Towards A Smarter Future: How The Smart Cities Mission Is Changing Our Cities

Towards A Smarter Future: How The Smart Cities Mission Is Changing Our Cities

by Ekta Chauhan - Feb 5, 2018 07:48 PM +05:30 IST
Towards A Smarter Future: How The Smart Cities Mission Is Changing Our CitiesConnaught Place, Delhi (Ville Miettinen/Flickr)
  • As the Smart Cities Mission completes two years, Swarajya spoke to National Institute of Urban Affairs director Jagan Shah about the project.

    Here are excerpts from the interview.

Launched in 2015, the Smart Cities Mission aims to provide residents with an efficient and reliable infrastructure, enhanced quality of life and economic opportunities. As the mission completes two years, Swarajya spoke to National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA) director Jagan Shah. The NIUA is a premier think tank working with the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs.

Professor Shah has been engaged in various aspects of urban development in India for over 20 years. He has previously taught at the School of Planning & Architecture and earlier held the role of chief executive at Urban Space Consultants, providing consultancy in policy formulation, spatial planning, heritage conservation, and transport and livelihoods development.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

Everyone seems to have their own definition of a smart city. How do you define a smart city?

Broadly speaking, a smart city has a focus on planning for public spaces which are accessible, safe and convenient to use. And a city that deploys various technologies as well as planning methods to improve the efficiency and the sustainability of its municipal functions and the delivery of services to the public. That's a mouthful, but that's how we have viewed and defined a smart city.

What factors make the Smart Cities Mission different from the earlier missions, such as Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM)?

One of the thrusts of the present mission is integrated planning of the urban areas as well as integrated planning of projects. This integration has been a more fruitful exercise than in the earlier mission.

However, the earlier mission was not very different. The only thing was that it was not entirely based on a consultative process and convergence between different sectors and different departments within the city. What we are finding now is that projects are being conceived and executed in a more holistic manner.

The JNNURM was a pioneering scheme, but it was implemented in a different way from the Smart Cities Mission, and it didn't have the focus on the area-based development that we have emphasised in the Smart Cities Mission. The idea being that cities would make sure they are able to pick up a sizeable chunk of their area and make it completely smart in terms of upgrading the infrastructure, upgrading the public spaces, taking care of needs in terms of lighting, safety, street improvements and so on. And then replicating that in other parts of the city. So, to the extent that the JNNURM didn't have an area-based approach, there has been a clear departure from the precedent of the JNNURM. However, in terms of infrastructure projects and so on, of course we are catering to the same range of projects.

Regarding the area-based approach, there has been criticism that it is actually limiting the whole scope of the scheme to only the poshest areas of a city. As a result, 71 per cent of the funding from the mission will be spent on area-based development, benefiting about 4 per cent of the city’s population.

It's a valid but somewhat misplaced question. Do you know a way by which you can upgrade an entire city in one go? No city in history has ever been dealt with that way. You have to start out in one area and then replicate it in other parts. Under the current mission, the plans prepared by the cities have explicit proposals that talk about the replication and scaling of what they do in one area to the rest of the city.

Also, municipalities don't have a lot of capacity. Most of them are strained to take care of even basic services. Garbage collection itself is a big challenge for them and to completely renovate an area of their city is not something they are used to doing. If they can establish their credibility with that area, they will be able to replicate it in the rest of the city. That is the whole logic behind the scheme; we can question that logic, but we still have to take cognizance of it.

So as you said, since most of the projects under the Smart Cities Mission are brownfield projects – because most of the Indian cities have grown up organically, what sort of challenges is that throwing up?

Let’s look at it this way. The brownfield, the existing city, is the urban India that produces two-thirds of the GDP. It's a productive space, though it is certainly deficient in terms of services and infrastructure.

The challenges of the brownfield are the challenges of all cities essentially. Most of us do not live in greenfield cities; by the time a greenfield city is fully occupied, it automatically becomes a brownfield city. So, it is the problem of an existing city being upgraded and everybody is grappling with these problems, whether it is London introducing a new rail system cutting across the city or New York redeveloping a part of Manhattan that used to be a 1950s housing district.

The important thing is to upgrade existing cities. The challenges are of all kinds, having to do with transportation, mobility, filling infrastructural gaps, upgrading outdated infrastructure and so on. It is also about introducing a new kind of infrastructure, like cycling tracks. Till now we were not paying attention to cycling; today at least we accept that cycling is an important activity.

There are a number of challenges, but we are doing a lot of upgradation of what is, basically, staple urban infrastructure.

The mission is being implanted through the Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) created specifically for the purpose. How do you think they prove to be better than the municipal bodies since, again, there has been criticism from a lot of sections that they are a challenge to our democracy, more specifically the 74th amendment?

The 74th amendment has not been implemented in all the states of the country. Nonetheless, we all agree that an elected body should be in charge of managing and sustaining the life of a city.

