Why smart city mission will only lead to pockets of development
Although focus is largely on transportation, there will be improvement in other amenities too.
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The government kicked off the process of revitalising parts of urban India to convert them into smart cities by selecting 20 proposals of cities across the country.
These cities will be given financial assistance by the Centre over the next five years to partly finance their plans. Urban development minister M Venkaiah Naidu has promised that proposals of another 23 cities will also be approved in the next few months and more cities will be selected through another round of competition thereafter.
The idea is that each state should have at least one smart city.
The current selection, which the government claims was based on objective competition has created a bit of a controversy, as many as three of the cities selected are in one state - Madhya Pradesh. These are Jabalpur, Indore and Bhopal.
Two cities each have been selected in states such as Maharashtra (Pune and Solapur), Gujarat (Surat and Ahmedabad), Rajasthan (Jaipur and Udaipur), Andhra Pradesh (Visakhapatnam and Kakinada), Tamil Nadu (Coimbatore and Chennai) and Karnataka (Davanagere and Belgaum).
Other cities selected are Bhubaneswar in Odisha, Kochi in Kerala, New Delhi Municipal area, Guwahati (Assam) and Ludhiana (Punjab).
Naidu, however, claims the Centre had nothing to do with such selection - the proposals of 97 cities for development of smart cities were evaluated by three different committees and the points assigned by each committee for each city were averaged to determine the winners of round one.
Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Odisha got the highest points among the selected cities and Bhopal the lowest.
Naidu expects the implementation of smart city mission to demonstrate how integrated planning, area development and smart technologies can deliver better quality of life, improve economic output, provide opportunities and bring about the desired urban transformation.
But be warned, the mission will only lead to pockets of development.
This is because the smart city projects would be restricted to a small area in each of the cities selected - varying between 550 acres in New Delhi and 2,700 acres in Belgaum.
In all, some 26,735 acres in the selected 20 cities will be taken up for improvement. In any case, a city-wide project would have been too ambitious.
There is also a risk that the mission, like Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission, may become more of urban transport improvement programme than an urban renewal programme.
The smart city mission does not involve rebuilding or redevelopment in most cases, but more often retrofitting to improve the amenities provided.
A quick look at the projects proposal reveals that in most cities, the focus is on improving transportation, using information and communications technology.
Digital technology is also to be used for solid waste management, water supply and delivery of government services in these identified areas. Some cities have proposed training on digital technologies for the lowest income groups as part of the smart city initiatives.
In some of the historical cities, the focus would be on improving the quality of life in walled areas.
The 20 projects will together cost about Rs 50,802 crore, of which Rs 38,693 crore will be spent on area development and the balance Rs 12,109 crore on pan-city solutions. Only a small part of this cost would be financed by the central government.
The state governments will have to match the central government’s share in the project. This would necessitate raising funds from the market in form of debts. Some of the funds for the project would come from merging certain existing schemes of the government for urban projects.
A special purpose vehicle, which is a joint venture between the Centre and state for each project, will need to be set up to raise funds for the project.
In almost all the cities, the project will be implemented on a public-private partnership mode. The private partners could be companies from India or from overseas.
In fact, many multinational firms, many of which already have a presence in India, have been reaching out to states and Centre to partner with funds and technology for building smart cities.
Finding resources for the projects may the least of the worries but adhering to timelines and plans would require enormous amount of discipline as time and cost over-runs are routine with infrastructure-related projects in the country.