Smart cities: A new route to planned urbanisation

The government has announced a slew of smart city initiatives. But what actually makes the city smart?


Dr Sudhir Krishna | May 29, 2015

#smart cities   #narendra modi   #sudhir krishna   #100 smart cities  

The discussion on smart cities started off with a bang about a year ago, with the ascent of the NDA-II to power. There were expectations of a magical package with a financial bonanza.

After deliberations over the framework of the programme to succeed the Jawaharlal Nehru national urban renewal mission (JnNURM), which lapsed in March 2014, the cabinet approved the Mission for Smart Cities (MSC) to cover 100 cities and the Atal mission for rejuvenation and urban transformation (AMRUT) to cover another 100 Class-1 cities – cities with over 1,00,000 population, this year.

The announcement is now awaiting notification of an implementable framework for the two missions, for which detailed guidelines are expected to be notified soon. Meanwhile, investments in urban infrastructure and services have slowed down. Thus, the two missions carry the responsibility of bringing in fresh momentum to the investment in urban infrastructure in the framework of planned urbanisation of the country. However, while designing the detailed guidelines two basic postulates should be kept in mind: one, there is a need to focus on making the existing cities smart, rather than on developing new cities alone, and two, the process of making cities smart should be a framework that is financially viable and socially inclusive.

What is not smart?

The generally accepted definition of a smart city is that it deploys ICT in all possible walks of life, particularly for public services. While this concept of smart city emanates from the developed countries, it would not be fair to adopt the same framework for Indian cities, which are normally at much lower levels of basic infrastructure, be it the quality and quantity of water or power supply, cleanliness of the streets and surroundings, street lighting and transport systems. Moreover, a smart city would also have to make its services and facilities accessible to the affluent and the weak alike. In the context of India, smartness of a city should be defined and pursued around the four cornerstones of efficiency, transparency, sustainability and inclusiveness.

Efficiency should be measured in terms of time and money. Whether the residents are getting adequate water and power supply, whether the city roads are clogged with traffic jams, whether the grievances about civic services are resolved quickly and so on. The smart city would also need to provide value for the money spent by the residents on services availed. For instance, the user charges paid for garbage management should be spent by the city government in such a manner that it leaves the city clean end-to-end.

Transparency for a smart city means that the procedures for accessing public services and information should be rational, predictable and understandable. If one wants to build a house, the city administration should make it easy and simple for the applicant to complete the procedure for getting various approvals. The process should be such that it takes the least possible time. For example, if it takes one-year to build a house, then the process of approval after all regulatory norms have been complied with, should take no more than two weeks.
The service standards should also be well publicised. For instance, the quality of water being supplied should be placed on a website. Similarly, the frequency and tariff for city bus services should also be visible online.

Sustainability is another required feature of a smart city. It is measured through a four-fold criterion of financial sustainability, social sustainability, managerial sustainability and environmental sustainability. To bring about financial sustainability for a service being made available, user should be required to pay for it. The capital cost should also be recovered, but over the lifecycle of the project, whereas the operation and maintenance (O&M) costs be recovered on a concurrent basis. Cost recovery needs to be linked with the extent of the services availed, such as volume of drinking water consumed or the extent of solid waste generated. Social sustainability means identification of gainers and losers of the project and putting in place an arrangement that would recover the investment from the gainers and use that recovery to compensate the losers. For instance, a road widening project may lead to loss of land or building or livelihood for some, while some would gain in terms of enhancement in the property values or better business opportunities. Appropriate levies such as betterment charges or revision of the property guidance values would lead to augmenting the revenues of the local government, which should be used to extend compensation to the project losers.

To achieve managerial sustainability the project should remain functional with the designed parameters of efficiency through its notified lifecycle. This might require, for instance, developing the capacities of the municipality to operate a water supply project built by the state water board with grants under JnNURM or similar central/state grants. Managerial sustainability would also require preparedness to anticipate and resolve technological obsolescence and legal or social conflicts that the project could possibly generate.

The issue of environmental sustainability can be explained through the example of a water treatment plant. The salts that are extracted to make the supplied water potable need to be disposed of in a manner that does not harm the soil or subsoil aquifer at the pace of disposal.

Medical waste, electronic waste and other types of waste too should be handled with the same perspective. In short, environmental sustainability would be a caution against adopting the approach of robbing Paul to pay to Peter.

A more comprehensive approach to inclusiveness would require the city to make its infrastructure, information and services accessible to all those who deserve to make use of it. A differently-abled person should, for example, be able to move from house to the walkway or footpath without any hindrance. All public buildings like hospitals, libraries, malls, bus stands and metro should have design features to enable the elderly and physically unequal persons access the same without obstruction. Providing safety to its citizens is another feature of a smart city.

A smart city should also enable its citizens to have choices in availability of information and services. Choices would mean breaking the monopoly, which would come from bringing in competition. In many civic services, this may appear as a far-fetched idea. However, choices ought to be kept in view as a desirable long-term objective for city planning and management and pursued for adoption sooner, wherever possible. For instance, public transport services can be made competitive by offering choices to the citizen and by replacing the monopoly of the state-run operators by private ones. The experience of intelligent transport system based taxi services like Ola or Meru Cab has already shown the way.

Ride the technology wave

Deployment of information and communication technologies (ICT) would facilitate achieving various aspects of smartness for a city. The city roads can be under CCTV surveillance to monitor traffic flows to identify the bottlenecks and take remedial measures including advising the motorists to take alternative routes. ICT has also been deployed for revision of the property registers of the city. The satellite and aerial imagery gives actual location of built spaces, which can be used to update the property registers, leading to more accurate levy and collection of property taxes. Cities like Patna, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and some others have deployed such methods successfully, leading to substantial increase in mobilisation of property taxes.

City bus managers can use ICT to monitor the deployment of bus fleet effectively, leading to more efficient utilisation of the buses. Managers of solid waste management can literally watch the piling of garbage as well as movement of the garbage laden trucks while sitting in their control rooms and align the two for more effective management. Cities like Delhi, Indore and Bengaluru have started using mobile phone based applications. Such applications can be extended to other cities too.

Get city-level leadership right

While the technical and financial aspects of the two missions would need to be designed meticulously, it would be equally relevant to develop local leadership for a realistic and sustainable planning of the city development plans (CDP) and for efficient and effective implementation of the schemes and programmes that would emanate from the CDPs. One of the major learning from the JnNURM has been that the city level leadership was either absent or, wherever available, was ineffective in planning and execution of the CDPs and their constituent schemes and programmes. Absence of strong mayors and giving pivotal role to the state agencies such as the jal boards rather than to the municipalities did hurt the programme. Programmes that are meant for the city alone need to be steered by the city government.

The need of the hour

The call of the time is to develop our cities into smart abode for the citizens. However, smartness should not be taken as bringing in Wi-Fi in public places as the first and foremost objective. On the other hand, smartness should be defined and pursued as provision of efficient services to the people in a framework of transparency and equity. ICT applications can definitely be deployed to achieve those objectives effectively, but would not be enough to make the smart solutions sustainable. Sustainability in a smart city would come about by ensuring protection of the natural habitat from the negative fallout of the development projects, ensuring reasonable user charges to bring about efficiency and private participation. Effective local governance and citizen awareness should be pursued alongside to bring about sustainable smart cities. The new mission on smart cities and the AMRUT carry a great promise and need to be designed carefully and implemented expeditiously to realise the intended visionary objectives in a manner that is sustainable and inclusive.

Dr. Krishna was secretary, ministry of urban development, till his retirement in June 2014. The views are personal.

(The article appears in May 16-31, 2015 issue)



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