In the season of controversies, the latest addition is the arguments and counter-arguments over the Smart Cities project of the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre. This comes close on the heels of the Sena’s demand to sack state’s Advocate General Shrihari Aney’s over his remarks that the Centre should seek a referendum for granting statehood to the Vidarbha region.
Though it was launched in June, the Smart Cities project formally became a contentious issue between the ruling BJP and Shiv Sena on Monday. The Sena objected to certain provisions under the project and expressed apprehension that the Central government will encroach upon the powers of the civic bodies. To oppose Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet scheme, the Sena has brandished its pet theory which it has used in the past: it is a controversy to make Mumbai a union territory.
The bone of contention seems to be the condition under the project that the civic bodies will have to form a special purpose vehicle (SPV) with equity by Centre and state government to implement infrastructure projects under the Smart Cities. The Shiv Sena doesn’t want the control of the SPV on the infrastructure work that would be taken up. The party has always opposed the state government agency Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority (MMRDA) building infrastructure projects in Mumbai and considers that as an encroachment on the powers of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). The control of the BMC and thus on the Mumbai city is like oxygen for the Sena. It derives its strength from the political control over the Mumbai civic body which has a budget of over Rs 30,000 crore, more than some small states in India. And it is no secret that the BJP top brass wants to strip the Sena of its power in Mumbai. Naturally, the Thackeray-led party now suspects that the Centre may interfere in Mumbai administration through the Smart Cities project. This has led to a bitter tussle which may now see the two alliance partners fighting with each other in the Mumbai civic body on Tuesday.
On its part, the BJP is aggressively defending the project.
It has pointed out how the state already has SPVs such as Shivshahi Punarvasan Prakalp Limited (which builds houses for slum dwellers by giving funds to builders) and Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) which built the Mumbai-Pune expressway, and flyovers in Mumbai and other cities. However, Smart Cities could be more close to the SPV model of Mumbai Metro One Private Limited, which built and is operating Mumbai’s first metro. The SPPL has government money while the MSRDC raised funds through the market; the MMOPL has private investment, and the private partner has control over its board. The BJP wouldn’t like to be reminded that the government is locked in a bitter tussle with the MMOPL over the issue of metro tariff which was hiked from Rs10 to Rs40, to a maximum of Rs 110. The MMOPL has refused to accept the government’s demand to keep the tariff low.
Unfortunately, all political parties are taking a convenient stand rather than discussing the problems of our cities seriously.
For chief minister Fadnavis, the whole issue has become a headache. Since it is a prestigious project for prime minister Modi, he will have to ensure that the BJP governments at the Centre and in the state do not face embarrassment with major civic bodies like Mumbai and Pune refusing to be part of it. That is why he has launched an exercise to get all political parties on board. On Monday, he managed to get the help of Nationalist Congress Party to adopt the Smart Cities project for Pune, which is ruled by an NCP-led alliance. He promised Maharashtra Navnirman Sena Chief Raj Thackeray he would address his concerns, thus ensuring the participation of MNS-ruled Nashik civic body. His challenge now would be to get Mumbai under the Smart Cities.
Will Fadnavis find a way or will this go the land bill way as mentioned by Sena? Will Fadnavis manage to get all parties on board?