'Smart cities' a smart idea, but...

Finances, infrastructure among many challenges for Modi's plan: Experts

PRIME Minister Narendra Modi has brought greater focus to urban planning through an initiative to create 100 modern cities, said experts and urban planners.

The move marks a shift in a country where cities have grown in a haphazard manner and policy planners have largely focused on villages, home to nearly 70 per cent of the population, they said.

Still, they added, converting cities in which plants struggle to provide even a few hours of electricity and water into world-class cities will be a major challenge for Mr Modi.

It will include attracting private investment as well as government finances to upgrade infrastructure, finding capable city leaders, getting citizens' participation and creating a vision for cities that does not merely copy successful cities in the West or East.

"The idea of making the urban set-up more efficient works to the Prime Minister's advantage… but what is done on the ground is a different reality," said Delhi-based architect Gautam Bhatia.

Government planners for years have mostly focused on schemes for rural Indians. But with the country's urban population estimated to grow from 31 per cent to 40 per cent by 2030 as people move to cities in search of better lives and jobs, urban infrastructure has come into greater focus.

Many of India's cities are already struggling to provide basic services. Some cities get just a couple of hours of electricity while others provide running water only for a short time each day.

In an effort to change that, Mr Modi on Thursday launched the Smart Cities Mission to create urban centres offering adequate water and electricity supplies, good sanitation and cleanliness, efficient public transport, safety for women and green buildings. "A smart city means a city which is two steps ahead of the basic necessities of its residents," he said at Thursday's launch.

The 100 cities will be handpicked from 4,000 cities through a two-stage competition, said officials.

The first list will be finalised by the state government according to the quota decided by the federal government. Then the expert panel at the federal level will choose the first 20 to be developed.

Ultimately the 100 chosen by state governments will be developed. But when the cities will be developed will be decided by the federal government.

"The competition is to reinforce the fact that this is not a public subsidy programme. So the competitive mode of tapping into funds is more aligned with the way a free market economy functions," said Prof Jagan Shah, director at the National Institute of Urban Affairs.

The federal government has pledged 480 billion rupees (S$10 billion) over five years, which translates to an average of 1 billion rupees per city per year.

For the rest, the government is hoping for foreign investment and private funds, apart from collaborations with more than a dozen countries, including Singapore.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 27, 2015, with the headline ''Smart cities' a smart idea, but...'. Print Edition | Subscribe