Smart Cities: A daunting task

 

 

While going through a critique of the prestigious NamamiGange project of the government for which a whooping Rs 20,000 crore had been sanctioned by the GoI in 2014 with less than 9 per cent (Rs 1074. 91 crore released till June 2017) having been released in three years, I was wondering what had happened to the equally ambitious project: The Smart Cities Mission!

Cleaning national river Ganga was an important poll promise of Modi Government for which a separate ministry was created and attached to the existing water resources ministry and a Ganga devotee and former CM of a large state, Uma Bharti, was made in charge, but nothing really has changed on the ground (or on the water!) She had to be shifted for non-performance and a doer Nitin Gadkari was given yet another ministry.

Well, I am not talking of Ganga cleaning, but of making cities smart, an equally tough task that this government, with all good intentions, had taken upon itself. The story of release of shockingly meagre amount for Ganga cleaning programme was quoted because almost the same kind of picture is being seen on smart cities front.

An interesting advertisement caught my attention as I was writing this article and that forced me to change the complete approach to it to put things in a better perspective. Times of India newspaper of December 10, 2017, carried an advertisement (a Tender) about Agra Smart City. What did it say? It invited bids for supply of furniture for the municipal corporation’s smart city office, giving the last date as 22nd December 2017 for submitting the small tender. Agra was the city which was picked up after a competition (that was the norm of urban development ministry to select 100 cities from states and union territories) in the third round. If furniture is being supplied now, when do we expect Agra to be smart, in the real sense?

The Smart Cities Mission is a unique urban renewal and retrofitting programme of 2015 which promised in all a staggering Rs 98,000 crore grant by the GoI. Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, in his first budget of 2014, allocated Rs 7,016 crore only to quickly realise that by the next year’s budget only Rs 924 crore had been utilised, forcing him to cut the allocation to a meagre Rs 143 crore in 2015 regular budget, against the earlier seven thousand. Naturally, the second allocation was expected to be higher but it came down drastically. Even if it is agreed that the mission was still slowly taking its roots, the tardy spending indicated the shape of things to come.

Well after three years of the launch of the project, through the first list of 20 “light house cities” was released by the then Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu in January 2016, the pace of smart cities mission is still embroiled in bureaucratic maze and is very slow with no results in sight. In three instalments, 98 cities from all states (barring West Bengal) got one or the other city’s name in the list for developing it into a ‘smart city’. The first list which was eagerly awaited by the nation, thanks to the huge hype created around it, included cities like Bhubaneswar, Visakhapatnam, Pune, Indore, Bhopal, Coimbatore, Chennai, New Delhi (NDMC) Belgaum and Ludhiana, to name a few. Naidu was a minister who was in such demand that every Member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha was asking for his constituency to be included in the mission, he was quoted as telling the august House.

Everyone then thought that the entire city would be endowed with new and modern facilities, and would be plush cities like their western counterparts- beautiful, comfortable and spic and span, but that was not to be! What happened, on the other hand, was increased influx of rural population into cities in the hope of jobs and facilities.

There was a phase soon after all lists were out when people thought it to be just like another poll promise to keep the voters engaged. Many accusations were levelled against the selection process and then even the intentions of the government were doubted; if actually a city was going to be transformed into a smart city at all. There were mainly two reasons: one, the definition of a smart city which was acceptable to all was absent and secondly, if the same municipal corporation officials were to implement the new and ambitious plan why had the cities not become smart when large budgets were already provided to them under the JNNURM scheme of the UPA Government? Of course, the new smart city formula had a CEO appointed for the city, which did not really cut much ice with the critics and people on the streets have not witnessed much change, barring a few examples. A top globally reputed urban planner termed it as a ‘ joke’ while talking to this writer recently.

Prasad Shetty and Rupali Gupte, in a wonderfully written article (The Contemporary Urban  Conundrum/ IIC Quarterly) remarked that “the government soon realised that it is not possible for it to make even one new city, as the promise was toned down to making existing cities ‘smarter’.”

Later, instead of one city to be made smarter (sic),only a particular portion of a city was picked up to be retrofitted and given some new facilities-something the municipal corporations under the state government directions were anyway capable of doing  under the existing master planning tools.

Even after speaking to a large number of people across different professions and domain expertise, I have not come across a common definition that terms the city as a smart city. Some say ‘smart is as smart does’! Many people actually thought the government was reinventing the idea of urban growth in India and paraphrasing it under the influence of global software companies to help them sell their projects.

None of the 98-100 cities chosen so far have shown any marked improvement in basic city governance. Yes municipal corporations are increasingly going digital to increase speed of delivery and to cut corruption, but water scarcity, urban waste, pollution, greenery remain the problems all over. In Bhopal which was selected in the first list of 20 cities, there is just no worthwhile progress. Its very choice of a locality was first challenged by the local citizens who protested vehemently to cutting down of over 20,000 trees. The location was then changed and nothing has happened there since.

In New Delhi which was picked up in the first list, like Bhopal, pollution has brought unimaginable and international ignominy as its not being controlled since the three years of Modi Government rule over the national capital. Much of the time was wasted on ugly fights over the division of powers between the Delhi Government and the Union Government. The Ghazipur waste dump, meanwhile, remains as tall and stinking as ever.

Urban development ministry had set its eyes on 2022 to see the results after the project actually tookoff  in 2017. But midway through, it saw an energetic minister of Cabinet rank becoming the Vice President and a new incumbent with no background of urban administration or municipal/district bureaucracy heading the ministry with no cabinet minister in charge. It is argued that the new minister has lots of international exposure, having been an IFS officer, so he would be dealing well with Bloomberg Philanthropies, the Government’s knowledge partner for the Smart Cities Mission and other global partners who have shown interest in developing Indian cities into smarter cities.

In short, like the other signature programmes of the government, smart cities should not remain on paper. A huge urban population is waiting for good and liveable cities-smart or otherwise. They don’t want just digital efficiency but want clean drinking water, safe roads, clean air to breathe and affordable housing.

Will the smart cities deliver all this? And little more?

[The writer is a veteran political journalist and writes on urban affairs, environment and books. He can be contacted at kabhilash59@gmail.com and Abhikhandekar1]

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