Smart city: The next leap for urban India

Making existing cities smarter and pro-poor offers greater dividends than building new cities. Financial viability, strong local governance and evolved transportation is the need of the hour

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Puja Bhattacharjee | September 20, 2014




Mid-October Barcelona last year was brimming with tourists wishing to admire the architecture of Gaudi, the artwork of Picasso and the revelry of La Rambla. In spite of the heavy footfalls and occasional picketing by Catalonian separatists, there was hardly any difference in the traffic flow.

Most tourists chose to cover the city on foot thanks to the wide pavements and smart traffic signals combined with the discipline of drivers. Still others chose to cycle their way through the city. A few took public buses which ply at regular intervals and till late night. Cycling seemed to be the preferred mode for both tourists and locals. Smartly designed pavements give equal space to cyclists and pedestrians and strategically placed slopes make the cyclists’ transition from road to pavement smooth.

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Cut to India, August 2014: urban development minister M Venkaiah Naidu announced that Jawaharlal Nehru national urban renewal mission (JnNURM) will be discontinued. He also indicated that the mission would be replaced by a new programme that will focus on creating 100 smart cities.

“In JnNURM the ministry gave money to the local bodies to create assets to improve local governance,” says Shankar Aggarwal, secretary, ministry of urban development (read interview in following pages). “But now the focus will be on creating more employment opportunities by improving the urban infrastructure and this has to be done in the smartest possible manner,” he adds.

However, contrary to popular notion, smartness is not just about the use of technology. Explains Aggarwal: “It includes everything, from the design of the town, road network, sewerage and water supply to solid waste management. All these building blocks have to be put in place in a very smart manner so that ultimately they become cost effective and user friendly.”

Except two or three smart cities that will be created from scratch, the ambitious project will see existing cities getting upgraded, he says.
According to a senior MoUD official, while a policy paper outlining the contours of the project is in the works, the government is taking care to avoid the drawbacks of JnNURM.

City essentials

Economic viability is the foremost component of a smart city. A smart city is a hub of economic activity—due to a thriving sector, be it manufacturing, services, tourism and hospitality, information technology, among others.

Financial independence of the local government is the second most important component of a smart city. The city corporation should generate enough revenue so that it could invest in the city’s infrastructure and on public services without needing help from the state government.

A unified authority for roads and all kinds of transport is another major aspect of a smart city. A single decision-making body ensures a coherent, reliable and affordable public transport system.

An empowered and skilled pollution control authority with a good network of laboratories to ensure garbage and sewerage is treated and recycled in a smart manner without contaminating the air, land and water bodies.

Easy access to financial and other resources for start-ups and small and medium enterprises to promote local talent and generate employment is another key aspect.

A command and control centre which is networked with all agencies of the government and is able to monitor the city 24x7 is at the core of a smart city.

An empowered political leadership at the top who can take decisions about city development is a critical aspect of a smart city. Also, devolution of power to the political head of the local government is the most critical aspect for smooth functioning of a smart city.
 

 
Smart city and transportation
“A smart city should be compact with fairly good ‘people density’ and have a well-connected and smart transport infrastructure with optimal use of energy and water,” says Madhav Pai, India director, WRI Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities. “It should be resilient against high temperatures and flood. Besides, coordination between agencies is the hallmark of a smart city.”

... savings made by the smart cities are far more than their cost. The ICT component over a period of time works out to 3.5-4 percent of the total cities’ cost but provides great savings in terms of management.

Amitabh Kant, secretary, department of industrial policy and promotion (former CEO and MD, DMICDC)

However, Om Prakash Mathur, senior fellow, Institute of Social Sciences, says there is still no consensus as to what India actually means by a smart city. “It can be described but not defined. For every kind of system it is integration and consolidation,” he says.

Mathur’s concerns are understandable as several officials that Governance Now spoke to were unable to clearly articulate what a ‘smart city’ would be like. “I don’t know if we have the same visions as Koreans or Spaniards for a smart city. Or are we going to have some toned down version of a smart city,” says Mathur.

