PRIME Minister Narendra Modi said India needed to attract more foreign investment in urban infrastructure, as he launched an ambitious scheme to create 100 modern and green cities to help spur economic growth and create jobs.
Asia's third fastest growing economy is facing a massive challenge as the urban infrastructure in its cities is unable to cope with an ever-growing population. Poor planning - or the total lack of it - in most Indian cities has resulted in haphazard development. Electricity and water are in short supply and sanitation is poor.
It is estimated that the urban population will grow from 31 per cent to 50 per cent by 2050. With that in mind, Mr Modi promised to upgrade infrastructure in 100 new and existing cities by 2022.
"Private property developers should not decide how a city should grow. It should be decided by residents and city leaders," said Mr Modi at the launch of the Smart Cities Mission yesterday.
Smart cities have been defined by the government as those that have adequate water and electricity supplies, good sanitation, efficient public transport, Internet connectivity and affordable housing, and are safe for women and children to live in.
"We cannot get disheartened thinking the world is ahead of us and that we can't match the world," said Mr Modi. "We are sitting together to discuss how to improve life in the cities."
The launch of the mission was attended by mayors from 500 Indian cities, bureaucrats, state government representatives and diplomats from various countries including Singapore.
Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu yesterday listed Singapore among a host of countries that India is hoping to collaborate with on the project. "Seventeen to 18 countries have shared interest in the smart cities project," he said at the launch.
On the sidelines of the event, the minister noted that Singapore was already helping to shape the master plan for Amaravati, Andhra Pradesh's new capital city.
The 100 smart cities, according to the Indian government, will be created by upgrading infrastructure in existing cities and creating greenfield development around them. The first 20 smart cities will be chosen by the year end through a nationwide competition. The federal government will cap the number of smart cities for each state based on population.
Among the challenges facing the government are attracting private funding and finding capable leaders at the city level to implement the plans, said experts.
The federal government alone is looking at spending 480 billion rupees (S$10 billion) via a private- public partnership model, but an independent estimate by KPMG has put the cost of the project at above US$1 trillion (S$1.3 trillion).
"We don't have the leadership at the city levels. How will they visualise the city and plan to get resources? And we are still only talking about 100 out of 4,000 (Indian cities)," said former urban development secretary M. Ramachandran. "Hopefully, they will be able to implement and create more livable cities through such programmes."
Still, mayors who attended the launch remained optimistic.
Ms Pantam Rajani Sesha Sai, mayor of the city of Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh, hoped her city would be among the 100 selected for the project. "It is a good programme. We have many issues. We need a better drainage system, garbage collection and improved sanitation. The biggest problem is creating public awareness to improve sanitation."