Smart Cities
Snapshot
  • The story so far. And rebuttals to the major criticisms raised about the Smart Cities Mission, and the likely issues in implementation.

Speed + Scale define many initiatives of the Modi government. India’s Smart Cities Mission (SCM) is a good example. From June 2015 to December 2015, 97 cities in India put together their “Smart City proposals”. Twenty winners were declared in January 2016, all in less than 200 days. The winners will start project implementation by June 2016, within one year.

This piece reviews the experience thus far, the major criticisms that were largely imaginary, and the likely issues in implementation.

Eminent commentators often talk about what is to be done; the SCM is a good lesson on how to do it. A few well-intentioned critics had valid points. Sadly, many critics were uninformed and ideology-driven, and didn’t even bother to educate themselves about the SCM.

The major points of criticism were:

1. Why not new cities? Urban planning approaches

2. What is a Smart City? Definition

3. Will a Smart City be for only tech-company-driven solutions, or should it focus on citizen’s needs instead? Scope

4. Best practices and examples: London, Songdo, Masdar and so on. Global models

5. How does a limited amount of Rs 500 crore over five years in a small area make a city smart? Limited financing and geographical coverage

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6. Why not smart villages? Rural priorities

7. Why only 100 Smart Cities, why not all Indian cities? Intra-city coverage

8. Why is the Union government getting into cities, which are under state government remit? Jurisdiction issues

9. Why a new fangled idea, hadn’t we seen the SEZ experience? Defeatism and cynicism

10. Why did so many BJP-ruled cities win; how about states left out? Competition issues

On all the above points, a pragmatic team designing the SCM re-calibrated the design and came up with a winning programme.

The story thus far

The BJP election manifesto of April 2014 had mentioned: “We will initiate building 100 new cities; enabled with the latest in technology and infrastructure—adhering to concepts like sustainability, walk to work etc, and focused on specialized domains.”

In June 2014’s Parliament session, the President, in his inaugural address, said: “Taking urbanization as an opportunity rather than a challenge, the government will build 100 cities focused on specialized domains and equipped with world class amenities.” The Finance Minister’s Budget speech stated: “The Prime Minister has a vision of developing 100 Smart Cities, as satellite towns of larger cities and by modernizing the existing mid-sized cities.”

Smart Cities Mission being Launched/Getty Images Smart Cities Mission being Launched/Getty Images

The first “draft concept paper” from the Ministry of Urban Development (MoUD) came in December 2014. This had “Definitions for Smart Cities” from the UK government’s Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), the British Standards Institute, IBM, Cisco, Wikipedia and Accenture.

At this time, there was much excitement, especially among technology companies wanting to make cities “smart” and international governments who “adopted” various cities. Everything was sought to be converted to smart—smart grids, smart mobility, smart water, smart sanitation, smart big data, smart homes, smart residents, smart Internet of Things(IoT) and so on.

This was followed by a national workshop in end-January 2015. There was no “competition among cities” proposed. Yours truly had made a presentation in this workshop on creating Smart Cities around transport hubs like railway stations. Dr Krishan Kumar, Bhubaneswar’s Municipal Commissioner, came up to me and said that they were already planning their proposal around the city’s railway station.

In early 2015, there was a change in the team driving the SCM. The new Mission Director had a PhD in urban development, with long experience running one of India’s largest cities. SCM entered into new partnerships, including with Bloomberg Philanthropies. Within six months, the SCM guidelines were prepared, with extensive stakeholder consultation and teamwork.

The Smart Cities Mission was launched on 28 June 2015 by Prime Minister Modi, with all states and cities in attendance. The SCM guidelines were much clearer and laid out a specific process of competition, highlighting citizen engagement. Thankfully, there was no “definition” of a Smart City.

In the Stage 1 of the competition to finalize the list of 100 contenders for Smart Cities, each state was given the number of cities it would have in the competition, based on the urban population in the state as a percentage of total national urban population. On the basis on 13 parameters, each state had to rank its cities, and communicate its list of cities participating in the SCM to MoUD.

In Stage 2, each of the 100 chosen cities was to prepare its Smart City plan after extensive citizen engagement. This plan would incorporate a pan-city solution, an area-based project (retrofitting, redevelopment or greenfield), details of project cost and funding, and implementation structures. All plans had to be approved by the city government and endorsed by a state-level committee. This Smart City plan was to be submitted by 15 December 2015.