Nevertheless, both agree that transportation is an important aspect of a smart city. Ease of commute can transform the economic and social landscape of a city. Integration of transport systems – connecting metro to light rails, bus lanes and bicycle tracks – will be a difficult task to accomplish but is an important characteristic of a smart city.

The benefits? An integrated city transport infrastructure will help reduce travel time and cost. Information and communications technology (ICT), which is the backbone of a smart city, can be used to discipline unruly traffic. Use of a common transport smart card for travel on any public transport can ensure a hassle-free commute.

Besides the basic transportation infrastructure being made more accessible and safe, a smart city aims to provide more options to the commuter. A commuter gets facilities in terms of information for route planning, changeovers and last-mile connectivity. This can be made available on mobile phone, internet or changeover points through display boards.

Most congestion in urban India is due to unorganised parking spaces and vehicles parked illegally on the roadside. Online availability of information on public parking spaces will help drivers plan beforehand. At present, 90 percent of the roads in urban India are used for vehicles, and only 10 percent by pedestrians. By encouraging pedestrian mobility through smart designing of towns and cities, a lot of congestion on the roads can be taken care of.

Mathur, however, is sceptical how far people will be able to adapt to  smart infrastructure. “We will be quite fascinated in the beginning. I am not saying that we cannot get used to it. But even today, commuters manhandle public properties. Given our literacy levels, it is doubtful how far we will be able to take to the system,” he said.

Smart city and urbanisation

India’s first planned city Chandigarh was completed in the mid-1950s and by 2011 it became a city of one million people.  It took 60 years for a city right in the middle of Punjab and Haryana to become a million-plus city. India needs new cities to address the challenges of rapid urbanisation but given the Chandigarh example it is quite doubtful how successful the experiment will be.

If the purpose is the agglomeration of services and economy, maybe it (new smart cities) would contribute better. Improving governance structures of existing cities will be far more effective in addressing urban issues.

Om Prakash Mathur, senior fellow, Institute of Social Sciences

Mathur strongly feels that new smart cities will not address the challenges of urbanisation as he feels rural migrants will not inhabit these cities. “The rural people might have insignificant presence in the smart cities at least in the initial days. Highly qualified people will run the city. Transport will be terribly expensive to operate and such cities will be expensive to maintain. On a per capita basis, I think it will be quite expensive to run these cities,” he said.

He adds if the goal is poverty reduction, that will not happen unless the cities themselves have linkages to villages. “If the purpose is the agglomeration of services and economy, maybe it (new smart cities) would contribute better. Improving governance structures of existing cities would be far more effective in addressing urban issues.” In this context, there is a debate whether the government should go ahead with building greenfield cities or concentrate on making the existing cities smarter.

Sudhir Krishna, former secretary, ministry of urban development, says India should focus on making existing cities smarter rather than making new cities. He says if we ignore our cities which are facing huge urban deficits and instead develop new smart cities, the rich will migrate to the new cities while the poor will remain in the old cities. “Instead we should focus on renewal of old cities, identify the satellite town in the vicinity and strive for integrated development of the satellite town and the main city,” he adds.

“If you develop a high-cost city then it cannot survive by itself because poor people will have no place in that city. We have to develop both main and satellite cities as  smart cities. The difference will be that the satellite city will have modern buildings for commercial activity, industrial development and universities, whereas the main city will have improved basic requirements,” he says.

DMICDC smart cities

Long before the new government announced the 100 smart cities programme, the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor Development Corporation (DMICDC) was already developing 24 smart cities. Now, DMICDC is focussing on the first phase of developing seven cities – expected to be ready by 2019. Amitabh Kant, former CEO and MD, DMICDC (now DIPP secretary), says the best way to make cities equitable is through information flow.

“In a country like ours, the strength of ICT lies not only in using technology for purposes of day-to-day management but also to be able to provide access to education, healthcare and being able to provide real-time information in terms of social infrastructure which is what citizens need,” he says.

