How Modi’s smart cities vision is being diluted

The limited imagination of the bureaucrats in the urban development ministry is the real danger to PM’s overarching desire to systematically transform a rapidly urbanising India


R Swaminathan | February 21, 2015

#narendra modi   #smart city   #prime minister   #digital india  

Venkaiah Naidu is known for his plain speak and the union development minister displayed it in full measure recently at the opening address of a two-day consultation conference involving bureaucrats and municipal bodies on smart cities in New Delhi. “Everyone wants a smart city,” he said, “but are you ready for reforms?” It was as much a rhetorical question as it was one pregnant with numerous possibilities and the promise of a better, a more technologically savvy and humane urban India. What came out after the end of two days, however, was a bit like the empire striking back with an old bottle filled with even older wine. The conclave ended with bureaucratic keywords that have been echoing in the corridors of power for the last decade: competitiveness, good infrastructure, water, sanitation, reliable utility services, health care and that mother of all such empty calories, transparent processes. Of course, there was some sprinkling of new ones like citizen-centric services, safety and even happiness. Naidu must be sorely disappointed, especially after literally burning the midnight oil working with the prime minister’s office (PMO) for evolving the draft concept note on smart cities. It is, incidentally, not only well drafted but is actually quite readable, commonsensical and at the same time well researched. The note specifically lays down the social, political, economic, governance and technological constituents of smartness. Two snippets from the note that focus exclusively on the constituents of a smart public transportation system should reveal the extent of detailing and drill down that’s gone into creating the note:

…ease of being able to move from one place to another is at the core of a “smart city” [sic]. Seoul, Singapore, Yokohama and Barcelona (all considered smart cities) have a sound transport system as the core of their “smartness” [sic]. The transport system emphasises walking, cycling and public transport as the primary means for mobility with personal motor vehicles being actively discouraged. In fact, smart cities lay considerable emphasis on the walkability in the city. The pedestrian is given a place of prominence as every trip has a leg that involves walking….

…the extensive use of ICT is a must and only this can ensure information exchange and quick communication. Most services will need to be ICT enabled, and this often helps reduce the need for travel. The ability to shop online or book tickets online or converse online are very powerful ways of reducing the need for travel, thereby reducing congestion, pollutants and energy use. An extensive use of ICT-enabled services will need a sound communications backbone. In this context, it is important to note that ICT is not the “end” but only the “means” to an “end” [sic]  – the end being improved service quality and information availability….

Finding the gaps

Naidu, I am reasonably convinced, would have intended this two-day conclave to have at least kick-started a mindset change about reimagining the concept of a city and its urban spaces among the bureaucrats, the state governments, city municipal corporations and especially those who man the last mile governance hubs. If at all Naidu needed a reaffirmation of the yawning gap that exists today between the government’s vision and the bureaucratic mindset, it would have been rudely evident during the two days. Naidu, I am sure, would have noticed one glaring omission in the conclave: there was practically no mention of concrete technology platforms or solutions except when it came to revenue collection. It’s this stubborn yawning gap that’s the real danger to Modi government’s vision of developing smart cities and leapfrogging India to the world stage. When the first discussions about developing 100 smart cities started taking place in the corridors of power, led personally by Modi and his handpicked officers in the PMO, there was a deep conviction that the strategic and tactical embedding of digital technology solutions in all aspects of daily life would invert the power asymmetries faced by common citizens. As an extension of this logic, it was also accepted, implicitly if not explicitly, that the development of 100 smart cities would take the Greenfield route: in short new cities would be developed all across the country. It was also in line with prime minister Modi’s vision of decentralising development models and decongesting the traditional hubs of industrial production, manufacturing and services.

The first dilution of this vision came when the bureaucrats of the union development ministry slipped in ‘retrofitting of existing cities’ into the operational details of the smart cities plan. One is not sure whether Naidu realised the larger implications of this seemingly innocuous insertion, but he seems to have at least got a whiff of its impact as he laid down the condition that only smaller cities would be eligible. Now, team Modi and Naidu are bang in the middle of the second wave of dilution where the smart cities plan is increasingly sounding and looking like the earlier urban renewal plans, including the Jawaharlal Nehru urban renewal mission (JNNURM). This is not to say that urban renewal does not have its own place in the larger scheme of planned urbanisation of India nor is it a comment on whether JNNURM has fulfilled its promise and potential. It is, however, completely safe to say that many of the government’s urban renewal and urban regeneration missions often got reduced to a cowboy style shootout for funds. The weapon of choice, in the case of JNNURM, became the city development plans (CDPs). So a Nagpur, for instance, which roped in a hired gun like McKinsey to prepare its plan got a quick nod for funds, while smaller cities like Imphal that wanted to develop a more organic CDP got left behind. Tying up funds to specific deliverables is an accepted best international practice, as long it relates directly to the vision.

The smart cities mission’s larger goal is to ease the daily life of common citizens. If one is to go by the voices emanating from the bureaucracy after the conclave then the operationalisation of that vision has been tied to urban local body reforms, which in turn is linked to the disbursement of smart cities funds. It’s pertinent to note here that despite urban local body autonomy being mandated by the Indian Constitution as per the 74th constitutional amendment over two decades ago, nothing substantial has been achieved in that area. In all this, now, somehow retrofitting – a worldview emerging from renewal and regeneration rather than a Greenfield development – has again come to occupy the central stage. Not a single piece of this emerging architecture can be questioned in principle, which in fact adheres to all norms of international best practises. Yet when the pieces will come together, it has every possibility of becoming yet another instrumentality of power in the hands of the bureaucrats who will use every methodology of measurement, say the way the results based management framework was used for the audit of JNNURM, to again reductively show outcomes, outputs and impact. In short, one should not be surprised to see reports coming out from the ministry that show impressive graphs, tables and pie charts showing X crores disbursed and Y number of buses bought and Z number of train rakes added.

There is still time for Modi, Naidu and the core team at PMO to push for genuine transformation in the mindset of bureaucrats. It just requires them to be true to the four core propositions of the initial smart cities vision: public transportation, walking and cycling, digital technology solutions in daily life and simple and smart application-based service delivery for common citizens. All the four are foundationally connected to GIS and GPS mapping, which should be used as the base for developing the smartness of a city. Everything else can, and should, flow from the data points that emerge from such mapping, right from creating an open source and open access land bank that will define the land use patterns to governance services like provision of public utilities, public spaces, parks and urban forests. Renewal and regeneration should necessarily be separated from the smart city vision. If need be, there should be a separate plan for capacity building of existing cities. The smart cities plan, however, should stay true to its original DNA of democratising urbanisation, creating more job opportunities through decentralising manufacturing and services industries and building new cities from scratch. None of Modi’s grand plans, from ‘Make in India’ to ‘Swachh Bharat’, will come to any fruition if the engine itself is downgraded and comprised. That’s the real danger.




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