By Arushi Sharma
Launched in June 2015, the Smart Cities Mission is touted as one of most ambitious urban transformation programmes undertaken by the Indian government to date. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also spoken extensively about the linkages of the growth of Indian cities and the mitigation of urban poverty. As this flagship programme slowly gains ground, it becomes important to review the existing projects and identify the upcoming challenges in the development of smart cities, so that the objective of holistic improvement in the quality of life can be realised.
Rationale and progress so far
India’s current urban population stands roughly around 377 million and is expected to experience a big jump to 600 million by 2030. As cities continue to draw a million people every minute from rural areas, the growth rate of urban population has surpassed that of the rural population. Thus, the basic idea behind the Smart Cities Mission (SCM) is to make urban areas more habitable by offering ‘smart’, citizen-friendly solutions grounded in better governance, energy and waste management, urban mobility, sanitation and water supply, and other services like skill development, business and incubation centres.
SCM would take an area-based development approach, wherein not only would the existing cities be revamped but also new urban centres would be created through city extensions, such as the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT). Another strategic component is undertaking city-wide improvements in infrastructure and services with the use of technology.
Although SCM seeks to develop a total of 100 smart cities, the first round of development would focus on 20 cities. These 20 cities, so far, have identified 642 projects amounting to a total of approximately Rs 25,935 crore. The on-ground execution of some of the projects—like those related to solid waste management at the source, water supply, smart bus stops, and green spaces—are slated for early next year. Other projects, such as multi-level parking lots, underground utility lines, skywalks and bicycle-ways, will be executed with the expertise and services of project management consultants. Once the bidding, recruitment and selection process ends, the consultants would prepare Detailed Project Reports (DPRs) for each such project.
The challenges ahead
Back in May this year, at the 26th session of the Governing Council of UN-Habitat, the Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu highlighted that the SCM aligns with the New Urban Agenda and focuses on “Integrated, Inclusive, and Sustainable Urban Development.” The New Urban Agenda (NUA) is the UN-Habitat document that guides national and local policies on growth and development of cities through 2036.
However, the NUA also exposes a major difference in the approaches that should be adopted by developed and developing countries to offer a high level of liveability and work environment in the cities. The developed world’s approach to smart cities is very imperative to augment and monitor urbanisation to achieve sustainable development. Although, in the Indian context, the first step should be to strengthen the basic civic services and set up infrastructure that is robust and scalable. This suggestion finds support in the lack of adequate infrastructure and base utilities in Indian cities despite the fact that the urban economy contributes 63% of the country’s GDP.
Some of the aspects of NUA in India, thus, comprise better housing and social infrastructure, strong local governance, integrated information and knowledge management systems, improved social justice and gender equality, inclusive urban growth as well as the harmonisation of the complex rural-urban continuum. Currently, around 80% of the funds are utilized on just 2.7% of the area in each city, informing that the SCM needs to embody holistic development by identifying the most pressing needs and opportunities. Going forward, smart cities in India should encapsulate more than the creation of vibrant industrial centres.
Environmental and social inclusion
The three pillars of sustainable development—economic health, social performance, and environmental friendliness—lie at the core of the smart cities concept. This multifaceted foundation puts forth the challenge of balancing equity and sustainability for the planners and implementers. First and foremost, it is important to look at cities not just individually but also in terms of their interaction with the larger ecosystem. For example, solving the housing shortage problem among the urban poor should involve superior planning with the realisation that development can be offset by disrespecting planetary boundaries. Cities should utilise innovative technology systems to recycle waste and adopt a smarter architecture that embraces renewable energy.
Cities should possess a social infrastructure that promises education, health, and safety to the present and future residents. Also, the stress of urban population should be relieved by enabling rural-urban market linkages through the use of information and communication technology (ICT). Liveability would improve with the effective, efficient, and safe integration of ICT into the cities and greater mobility for all. For instance, the ‘All Abilities Children Park’ in Vishakhapatnam has been planned to enhance the health and wellness of all citizens, which includes the differently abled. However, such smaller projects should be integrated with other initiatives like disabled-friendly transportation and inclusive public spaces. The World Economic Forum’s ‘Inspiring Future Cities & Urban Services’ report suggests, “Multi-domain programmes that break traditional silos must be preferred over specific projects that just impact one of the urban dimensions. Identifying the right spatial scale is critical to ensuring successful outcomes, and some projects within a programme should be earmarked for experimentation and agile delivery to deliver tangible outcomes quickly and increase stakeholder confidence.”
Convergence and governance
There are concerns about the convergence of the SCM with the other government policies and schemes that are also targeted at urban India. In other words, how the programme would unite with the Swachh Bharat Mission, the Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY), and the National Urban Livelihoods Mission remains unclear. Moreover, infrastructure projects of road expansion, highway construction, and development of water reservoirs etc. usually have State governments and development authorities at the helm. Filling the lacunae in the institutional framework would require horizontal and vertical coordination between municipal bodies along with synchronised financing, information sharing, and service delivery between the central, state, and local government agencies.
According to the mission’s guidelines, the implementation of Smart City Plans would be through Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs). These SPVs would be registered under the Companies Act, 2013 as limited companies with a small board of up to 20 people. An op-ed in Hindustan Times highlighted that while projects could be rapidly implemented with the SPV structure, a revolution in urban governance is required for the long-term success of the planned change.
The SCM has the potential to usher in a new era of smart governance systems in India if transparency and accountability are bolstered. Some steps in this direction could be online project clearing systems and setting up a regulatory body for utility services that provides a level playing field to the private sector, enforcing tariff controls based on quality and financial sustainability.
City Planning and Capacity building
The programme upends the idea of top-down urban policies by bringing in the elements of self-evaluation by the cities. However, 70-80% of the cities in the country do not have master plans or city development plans. Additionally, ambitious projects get delayed due to the lack of skilled and adequate manpower. Capacity building efforts should begin right at the onset of the programme. Having funds earmarked for training, knowledge sharing, contextual research, and building databases would provide a major leap forward.
Therefore, no effort should be spared in formulating a strategy that enables Indian cities to effectively navigate their journey to urban transformation, while balancing the multiple facets of sustainability.
Stay updated with all the insights.
Navigate news, 1 email day.
Subscribe to Qrius