Pratap Vikram Singh | May 26, 2015
Soon after assuming power, PM Narendra Modi announced a plan to build 100 smart cities by 2022. Nearly a year after the announcement and shunting of a top-ranking official, the ministry of urban development is yet to take some concrete steps. After a slow take-off, the ministry is expected to finalise the guidelines for developing smart cities “anytime soon”. It is also expected to come out with a final list of cities. At present, what we know is that the selection would happen on the basis of a ‘city challenge competition’: cities will be rated on the basis of revenues, expenditure, availability of urban infrastructure, among others. The competition will be carried out by Bloomberg Philanthropes. The chosen cities will get a central fund of '100 crore each year for five years. Also, sources reveal that around 20 cities are likely to be selected in the first phase, followed by 40 each in the next two years. Cities like Ajmer, Allahabad, Visakhapatnam and Varanasi are expected to make it to the final list.
In the run-up to releasing the final contours of the scheme, the cabinet has already approved '48,000 crore for scheme execution. The cabinet has also approved '50,000 crore for the Atal mission for rejuvenation and urban transformation (AMRUT), aimed at urban renewal of 500 cities. These two are the revised versions of the Jawaharlal Nehru national urban renewal mission (JnNURM), which was partly successful in implementation.
A costly dream
Critics have pointed out that the centre’s share is highly inadequate, given the fact that redevelopment of cities would require several thousand crores of investment. Going by the government’s definition, a smart city is “one having the provision of basic infrastructure to give a decent quality of life to its citizens, a clean and sustainable environment and application of smart solutions, keeping citizens at the centre”. Consider this: Even if a city chooses to construct only an elevated road or a sewage/garbage treatment plant (these are part of basic urban infrastructure), construction of either of the two will itself cost between '100 crore and '500 crore. By design, most of the investment has to come from the private sector. Critics say that this will give way to ‘privatised governance’. In the case of greenfield (new) cities, the apprehensions are grimmer. Will these be only meant for the rich? What will happen to the economically weaker sections of the city population? Will these be affordable for even the middle income groups?
Another most important thing which has been sidelined during discussions on smart cities is about urban governance. The debate on the need to strengthen the democratic and institutional structure of cities has been going on since 1993, when the 74th Amendment Act was passed. City-specific development, improvement in the credit rating of urban local bodies and devising innovative ways of raising funds will itself require greater devolution of powers to mayors and local institutions – this has been fiercely resisted by states as they fear change in the existing power equations between the two levels of governance. It is unfortunate that as countries in the west have moved towards participatory governance, especially in case of local governments, India is moving in the opposite direction.
How can cites be called smart unless citizens are kept at the centre of planning and execution? A citizen-friendly city would require an overhaul of public transport system, redesigning of public places, mandatory provisioning of pedestrian-friendly roads and streets, among others. As the government releases the guidelines and moves to roll out the scheme, one hopes that the PM’s election promise of creating 100 smart cities in the country doesn’t remain a rhetoric.
(The article appears in the May 16-31, 2015 issue)
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