Essay on Dream Of Smart Cities: Myth Or Reality In India?

The project of ‘Smart Cities’ was announced soon after the Narendra Modi led government came into power. This was considered as a step in the direction of urban India’s renewal. Over the past few years, the urban cities have been witnessing an increase in migration of population from rural to urban India. This influx has posed a number of challenges for the natives, migrants as well as the government. Smart cities are considered as a solution to cope with the challenges of urbanisation. ‘Smart city’ is an urban region that is environment friendly, technologically well-equipped and has an efficient core infrastructure along with market viability. The core infrastructure of a smart city includes adequate water supply, assured electricity, sanitation, solid waste management, efficient public transport and affordable housing, especially for the poor.

Robust IT connectivity and digitalisation, e-governance and citizen participation, safety and security of citizens are some of the additional components of the core infrastructure of a smart city. Information technology is the cornerstone of all the services offered to the people. Sensors are used to collect, compile and integrate real time data of electricity, gas, water, traffic and other government analytics into a smart grid, which is to be fed into the computers. With the availability of ‘real-time data’, computers can ensure nearly perfect operations such as synchronisation of traffic signals during the peak traffic hours, striking a balance  between the demand and supply of electricity networks etc. As the premise of a smart city is based on the market drivers of demand and supply, these cities promise benefits to the businesses, citizens, environment and the government along with sustainable development.

Ever since the launch of this project, government’s think tanks, ministries and private firms have been working together to make this dream project a success. As of now, the government has announced an initial target of 100 smart cities in the next five years. Instead of building brand new cities, the government plans to develop and build smart towns on the lines of smart cities in the vicinity of the existing urban areas, upgrade the existing mid-sized cities, and build settlements along the industrial corridors. Recently, the government inaugurated India’s first Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Kendra (PMKK) for skilling the youth in smart cities. The smart cities are expected to have ‘special investment regions’ along with a modified tax structure in order to attract foreign investments. These cities are considered to be the magnets for investments which will eventually lead to the creation of a large number of jobs in the region. The project will witness a large number of ‘public-private partnerships’ in its due course.

There are three important benefits of smart city namely (i) Institutional Infrastructure: includes activities related to governance, planning and management of a city, (ii) Physical Infrastructure: refers to its sock of cost-efficient and intelligent physical infrastructure such as urban mobility system, solid waste management etc, (iii) Social Infrastructure refers to those components that work towards developing the human and social capital such as health, sports, gardens etc.

Each aspiring city competes for selection as a smart city that is called a ‘city challenge’. There are two stages in the selection process – first stage deals with the process of shortlisting of the cities by states and in the second round, each of the potential 100 smart cities prepare their proposals for participation in the ‘city challenge.’

The implementation of the mission at the city level will be done by the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) created for the purpose. The SPV will pan, appraise, approve, release funds, implement, manage, operate, monitor and evaluate the Smart City Project.

Although everything looks rosy on paper, there is a gap between the dream of a smart city and its accomplishment. The government has allocated ₹ 7000 crore to the Smart City Project in the budget which is roughly ₹ 70 crore per city. This amount is not enough for the development of a smart city. It may be good for kick-starting the project, but funds need to be pooled in, at repeated intervals. India will have to channelise its untapped resources in order to fill these lacunae.

As the government plans to integrate the smart cities with the existing ones, it needs to narrow down the challenges that are specific to a city and then work upon them. The project of the smart city needs to be implemented and executed in a phased manner. There may be regions which boast of a robust infrastructure but continue to face the shortage of electricity and water. At the same time, there may be regions which have uninterrupted water and power supply but have poor infrastructure. Obviously, the challenges for both the regions will be different and so will be their solutions. Many countries and multinational giants have expressed their interest for participation in the development of the smart cites, which will eventually lead to a large number of public private partnerships.

As a beginning to the Smart City Project, MoU,s have been signed between the US Government and three State Government s of Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh for the smart cities of Ajmer, Allahabad and Vishakapatnam respectively. Each state has been assigned a task force with representatives from Central Government, State Government and US Trade and Development Agency. The final report submitted by the Task Force Teams will be the basis for the action plan for these cities. 20 cities across   three Indian states of Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan are likely to have a fast-track development under a new Indo-Canadian initiative to train smart city planners on capacity-building and governance. Germany has decided to partner with India’s smart city programme and will help in developing Kochi (Kerala), Bhubaneswar (Odisha) and Coimbatore (Tamil Nadu) as Smart cities. These three cities are among the top 20 cities selected by Urban Development Ministry which are to be developed as smart cities. Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan Government have set up Special Purpose Vehicles (SPV) for the implementation of smart city plans. SPV has been set up for five cities, Jabalpur, Indore, Bhopal (Madhya Pradesh) and Jaipur and Udaipur (Rajasthan).

The Smart City Project involves number of challenges in its design and implementation. Given a country as diverse as India, the heterogeneity of its cities cannot be accommodated in a linear vision backed by technology. Every state has different requirements and different challenges, therefore same technology solutions cannot be used for all the problems. Implementation has been the weakest link of urban  infrastructure projects. Nearly 54% of such projects taken up in major cities under Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) are yet to be completed. Same could be the fate with smart cities.

With a large number of stakeholders involved right from its inception till its implementation and till its implementation and execution, the government will have to simplify the regulatory aspects of the different processes involved. It also needs to take care of the possible legal issues arising from the same. All the clearances and approvals required for this project must be done online and in a time bound fashion. The government needs to ensure that the local bodies which will take care of the implementation have sufficient human resources as well as technical and financial capabilities to carry out the process of implementation successfully. If required, special training should be imparted to them for the same.

Smart cities will need smart people. The people need to be the co-developers of the system and not just be the end users. Universities, students, private and government institutes must be encouraged to actively participate in the process of upgrading the system. We shouldn’t forget that an important aspect of being smart is to curb the wastage and make sustainable use of the available resources. The government as well as the citizens must look for alternate renewable sources of energy. This will lighten the burden on the power sector and contribute to a large amount of savings.

According to the industry experts, such cities require a timeline of 20-30 years for their successful completion. As the government is already working on a tight deadline of five years, it needs to understand the importance meticulous planning and coordination in regards to this project. In case the government is successful in working on the aforementioned aspects of the smart cities’ project, this dream can actually turn into a reality for billions of Indians. All said and done, nothing is impossible.