Starting troubleMost cities are struggling at primary planning stages, and financial closure to projects is still a long way off
On June 23, Urban Development Minister M Venkiah Naidu announced another batch of 30 cities that will be developed as ‘smart’ cities. The list includes state capitals like Thiruvananthapuram, Shimla, Patna and Dehra Dun. After competitive bidding involving various parameters of growth and performance, the fourth tranche of cities have qualified pushing up the total to 89 of the originally planned 100.
It was a visionary move when Finance Minister Arun Jaitley first announced in his Budget speech in June 2014 the plan to develop 100 smart cities. A sum of `7,016 crore was allocated for the planning process. In the chaos of the urban jungle, a focussed policy that transforms a few key cities by revolutionising infrastructure, connectivity and housing is one way of making rapid progress, rather than casting the net too wide and ultimately doing nothing.
A Few Kick-Off ‘Smart’ Projects
The Smart Cities Mission that is overseeing this focus area envisages urban growth as a Centre-state-private partnership. The Union Cabinet has allocated `98,000 crore as the central contribution so far. On the ground, however, there has been very little progress. After three years of the announcement, 89 cities have been selected, but with little to show in urban transformation.
There are a few cities that have taken the task seriously. Pune has begun by raising funds through the issuance of municipal ‘smart city’ bonds. Bhubaneswar has launched a railway multi-modal hub, a hi-tech transport signal system and an urban knowledge centre. The New Delhi Municipal Corporation has started implementation of mini-sewerage plants, wi-fi activated ‘smart’ street lights and city surveillance systems through a command and control centre.
But, most cities are still struggling at a primary planning stage, and financial closure to projects is still a long way off. More importantly, the third leg of the Smart City Mission – private investment – has hardly been identified and defined. The problem is, foreign investors who have been wooed, have no idea how and when to enter and exit.
A Drop In The Ocean
The allocations sound big. As of now, the investment envisaged from government – both centre and state – for the 80 cities slated for development is `1.91 lakh crore (about $30 billion). However, considering that around $5 trillion (or over 150 times the current allocation) is required to develop 100 cities comprehensively, what we have is a drop in the ocean. The planning process started with looking at developing existing and new satellite cities; when the financials proved too daunting, ‘smart city’ planners veered around to considering retrofitting existing cities to make them modern avatars.
Transforming entire cities, too, was found to be equally forbidding, and the Smart City Mission finally settled on targeting small areas in each city as icons of growth. This would trigger more funding and new growth plans, it was hoped. The Area Based Development approach – development of a sewage system somewhere, or a web of roads in another city – will cover just about three per cent of the urban areas associated with these smart cities, a study has found. But, more than being a drop in the ocean, how does the ADB approach make it any better than any other piecemeal planning we have been used to?
Too Many Definitions
In Europe, the term ‘Smart City’ has evolved to mean the use of modern technology to create efficient urban infrastructure and comfortable living standards. In practice, in India ‘smart city’ planning is a set of shifting goalposts with as many definitions as there are planners. Serious city planners have also expressed concern that the concept of ‘Smart Cities’ is more to do with erecting shiny glass edifices as icons of corporate well being, rather than providing affordable housing and making commutes for the poor easy.
A hundred is too big a number. Perhaps, when one has limited funds, an easier and speedier route is to take five big cities or 10 small ones at a time, and transform them comprehensively. Planned and sustainable urbanization requires transforming civic infrastructure, building mass housing, and providing cheap and accessible transport. These are the basics of making a city pro-people. Making them ‘smart’ is the next step. If doing five big cities in three years give a new life to its inhabitants, one can be sure the next 10 cities will not be short of funds and drive.
Taking three years to choose the cities who will qualify to become ‘smart’ seems a wasted opportunity.