[he] underlines the need for Smart Cities, says “smartness has to be the norm”, asserts real estate Act will give a push to affordable housing

Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri with Senior Assistant Editor Shalini Nair at The Indian Express office.
Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri with Senior Assistant Editor Shalini Nair at The Indian Express office. © Gajendra Yadav

SHALINI NAIR: What is the idea of Smart City in India? Isn’t it very different from how it is conceptualised internationally? The biggest criticism has been how it creates uneven geographies.

First of all, there is no difference between what is considered a Smart City in India or elsewhere. Let me break this down. Almost 45 per cent of global carbon emissions come from buildings. So if you want to deal with the environment and if you want to deal with issues relating to urban rejuvenation, and if you want to give your citizens a clean, secure life, buildings have to be green and sustainable. That’s one component of what ‘smartness’ is all about.

Let’s define the Indian context. When we became an independent country, 17 per cent of India lived in urban spaces — 17 per cent of a population of 300 million. As per the 2011 Census, 31 per cent of a 1.25 billion population lives in urban spaces. The rate at which we are urbanising, there will be 600 million people living in urban spaces by 2031.

Now, you have a choice. You can have 600 million people live in urban sprawls and slums that have been brought about by autonomous and robust urbanisation or you can plan for it.

India is called a reluctant urbaniser but even then we have to face the reality. People get up from their rural dwellings, pick up their bags, and head to wherever there is economic opportunity. Why is that happening? 14 per cent of India’s GDP comes from agriculture. Most of India lives in rural areas but the contribution of agriculture to the GDP is very small.

We are also at the cusp of the Fourth Industrial Revolution in the world, and that is about urban services. And we have no option but to succeed. You have to provide housing for all your citizens. Affordable housing is important. Smartness has to be the norm.

When we build the India of 2030, we will need resources. Where are the resources going to come from? Those resources have to be raised by the municipalities. And municipalities will not be able to raise the resources unless there is a transformational paradigm shift in mindsets, which is beginning to happen. Smart Cities will have to be ecologically friendly. We will need technology in order to check the leaks in areas such as water, electricity, surveillance, security for women etc.

Smart City doesn’t mean that we bring in western technology. We have been building Smart Cities for thousands of years — our forts, palaces, the technology used to keep them cool… My expectation is that the best of western companies must come and bid for contracts and India should also use its traditional building materials, technologies etc.

You have to get your act together. That’s where Swachh Bharat, Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana, and Smart Cities come in. I believe that the three are interlinked. Are we going to get there? I certainly hope so. I can read out the statistics and tell you that we’ll get there one year earlier.


SHALINI NAIR: In most international rankings of cities, Indian cities always figure at the bottom, especially Mumbai and Delhi. What do we do to make our cities more livable?

I think it is a ticking time bomb. You have to provide housing for everybody, that is what the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana 2022 (promises). If every Indian citizen has a house, with a kitchen and a toilet, you won’t have people living in squalor. If one says look where Mumbai is and where Shanghai has reached, where does this criticism come from? It comes from those who have been in charge of governance for the past 70 years. You were in charge for 70 years but you didn’t do anything, and we still have 320 million people shitting out in the open every day.

Once we get affordable housing in place — the Smart Cities project is already underway — I have absolutely no doubt that Indian cities will start figuring in the top ranks. Our construction companies have built world-class buildings outside.

Also, I have no doubt that you will have to start redesigning and redeveloping the Delhi Development Authority (DDA) colonies. But what has happened over the past 70 years… the mindset of the urban planner is in the bullock cart age. We need to change the mindset. In the pre-’91 days there was this mindset — Coca Cola will come and wipe out the domestic industry. I said it even then that if you want to be protectionist, then be protectionist by all means.

But what are you protecting? You want to protect inefficiency? You want to protect corruption? That’s not going to work. The Prime Minister has three basic goals — corruption-free, citizen-centric, and an inclusive development ecosystem.

I personally think it’s India’s last chance. 2019 is the 150th birth anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi. He started the sanitation aandolan (movement) before he started the political struggle. The sanitation call was made in 1916. And if in 2019, on his 150th birth anniversary, we cannot get an open defecation free India, we have a problem. The State has to provide basic amenities such as drinking water, toilets etc. The State has to deal with the reality (that) we have a problem. A lot of our people believe in Lord Ram and they believe in good family values, but they think that not paying taxes is part of the deal. So when the PM steps in and tries to correct it, you will have turbulence. But I think we will get through. I’m very optimistic.

SHALINI NAIR: One of the stronger criticisms against the new Metro policy came from E Sreedharan, who said that a public-private partnership (PPP) model has not worked anywhere in India or internationally when it comes to urban transport. He also said that the government must invest in public transport and make it affordable. Would you consider revising the policy?

First of all, Sreedharan is an engineer; he is a person we all respect. The new Metro policy was one or two months old when I came in. It should be allowed to first work before we start changing it. Whether it is a PPP model or a government subsidy, the Metro will always be a capital intensive asset. I think the Delhi Metro borrowed Rs 28,000 crore from the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA). Now, if you borrow money, you’ve got to return it, whether it is through a PPP or government subsidy. In an ideal world, where resources are unlimited, you have a choice between one and the other.

We have a problem in two areas, and I am not commenting on Sreedharan. If you want to make it (the Metro) affordable, you must give subsidy, which means you do not raise the fares. This was done in Delhi where the fares were not raised for eight years. Then you came to a situation where the revenue was going down and you had to pay the money back, some thousand crores.