The SCM team did extensive hand-holding with the 100 contending cities. Four regional workshops with respective state governments and cities were organized. Jammu and Kashmir, allotted two cities, did not send any names. Of the remaining 98 cities, Uttar Pradesh, with an allotment of 12 cities sent 11. The remaining 97 cities were supported throughout the process by the SCM. A list of consultants for nine regional groupings of states was shared online. An ideas camp was organized by Bloomberg Philanthropies in October, where all 97 cities were invited (I had the privilege to attend).

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The methodology for ranking the competition was clearly explained at this ideas camp, aimed at building capacity among city governments preparing their plans. A weekly webcast for contending cities was useful to clarify doubts. Social media was used extensively, both for citizen engagement and for capacity building of the contending cities. In late November 2015, SCM hosted a Proposal Enhancement workshop for all competing cities.

All 97 cities except those from Tamil Nadu (TN) submitted their plans by the 15 December 2015 deadline. The flood-affected TN cities submitted a week later. Over the next three weeks, special teams of experts went through these plans, and assigned marks to the plans.

On 28 January 2016, the results of the competition were announced, with the top 20 winners coming from 11 states and one union territory. In order to be fair to the remaining states and union territories that could not feature in the top 20, the Mission gave another opportunity to 23 cities for fast-track upgradation, to submit their revised Smart City plans by 15 April 2016. However, even these 23 cities would have to make the cut in the challenge to be chosen. The remaining 54 cities would go into the next round of the Smart Cities challenge.

On 22-23 February 2016, a special workshop on Next Steps was organized by the SCM, with the 20 winning cities and the 23 fast-track cities, on how to rework their Smart City plans and make them better. All the 20 winners were urged to launch their implementation before 28 June, 2016—in less than one year from launch.

But how did the SCM resolve the many issues that its critics had raised?

1. Urban planning approaches—new or expand existing cities?

Any city has an underlying economic driver that brings people into it to live, work and play. New cities typically take between 20-30 years to develop into sustainable communities. Most existing Indian cities have doubled in size over the last 30 years, and will likely double again in the next two decades. However, a new city like Naya Raipur has very few people actually living there, and fewer new job opportunities. Hence the pragmatic shift from “100 new cities” to existing cities.

Planning Cities/Getty Images Planning Cities/Getty Images

2. Definition of a smart city

Instead of hi-tech definitions, the SCM guidelines specifically stated that there is no universally accepted definition of a Smart City. Indeed, a Smart City would have a different connotation in India than, say, Europe. To begin with, the “entire urban ecosystem, which is represented by the four pillars of comprehensive development—institutional, physical, social and economic infrastructure—would be a long term goal…The objective is to promote cities that provide core infrastructure and give a decent quality of life to its citizens, a clean and sustainable environment and application of ‘smart’ solutions.”

3. Scope: Tech or people focus?

Perhaps the best thing about the SCM guidelines was the focus on a decent quality of life to its citizens, with smart solutions as a secondary contributor. That is why extensive citizen consultation and engagement over two rounds was built into the Smart City proposal. About 15.2 million urban citizens participated in the consultations across 97 cities. The first in the competition was Bhubaneswar, where 30 per cent of the population participated in the consultation for area-based development and pan-city proposal. Dehradun was placed 97th, partly since the citizen participation angle was perceived to be missing. I am happy to report that on 4 March 2016, I anchored a citizen engagement workshop in Dehradun, helping the city government in preparation of its fast-track revised application.

4. Best Practices and Global examples

In the initial burst of enthusiasm, ICT (information and communications technologies) led-“smartization” of cities was much talked about. International models such as Masdar (Abu Dhabi, UAE) and Songdo (Incheon, S. Korea) were mentioned. Cities that were cited included Seoul, Singapore, Yokohama, Barcelona, London and New York.

However, most global cities have reached maturity, unlike Indian cities that will have very high population growth rates over the next three decades.

Thankfully, the tech focus was replaced by a focus on people, and doing what is right for urban Indian residents. Here, examples from fast urbanizing areas over the last few decades, such as Korea, China and Singapore were more relevant.

5. Limited financing and geographical coverage

Critics said that Rs 500 crore over five years (about USD 80 mn) would be insignificant for a large city, and in any case, taking a small area was not significant enough. However, Bhubaneswar’s winning plan is for Rs 4,537 crore, spread over 985 acres. The financing plan includes contributions from Government of India, Government of Odisha, convergence of other existing schemes, land monetization, PPP and other mechanisms. The initial area of 985 acres would serve as a “lighthouse” for the rest of the city and other aspiring urban areas. SCM guidelines encouraged cities to take “compact areas, create a replicable model which will act like a light house to other aspiring cities”.

