How smart is the plan for Smart cities? The Statesman columnist

Vehicles clogging a road in southern New Delhi on Oct 15, 2015.
Vehicles clogging a road in southern New Delhi on Oct 15, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

There has been a palpable build-up of impatience about performance by the ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government now almost two years into its tenure. This is not unsurprising, given its massive mandate for development and change and soaring expectations of promised new governance models. The message appears to have reached the quarters that matter as the formal launch of many flagship programmes reveals and also the well-orchestrated outreach efforts to disseminate them. Of a piece with these endeavours is the recent announcement of 20 cities which made the cut to the list of Smart Cities. The concept of Smart Cities had been brought in to the election campaign in 2014 and had generated considerable interest, both nationally and internationally. While there is no universally accepted definition of a Smart City, it is envisioned as a major step to upgrade institutional, physical, social and economic infrastructure in a sustainable and inclusive manner.

Thirty-one per cent of India lives in urban areas and contributes 63 per cent of GDP. By 2030, these figures may escalate to 40 and 75 per cent respectively. But our cities are nowhere close to being world class and are perhaps no one's envy, being bogged down as they are by a crepuscular overhang of complex problems which detract heavily from  the quality of life for the vast majority of citizens. For its ambitious scope and the manner of its crystallisation, the List of 20 has attracted much attention.

Bhubaneshwar making it to the top seems to have stumped many as also the inclusion of lesser known cities and exclusion of many well known ones. In terms of population, these cities account for 35.4 million. An investment of Rs 50,802 crore (S$10.5 billion) has been proposed over a five year period. Of this, Rs 38,693 crore will be spent on area development and Rs. 12,109 crores on 56 pan-city solutions covering basic infrastructure through assured water and power supply, sanitation, solid waste management, efficient mobility, public transport, IT connectivity, e-governance and community participation. One cannot miss an element of irony, however, in the timing of the announcement insofar as the national capital is concerned. NDMC (New Delhi Municipal Corporation) - the plush, though decaying-in-parts heart of the city - features as a winning candidate. On date, in large swathes of Delhi, uncleared garbage and waste are threatening to take overwhelming proportions. Civic services have come to a standstill. Yet the powers that be do not seem to be interested in resolving the underlying governance issues. Finger pointing is an all consuming passion. And this is not the first time.

Perhaps the citizens are meant to take cold comfort in the fact that the imbroglio illustrates legacy-glitches and that the future belongs to Smart Cities, where layers of smartness get added incrementally, through a well ordered process, to effect enduring makeovers. In this context, the big positive of the Programme calls for resounding acknowledgement. It has to do with the nature of its piloting by the Urban Development Ministry, which has been remarkably distinctive. The model could well be replicable for other flagship programmes of the Government. The preparatory phase has been shot through with unprecedented citizen-participation, IT-enablement and kosher professionalism. The proposals by various States have been objectively evaluated on rigorous parameters and there has been no scope for discretion or politically biased outcomes. It almost sounds too good to be true.

While Urban Development Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu  chose to describe it in the conventional manner as being the "bottom-up approach", it was an altogether different experience from its previous avatars and should be projected as such. Around 15.2 million citizens participated, along with Government and other interested agencies. To set the ball rolling, from June 2015 Government hosted several workshops and training sessions for Mayors and Municipal Commissioners. In December 2015, 97 selected cities submitted their plans to the Urban Development Ministry and were given Rs. 2 crore for drawing up details. The City Challenge Competition that followed was fiercely contested and was said to be as demanding as the Civil Services Examination conducted by the Union Public Service Commission.

While one may not  endorse that analogy, it rather dramatically conveys the sheer scale and intensity of the energy- packed effort that went into its success. The buy-in by all stakeholders has been tremendous as a result. Those who did not make the cut have been given another opportunity to fix the deficiencies and await the decision by mid April. Relaxations have been ruled out, which is welcome.

The highly unoriginal and utterly predictable barbs from Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party, both of Uttar Pradesh (UP), of the "ehsaan pharamoshi" (ungrateful attitude) of the Centre in ignoring Bihar and UP which have 104 BJP MPs between them in the Lok Sabha, need to be brought "on record" at this point in the narrative if only to showcase how some mindsets will continue to assiduously cling to the quid-pro-quo paradigm of our political lexicon and resist keeping pace with the times.

To get back to the laudable and most prominent positive described above, of ensuring ownership of key Government- sponsored programmes, it is important to take note of the implementation challenges which have been the bane of many such well-intentioned initiatives for as long as one can recollect. For starters, there is a lot of the old in the cities that will need to be stitched in with the new, not only by retrofitting, rebuilding and reclaiming or through pan-city smart solutions but by taking up more fundamental changes. This is not going to be easy. Compatibility of systems will call for skilful location of pain-points and their redressal.

The framework for effective operation too poses problems involving multiple stakeholders. Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) will have to deal with tricky aspects of co-ordination and convergence of myriad strands and whether they will be well equipped for them will have to be tested out. Moreover, it is somewhat disappointing to observe that the SPVs have been saddled with tiers-upon-tiers of monitoring and supervisory structures. They start from the ground up and traverse all the way to the National Apex Committee and appear to carry the portents of hobbling an efficient roll-out and a dynamic, optimal run.

The  somewhat stale stench of the past cannot but hit one here. Time is of the essence. To be given only five years for execution with the humongous ground work called for in terms of fine-tuning specific components, mobilising significant resources in the innovative manner contemplated, obtaining clearances, putting in place nuanced eco-systems and credible architecture of support, promises to be daunting. To hit the ground running is not what the Indian development story has been about. The first full-fledged review is not mandated till the next two years. But for now cheers to smartness and to the project not morphing into the proverbial albatross!

The writer is a retired civil servant.