For Kant, the challenges have been many. The geographical and ICT master planning have been integrated for the first time in DMIC cities. “Much like we created drainage, sewerage and roads as one component, the ICT layer is another component of that. ICT is as much about infrastructure creation as road, power or drainage,” he says.

Kant adds, “ICT helps you bring in real-time governance and control into that city. ICT provides all the data flows that need to be analysed because several instruments then speak to each other. A smart city is all about flow, capture and analysis of that information and taking informed decisions based on that analysis.”

He is also of the view that cities need an engine to continue growing and evolving over a period of time. “Cities are organic entities and need an economic driver. My belief is 30-35 percent of every city should be driven by manufacturing. That will bring in young workers and their families. Cities must also have educational institutions which will bring in young students,” he says.

A smart city should be compact and have a well connected, smart transport infrastructure with optimal use of energy and water... Coordination between agencies is the hallmark of a smart city.

Madhav Pai, India director, WRI Ross Centre for Sustainable Cities

In the DMIC cities the initial challenges were to get land and create high-quality trunk infrastructure — drainage, sewerage and solid waste management systems. The entire infrastructure has been created in 8-12 layers beneath the ground.

The political angle

Despite the use of technology for better management of cities, if the governance structures are not improved, smart cities will decay like their predecessors. BJP vice-president Vinay Sahasrabuddhe refers to the mayor-in-council experiment in Mumbai during the BJP-Shiv Sena rule. There was an effort to divest power to the elected body than the present system of the municipal commissioner being all powerful. A cabinet was ruling the Brihanmumbai municipal corporation (BMC) for a while. “They abandoned the idea saying corruption had phenomenally grown. Doing away with that has not made corruption go away. But, somebody has to take the onus,” he says.

Sahasrabuddhe points out different authorities are governing different parts of urban life. “Besides complete integration of authorities, building consensus around ideas is the biggest challenge in building smart cities,” he adds.

Since the ministry of urban development is concentrating on upgrading cities, no policy change in governance structure has been chalked out so far.

Sources, however, indicate that governance structure of DMIC cities will be based on the shareholder agreement with states. A special purpose vehicle will be constituted with partnership between the centre and the state to drive the city.

It is expected that urban local bodies and municipal authorities will continue to govern and hence build their capacities for dealing with the new system. An integrated governance structure will be mandatory as too many parallel bodies operating at the same time will be at cross purposes with each other.

Land acquisition
Kant admits land acquisition has been a big challenge for him. Even after acquiring land, mobilising all companies and contracting takes a lot of time. While acquiring land, density of states has to be considered.

Eastern states are densely populated and finding land there would be a difficult task.

His views are echoed by Krishna, who believes that the country needs to simplify the land acquisition process. “The legal process has to be reviewed. The process of social and environmental impact assessment should be followed before acquiring a certain tract of land. The present system of open public hearing is time consuming,” he says. And instead of land acquisition, he suggests town planning should be used for land acquisition.

Though many are concerned about the huge financial burden that smart cities will impose on our economy, Krishna is of the opinion that finance is not an issue. “Cities can float municipal bonds and levy user charges to repay the same,” he points out. Similarly, Kant argues the savings made by smart cities are far more than the cost. “The ICT component over a period of time works out to 3.5-4 percent of the total cost but provides great savings in terms of management,” he adds.

Experts also point out that retrofitting existing cities is going to be a huge task and building brand-new cities after acquiring land may take its own time. So instead of hankering after 100 cities at once, it would be wise if the government focuses its attention on building one smart city and then replicating it. “The biggest challenge of urban development is vision, leadership and management. There is no legal or financial impediment,” said Krishna.

Sums up Kant: “Barcelona is a very good example of an existing city which has been made smarter. But making a city smarter takes a lot of political and administrative will at the local level. Political leaders in existing cities will have to become the champions of smart cities and they must become the key drivers of growth.”

With inputs from Pratap Vikram Singh

This story first appeared in Magazine Vol 05 Issue 16 (16-30 Sept 2014)
 

 

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