Hence, most of the 20 winners chose retrofitting, implementable in the next four years, for their area-based development project. In total, the 20 winning cities have a total investment plan of Rs 50,802 crore, much higher than the Union government’s contribution of Rs 10,000 crore. In effect, this seed funding from the Union government leveraged a much larger amount.

6. Rural-urban priorities

Some critics said that instead of Smart Cities, India should develop smart villages. Now smart villages are desirable; the recent Union Budget focuses its attention on rural India. That said, the urbanization boom in India is an inevitability. India would probably double its urban population in the next 25 years. Hence Smart Cities are not a day late.

Cities and urban ecosystems are also much better than villages in increasing incomes and reducing poverty. “Make in India” and other livelihood-enhancing opportunities will be generated in cities. The difference in per capita income is evident between India’s most urbanized states, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Karnataka, compared to the least urbanized states, Bihar, Assam and Odisha.

7. Why only 100 smart cities, why not all Indian cities?

“Competitive federalism” is being encouraged. Indian states have been competing amongst themselves for quite some time. This is the first time that cities competed with each other.

The Smart Cities Challenge has indeed created a citizen-driven discourse on how India’s cities should compete with one another in offering a better space to live, work and play. While there are 53 million-plus cities in India and 4,041 statutory towns, a competition among 100 cities really excited public imagination and stimulated discussion.

Prime Minister Modi stressed this aspect in a recent Parliament speech, describing how citizens are putting pressure on the leadership of cities and states that did not win to try harder next time. Varanasi, at no 96 in the competition, is a good example of this, he said.

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8. Jurisdiction issues: Union vs State and City government

Some said that urban development and local government is under the State list of the Indian Constitution’s 7th schedule, and it was improper that the Union government was getting into city missions. In the SCM design, state governments decided their respective contending cities, and then approved the Smart City plans of their cities before final submission. The Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to implement the project has a 50-50 equity shareholding of the state government and the city government.

MoUD’s SCM set up a competition with defined success parameters and extended good hand-holding support to cities. The Smart Cities Mission has certainly helped raise the level of discussion around how to make Indian cities better, while complying with Constitutional realities (See “Who Is In Charge?”, next article in smart city series).

9. Defeatism and cynicism: Why a new-fangled, half-baked idea?

There were some doubting Thomases (and Janes) who referred to earlier experiences with very different programmes like Special Economic Zones (SEZs). Such critics did not let reality get in the way of their perceptions. Indeed, a leading business paper’s columnist said that the SCM had “the makings of a classic flop” in a piece published on 28 December 2015.

Everyone is entitled to his or her own opinions but not to his or her own facts. It is true that our cities need much, much more capacity to cope with the inevitable urbanization to come. SCM, by encouraging SPVs, is helping build such capacity.

10. Competition issues: Why were some states unable to feature in the top 20?

All competitions have winners and losers; the question is, why did some cities and states not do well? It is instructive to see the list of all 97 cities, with their respective scores. The topper, Bhubaneswar scored 79 per cent, while the last city, Dehradun scored 38. Varanasi was second last with 40. Indeed, in terms of states, UP had the most competing cities at 11, out of which seven were placed between ranks 82 and 96. Its top city was Lucknow, with 53. The cut-off for 20 winners was 55. Madhya Pradesh had three out of 20 winning cities, and also had nos. 21 and 22, Ujjain and Gwalior.

This suggests that support and encouragement from state governments had a large impact in preparing good plans by the cities. One would sincerely hope that the 23 remaining states and union territories submit winning Smart City plans by 15 April 2016.

The future is nigh

Of course, there would be some scope for improvement in SCM.

First, implementation is the key.

Second, the political conflict between the SPV and the municipal corporation’s Mayor is likely to exacerbate as SPVs are incorporated. State governments would try to retain control via municipal commissioners appointed from the state capital. However, as I suggested in an earlier piece on Swarajya, better cities in India require local political control and leadership. Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu has repeatedly emphasized this need for smart local leadership.

Third, every winning city would do well to have a local academic institution as an NIUA (National Institute of Urban Affairs) counterpart to be a knowledge partner, for continuing institutional memory.

Fourth, winning cities could well take up additional areas for similar development, learning from their initial lighthouse area-based development.

Fifth, enlightened state governments could run a state-level competition for all the 500 cities chosen under AMRUT using similar parameters. And as we have seen from Bihar opting out of the SCM, or indecision in J&K and UP, political imperatives are going to be speed-breakers.

The Smart Cities Mission has demonstrated that good design leads to good outcomes. Other parts of governments, both Union and states, could learn from this. In particular, the railway station modernization programme needs to emulate best practices from here. India is a “reluctant urbaniser” - let us make haste, even if slowly, in making our cities better.

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