Ambitious smart cities can unclog urban mess

Dateline

Aimed at providing better infrastructure in urban areas and meeting the challenges of growing urbanisation in the country, the NDA government this week gave its approval for building 100 smart cities across the country.

While emphasising citizen’s participation in planning and development, smart cities will focus on improving urban amenities including transport, water, sanitation, waste water and solid waste management, delivery of services, adopting e-governance and building houses for poor.

As per the plan, the government will develop existing cities by improving its services rather than building entire new areas. For each selected city, the Centre will fund Rs 100 crore per year for five years.

Beneficiary cities will be selected based on ‘City Challenge Competition’ where the ministry will seek names of 4-5 cities from the states and an expert panel will ero in on 2-3 cities in each state based on their sie, population, infrastructure level, upgrade potential for development and capacity to mobilise its own resources for maintain the system for long.

Developing smart cities has received appreciation from the urban planners. No doubt it is a gigantic ambition to meet the challenges of urbanisation in the country as at least 50 per cent of population will live in urban areas by 2050, as against the current 32 per cent.

“It is a game changing project which aims at enhancement of existing cities’ infrastructure and improve the quality of life. In a smart city, residents live and work in a clean, safe and healthy environment,” says Jagan Shah, Director, National Institute of Urban Affairs.

Due to burgeoning population in cities and towns in the country, at present urban local bodies are virtually struggling to meet the challenges due to lack of proper infrastructure, poor sewage facilities, inadequate water supply and shortage of affordable housing.

"As the residents of cities are demanding better quality of life, we have to provide them. Quality of life has been denied over many decades. We have treated cities as necessary evils", Shah says.  Over a period of time, successive governments failed to address urban challenges despite announcing some programmes but those turned out to be mere tokenism or ended up as non-starter.

Though the previous UPA government did try to address the bottleneck in urban areas through Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), it failed to meet the expectation as the programme was marred by delay in implementation due to issues like land acquisition and incapacity of city officials to handle large projects. However, experts appreciate the move of the present dispensation at the Centre in selecting 100 cities out of 4,041 towns and cities in the country for development, and say it is a good beginning.

“This is a good decision by the government as cities are engines of the growth. They contribute 60 per cent plus to the GDP,” says Pratap Padode, Founder Director, Smart City Council of India. Claiming that these cities will accelerate economic growth, Padode says the spending on cities is only 0.7 per cent of the GDP, but these cities give 60 per cent plus of GDP as output.

The BJP-led government made outlays of Rs 48,000 crore for the smart cities’ project. Additional fund will be raised through private investments by the states and urban local bodies through the PPP model. Special purpose vehicle will be created for each city to implement smart city action plan. The government has relaxed norms for foreign direct investment for the scheme.

While expecting investment from the private sectors, the states have to put in place a detailed framework to guide investment and demarcate responsibilities. The key issues would be to overhaul urban governance and infrastructure, both physical and digital by urban local bodies.
Though several countries like Singapore, Japan, the US, Spain, China, Germany, France and the Netherlands have expressed interest in the project, each state has to sign agreements with for-eign countries after selection of the cities in their respective states. While foreign countries bring technical experts, ultimately its execution lies with urban local bodies.

‘Area based’ approach

“The scheme will be implemented through ‘area based’ approach consisting of retrofitting, redevelopment, pan-city initiatives and development of new cities,” says Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu.

Redevelopment enables reconstruction of already built-up area that is not amenable for any interventions, to make it smart, as in the case of Bhendi Baar of Mumbai and West Kidwai Nagar in New Delhi, he says.

The implementation of the scheme will be in a phased manner and the government plans to identify 20 smart cities in 2015, 40 in 2016 and another 40 in 2017.

Though there is a huge responsibility on the government to provide facilities to residents of cities with minimum disruption and least chaos, the ambitious project calls for rigorous planning and clearly defined implementation guidelines.

According to officials of the Ministry of Urban Development, the scheme is guided by twin objectives – meeting the challenges of growing urbanisation in a sustainable manner, and ensuring the benefits of urban development to the poor through increased access to urban spaces and enhanced employment opportunities.

While the success of the programme mainly depends on the state governments and urban local bodies as to how they will implement it, residents of the city have an equally important role to play in its execution as ultimately they are the one who will benefit out of it.

With a poor civic sense among the people in the country, one has to wait and see how beneficiary citiens will play pro-active role in developing their cities as well as ensuring its sustainability for long.

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