If the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme was the UPA’s flagship scheme, the Smart City project is certainly the NDA’s dream project. Last week, the Centre announced the names of the first batch of 20 urban centres that have made the cut, out of the 100 earmarked for the ambitious project, which hopes to change the face of urban India. Of the 20 cities, nine are from the BJP-ruled states and four from the ones under the Congress. There are five cities from the poll-bound states — Chennai, Coimbatore, Guwahati, Kochi and Ludhiana — but interestingly, there is no city from the two significant ones: West Bengal and UP.
A smart city denotes an urban area that has world-class and eco-friendly infrastructure, automated waste disposal, sustainable transport, affordable housing, and digitised public services. While it sounds futuristic and all Indian cities would want to have such fancy ‘hardware’ upgrades, the success of the project and, more importantly, the longevity of the expensive future assets would be dependent on the investment made to improve the city’s ‘software’ — the quality of governance and the human resource — and funds earmarked to maintain the new infrastructure. In fact, it would not be wrong to say that India’s civic administrators and politicians have a tendency to pay very little attention to the maintenance of India’s expensive infrastructure projects and public utilities but are always overenthusiastic to start new ones. For example, Delhi’s circular railway. It is a transportation asset but extremely underutilised and badly maintained. Do we want this to happen to the new ones also? Unsurprisingly, the maintenance of quite a few of our public utilities has been given over to professional companies, mostly foreign, at very high costs, which are then either passed on to consumers or borne by cash-starved civic agencies. A report prepared by Nasscom and Accenture on the smart city project also mentions these challenges: While various issues such as power, water distribution, waste disposal, drainage, healthcare and education need to be worked upon extensively, governance will be the core of maintaining the existing infrastructure and development of new ones.
Along with this, there has to be an alignment of political interests with the smart city goals for the success of this project. An example is the city that tops the list, Bhubaneswar. Much of what the city is today is the handiwork of an IAS officer. But then she ran afoul of a politician and was transferred; this kind of chop-and-change for short-term political gains could kill a project that has the potential of changing urban India.