Taking the example of Delhi, a private company supplies water to the households. DISCOMs are doing the job that used to be done earlier by Delhi Electric Supply Undertaking, or DESU, which was run by the government. The distribution of electricity in the city was in a sense “privatised”. Now what we have is a far more efficient distribution of power with fewer outages and, unlike earlier, you don't have a linesman who comes and asks for a little bakshish to fix the fuse in the house. There is a level of responsibility and efficiency that has come in because of the so-called privatisation. Thus, the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) still exists; the DISCOMs only have an agreement with them to render a particular service.

Similarly in Bengaluru, the Water Supply and Sanitation Board is an SPV created to handle only the water supply and sanitation of the city. The Bengaluru Municipal Corporation still exists, but it has handed over the management of a particular function to another body.

Globally, there are many such examples. In Johannesburg, South Africa, 12 companies are working under the city administration, dealing with different functions. The point being that a corporation is empowered by its own municipal acts to do whatever it takes to deliver services or to build and manage infrastructure.

The municipal corporations and municipalities don't have the capacity to deal with all the functions which are laid down for them by the 12th Schedule of the Constitution. The subjects range from town planning to animal husbandry, taking care of the socially weak and disenfranchised people, cremation grounds, burial grounds, public health, schools, primary education and so on. Municipalities don't have enough people, let alone people who have the right skills to manage these functions.

How would one expect to transform them if one doesn’t bring in the kind of efficiency that a more private, more corporate culture can? The SPV as an organ itself is set up by the municipal corporation under the Companies Act. How does it become a challenge to democracy?

You also mentioned that one of the functions of municipal corporations is to take care of the socially weak sections of society. As we see, most of the cities have huge gaps in the social and economic status of people. How do you think that developing smart cities will address this problem of equity?

One of the premises for the development of smart cities is that a city is planned in an integrated way. Thus, a smart city is actually contrary to what a lot of people think it is.

Smart cities are not just about technology. A major thrust in the Smart Cities Mission is on the improved and integrated planning of public spaces and public assets. So, if you do proper planning of your city, you are also taking care of the needs of all sections of society. If you do that, you are enabling all sections of society to develop their livelihoods. That is empowering people to rise out of poverty. It's not a subsidy scheme but an empowerment model.

The city can help people rise, but urban development in itself is not a silver bullet for eradicating poverty or removing social disparities.

Another major problem that our cities face is that of pollution and other environmental problems. How will the Smart Cities Mission answer these environmental problems in cities?

One of the initiatives related to the smart cities is something called a City Livability Index. There are 79 indicators in that, and a significant number of those indicators are related to environment. For instance, look at sustainable transport modes to promote non-motorised vehicles, cycle tracks meant to promote cycling and increase of green cover in cities. All these have co-benefits, including environmental ones. If you plan for public transport, then you are reducing pollution, as a significant cause of pollution is congestion. If you don't plan your road networks properly, you are going to have congestion on your roads.

Even though it is not an environment or pollution-controlling mission, a lot of things are being done in the mission that will have a positive impact on the environment.

How does the Smart Cities Mission converge with other government initiatives such as HRIDAY, Swachh Bharat, Urban Livelihoods Mission?

Convergence is very much an integral part of the Smart Cities Mission. In fact, at a level of financing, all the plans that cities have prepared, there is a convergence of funding from all the different missions. Take Ajmer, for example. It may receive money for some projects through the HRIDAY mission, for public toilets from the Swachh Bharat Mission, for water supply from the AMRUT mission. And it may receive funding via the Smart Cities Mission to plan all these in an integrated way and even additional funding for projects like skill development centres or tourism facilitation centres or traffic management systems.

The Smart Cities Mission draws on all of these different sources of funding to finance an integrated development which takes all of these into consideration. Convergence is at the heart of the mission.

What role would technology or the Internet of Things play in our future cities?

In 2014, teledensity in urban India was 1.4; that is, on average, a person has 1.4 devices which are wireless. That is staggering. We have more than 900 million cell phone users in the country. If we look at the presence of Information and Communication Technology (ICT), it can act as an enabling layer over urban infrastructure.

Our transport systems might be completely “Uberised”. Guangzhou in China has done it already for its bus system on a pilot basis. On an app, if enough people raise a demand for a bus to take them from point A to point B, the system sends a bus. On the other hand, in Delhi itself, approximately on 40 per cent of the routes, the buses are running empty during off-peak hours. We are unnecessarily running vehicles where we don’t need to.

What is happening with the application of ICT is a greater efficiency in all municipal operations. Governments feel that they have to make systems more transparent, more based on data and evidence and less dependent on human intervention. A lot of the problems in terms of the delivery of municipal services today are because of the human element, which we need to do away with. Why can't a birth certificate be auto-generated the moment a child is born? It's just a question of feeding the fact into a computer. Rajkot was one of the first cities in the country that had a QR code on each of the birth or death certificates and its authenticity could also be verified from the municipal database by scanning the QR code.

There are several other sectors like energy management, where delivery of services can be more efficient. Overall, e-governance combined with the Internet of Things will create a better enabling environment for a more productive and less environmentally destructive lifestyle for all of us.

The future is going to be smarter if we embrace all of these solutions. It’s happening already. It's just a matter of time. I wish we were exerting more pressure on our political class to demand more attention towards urban development.

Ekta is a staff writer at Swarajya.

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