Pratap Vikram Singh | September 20, 2014
Shankar Aggarwal, a 1980 batch IAS officer of UP cadre, who recently took over as the urban development secretary, talks to Pratap Vikram Singh and Puja Bhattacharjee about the ministry’s vision, planning and challenges of setting up smart cities.
How does the urban development ministry define a smart city? How will these cities be different from the existing cities?
At the moment we have not finalised any definition for smart city. The intention is to use technology wherever possible so that the operation of various municipal services become much more efficient and user-friendly.
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Is it only technologies that make cities smart?
No, it includes everything – the design of the town, the road network, sewerage, water supply and 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. Finally, there is going to be a layer of ICT (information and communication technology) so that we can generate options for the user.
Will the proposed smart cities be upgradation of existing ones (that is, brownfield), newly created (that is, greenfield) or a mix of both?
Largely these cities will be brownfield. There can be two or three greenfield cities.
Will greenfield cities include those under the Delhi Mumbai industrial corridor (DMIC)?
DMIC cities will be different because they will be greenfield projects whereas 100 smart cities will concentrate on brownfield cities. In the budget speech, the finance minister clearly said the government will be developing 100 smart cities which will be existing cities. He said we have to take care of the urban renewal of 500 cities, that is, the existing cities. The existing cities could include satellite towns as well. You can consider satellite towns as greenfield projects, but, in essence, these are brownfield projects.
The prime minister is quite enthusiastic about turning Varanasi into a smart city. What is the government’s plan?
The PM wants to develop Varanasi as a very modern and comfortable city without disturbing the heritage value of that city. The vision is to rejuvenate the soul of Varanasi: we should be able to create more jobs and economic activity.
Reports indicate that the economic potential is one of the key parameters for selecting cities that can be taken up under the project. Is that true?
Our focus will be on creation of employment opportunities. The whole purpose of making smart cities is to make people more efficient and globally competitive. We need to look into the character of the city and identify core economic activity that can be further developed with the help of technology and improvement in urban infrastructure. For example, Bangalore can create a lot of jobs in IT, telecom or in the technology-driven services sector. However, for this we will need to figure out how to improve urban infrastructure, so that the city becomes globally competitive and can create more jobs. We have to look for the gaps in urban infrastructure. A city might require a particular kind of transportation system or a certain kind of effluent treatment system. We are going to create that to deliver these cities in a smart way.
Have you decided on funding?
Funding is still a work in progress. The bulk of money will come from the government of India. We are also trying to take advantage of the private sector in a big way. We want a large amount of investment to come from the private sector.
Will there be any preconditions when you allocate funds?
We have not decided that yet. We are still assessing the options. The state governments will have a major say in identifying the cities to be upgraded. In our federal structure, the state governments are very important entities. Unless they are on board, we cannot proceed.
How is the response from states?
The response of states has been very good. Every state wants to develop its towns and cities in a smart manner.
What will be the challenges of upgrading existing cities?
The urban local bodies (ULBs) have to be on board and must be willing to take up this kind of a project. Capacity building is another important aspect. Most of the ULBs do not have the capacity and ultimately the work has to be executed by them. Despite being the most important criterion, ULBs are the most neglected area.
Will the ministry directly monitor the smart cities project or will it set up a separate body for the same?
Rather than driving this agenda directly from the government, it is better to create a structure which works at an arm’s length from the government. This way they can have sufficient financial and functional autonomy. They can borrow experts from the market and hire people from both public and private sectors. They can create a mechanism where major policy decisions are taken by that body but a large number of decisions are taken at the local level.
Will this be an inter-ministerial setup?
We require a lot of inputs from the concerned ministries but at this point of time we are not sure whether they will be a part of this structure. The body has not been decided as of yet. The government is mulling over it.
How would the new project, particularly the part involving upgrading of infrastructure in smart cities, be different from JnNRUM that has been discontinued?
In JnNURM we gave money to local bodies primarily to create assets and improve local governance. Here the basic focus will be on how to create more employment opportunities by improving urban infrastructure and that has to be done in the smartest possible manner. When we say ‘the smartest possible manner’ we mean use of technology in the most optimal manner. If by infusing technology we can make the system and the operation of infrastructure more efficient, then let’s do that. But ultimately everything must converge towards the creation of employment opportunities.
Has the ministry decided upon a timeline?
As I said, we have not yet finalised the contours of the project. We will work out the details and time schedule and thereafter implement the project. The smart cities will be developed simultaneously.
This interview first appeared in Magazine Volume 05 issue 16 (16-30 September 2014)
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