. Thus, digital avenues of participation, across diverse social media and governance platforms, enable types of participation that are fairly low on Arnstein’s ladder.

  • 18 See for instance Barns (2019).

32Finally, several important questions could not be addressed by this special issue, and we wish to mention three of them. One is the way in which the rise of commercial platforms such as Uber, Zomato, or NoBroker have shaped India’s cities over the last decade, as they have changed the dynamics of accessing services such as transport, food delivery or housing. But studies of such platform urbanism18 focus on the governance of the digital, a question connected to, but distinct from, the digitalization of urban governance—and, for the sake of clarity, the two should not be conflated.

  • 19 Since 2018, India has been the country with the highest number of internet shutdowns every year (ht (...)

33Another pending question concerns the tension between the Centre and municipalities, in a context where the BJP, in power at Union level, is characterized, on the one hand, by its pioneering and heavy reliance on social media (Sinha 2017), and on the other hand, by its unprecedented use of internet shutdowns.19 How does the BJP’s use of digital strategies at national level relate to municipal level? What are the implications regarding the transformational nature of digital technologies, and in particular social media use, by and in Indian cities?

34Lastly, while some papers highlight the role of state governments in monitoring or guiding urban digitalization, they do not assess state-city relations. Insofar as the agenda for decentralization spelt out by the 74th Constitution Amendment Act remains to be fulfilled, digitalization may well be one more way for state governments to try to maintain control over ULBs. More research is required to revive and reframe the old but crucial question of the relationship of municipalities with state and national governments through the prism of digitalization.

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1 This special issue is based on a workshop co-organized by the Centre de Sciences Humaines, Delhi, the Centre d’Etudes de l’Inde et de l’Asie du Sud, Paris, and the Centre d’Etudes en Sciences Sociales sur les Mondes Africains, Américains et Asiatiques, Paris, in October 2021 ( Although all the presentations have not been included in this issue, we are very grateful to all the participants for contributing to the rich discussion on the subject. This publication was made possible partially 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 those of the authors and do not reflect the position of the above institutions.

2 See Ithurbide and Singh (2022) and Kamra, Williams, and Johar (2023).

3 The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting counts 600 million smartphone users out of 1.2 billion phone connections, and an internet subscription base of 776 million in 2020. See and

4 See Masiero & Shakthi 2020. Aadhaar is increasingly used in India, even as it remains deeply contested concerning its impact on public distribution, financial inclusivity, data security and surveillance (Rao and Nair 2019).

5 In November 2016, the central government suddenly announced that 500- and 1,000-rupee banknotes had to be pulled out of circulation, allegedly to fight corruption, and people were given 50 days to exchange their banknotes for new ones. This led to scenes of panic, with long queues in front of banks and ATMs and, more generally, to a shortage of cash that caused economic disruptions for several months.

6 27/08/2021


8 For instance, in the chapter on “Governance”in the book Digital Geographies, which belongs to the reader genre, all references are European or American (Ash, Kitchin, and Leszczynski 2018).



11 See Parkar, Zérah, and Mittal (2023).

12 This first phase was dominated by the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (2005–2014) and the first National e-Governance Plan (2006–2014).

13 The SCM asked cities to create a SPV to build proposals and roll out projects. The SPV is a non-governmental company under the Companies Act (2013), which is led by a board of directors helmed by a CEO. The board is made up of senior bureaucrats and other members appointed by the state government and is responsible for the monitoring and approval of projects and their implementation. For more on the nature of the SCM SPV, see Khan, Taraporevala, and Zérah (2018).

14 The 74th Constitutional Amendment Act (1993) mandated the setting up of Urban Local Bodies as decentralized units of governance for cities in India.

15 Even though multiple public and private actors and agencies handle and exchange data, there is no clear “ownership” of data (including personal data, household-level data and data acquired from public digital infrastructures, such as sensors and platforms).

16 In a seminal work that remains widely used by both academics and activists, Sherry Arnstein identified eight levels on the “ladder of citizens’ participation,” from “non participation” to “degrees of tokenism” to “degrees of citizen power.”

17 One limitation of this special issue is its patchy focus on the role of the market—although this does come out strongly in Parkar’s paper.

18 See for instance Barns (2019).

19 Since 2018, India has been the country with the highest number of internet shutdowns every year (

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Electronic reference

Khaliq Parkar and Stéphanie Tawa Lama, Introduction. The Digitalization of Urban Governance in IndiaSouth Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal [Online], 30 | 2023, Online since 10 October 2023, connection on 05 December 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the authors

Khaliq Parkar

CESSMA, Université Paris Cité

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Stéphanie Tawa Lama

CNRS-Centre de Sciences Humaines, New Delhi

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  • What Digitalization Does to (and Says about) Participatory Governance in Delhi
    Published in South Asia Multidisciplinary Academic Journal, 30 | 2023
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