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Smart Cities: Is It Doable?

Author: Kiran Nanda/Tuesday, February 3, 2015/Categories: Real Estate

Smart Cities: Is It Doable?

One of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s most ambitious campaign promises to create 100 “smart cities” across the country. This initiative has huge potential for placing India on a higher trajectory of sustainable and inclusive growth. It can become a panacea for most of the problems being faced by the Indian economy.

The World Bank recently signed pact for “Smart Cities” at the recent Vibrant Gujarat Summit. The UN Chief stated that India can lead smart growth. In less than eight months of Modi government’s rule, a number of countries have come forward to support specific cities to be transformed into smart cities. 

The concept of smart city envisages not only creation of new cities or new townships on the outskirts of cities, but also making existing cities smart through Central aid to “deserving cities”. Union Urban Development Ministry is currently working on a “City Challenge” framework which would help identify the right cities for participation in schemes to build 100 smart cities.  

Smart cities model first emerged in European urban planning more than a decade ago. It is a brilliant idea that carries potential of activating strong direct as well as indirect linkages that can immensely benefit the cities, states as well as the entire economy. However, this is not easy to accomplish as it involves meticulous precision planning and effective implementation. 

There is talk about the Indian economy moving from $2 trillion to $20 trillion by 2025. This will be possible only with certain critical moves. One such critical ingredient is the concept of ‘Smart Cities’.

What Is A Smart City

Smart cities refer to compact cities that have transitioned to more sustainable development. Technology firms such as IBM have championed another model where millions of sensors across a city relay continuous streams of information to a command-and-control centre. In an ideal smart city, cars can be counted at traffic stops, leaks can be identified in water pipes, or foretell if a cyclone is coming. Application of technology can help the city to know, plan and track. Smart city will have e-governance systems in which citizens can file documents or complaints online. 

Smart city ensures affordable housing, cost-efficient physical, social and institutional infrastructure such as adequate and quality water supply, sanitation, 24×7 electricity, clean air, quality education, efficient healthcare systems, dependable security, entertainment, sports, robust and high-speed interconnectivity, and fast and efficient urban mobility. Authorities will have to come out with smart-city protocols that cities will use as the basis for future development projects.  Concept of a smart and sustainable city is based on leveraging the power of data and the latest technologies in building and also on information technology to minimise energy and resource consumption, increase the use of renewable energy and reduce and manage waste effectively.

In short, smart cities mean smart ways to work, and most importantly, smart government at the Centre, state and city levels. The Urban Development Minister has suggested a ten-point charter to be ensured for each city — (1) master plans and sanitation plans; (2) long-term urban development plans for districts and city mobility plans; (3) strategies for promotion of renewable energy sources; (4) regulatory bodies for pricing of water and power; (5) assessment and revision of taxes; (6) assessing creditworthiness to mobilise resources from appropriate sources; (7) promoting water harvesting and water recycling; (8) promoting citizens in urban planning, decision-making and management; (9) capacity-building in key disciplines; and (10) improving urban governance by adopting ICT platforms. 

Views And Comments

- The first slew of smart cities has been announced (Chandigarh and satellite towns around, Varanasi, Hyderabad, Delhi et al). This implies competition in this field has already set in. 

- Experts are divided over the viability of the smart city proposal. To begin with, the definition of a smart city in the Indian context appears ambiguous. Some say that the cities that come up will be far from “smart” in the sense used by urban planners. Others fear that the ambition will distract from more pressing urban problems that cannot be solved by a “smart” agenda. Rather, solving all urban woes should be a precondition for making smart cities successful.

- First smart cities projects are likely to begin in the next 12-18 months. Task will be difficult as about a third of India’s population is urban, which contributes more than 60% of its GDP, and this is projected to increase to 75% over the next 15 years. By 2050, India is expected to add another 404 million urban residents.

- FM has allocated Rs 70.6 billion to the smart cities scheme. Government hopes to raise five times as much through public-private partnerships, and the US, France, Singapore and Japan have been approached about investments and collaborations. Total amount the government is seeking to raise – Rs 420 bn of government and private money – may not be enough to create 100 such cities. 

- In the technology to be adopted by the smart city, sensors are intended to provide information that optimises systems such as drainage networks. Across India, however, drainage networks are patchy or inadequate. In Lucknow, for instance, only 16% of the population is covered by solid-waste sewage system, so sensors will not have much to work on.

- Tackling the massive network of slums is an area that Mumbai needs to grapple with. Every year, slums are razed so that the land can be given to commercial developers. Where will the poor go? They can only move to other slums or they can move into buildings that are cheap but illegal and dangerous. The failure of providing adequate housing in Mumbai is obvious. 

- Government’s plan to lavish attention and money upon smaller towns on the cusp of explosive development might fix some problems, but for many of India’s biggest cities, the problems lie in areas which no smart-city agenda can fix.

- Once 100 smart cities are created and competitive forces get unleashed, these will have demonstration effect on other cities, encouraging them to become smart. 

- Selection of smart cities, and within these, priority sectors, will be the most critical exercise which will determine the outcome of the entire campaign.

‘Smart Cities’ involves elements that can facilitate catapulting the Indian economy into the league of developed nations and strengthening India’s brand image. Much depends on its implementation. A radical re-orientation of mindsets and methodologies is the need of the hour to convert rapid urbanisation into economic opportunity. Most importantly, we need to overcome the perception that, given the Indian context, the smart cities plan will have limited success. The concept will also mean rebooting of centre-state and city-state fiscal relations. 

Positive lessons from the pre-existing massive city modernisation scheme-Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) can be imbibed for cities to come up with a vision for themselves by way of credible City Development Plans that can be a good starting point.

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