One does not need data and factsheets to realise that India is urbanising at a dramatic pace. A report by McKinsey and Company says that India will urbanise at a “speed quite unlike anything the country or the world has seen before”.
It took nearly 40 years (1971 to 2008) for India’s urban population to rise by nearly 230 million; it will take only half that time to add the next 250 million. This means that the under-equipped cities will face tremendous stress. India needs new approaches to tackle the challenge. Urbanisation is of course a global phenomenon.
This is why it figures in the Sustainable Development Goals, that will replace the Millennium Development Goals this year. Goal number 11 says: Make cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Indian governments have tried to refurbish cities: The UPA started the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission, though half of the projects remained undone at the end of its term.
On Thursday, the NDA released the first list of 98 cities that have been picked by states to be part of its dream plan: The 100 Smart Cities project. The Centre’s urban overhaul plan also has another facet: The Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation of 500 cities (AMRUT).
In an explainer (‘What is a smart city’), the government says that the core infrastructure elements in a smart city would include things like adequate water supply, assured electricity, sanitation and efficient urban mobility, among other things.
By any account, these are basic services that smart — or ‘unsmart’ — cities must have. The challenge in Indian cities is not about adding new elements or refurbishing them; it is about maintaining them and following rules where basic city governance comes into play.
Take for example the National Capital Region town of Indirapuram in Ghaziabad. On the face of it, Indirapuram is a planned city. But thanks to encroachment and general disregard for the law, especially by the builders and encroachers, the city is in a shambles.
How new projects will change this remains to be seen. Second, one of the cities chosen among the 100 is New Delhi Municipal Council, an already pampered VIP area. Does the area actually need more funds?
While tinkering with city rejuvenation plans and using technology for solutions could ensure short-term gains, making our cities clean, green and habitable will need more than just funds and tech expertise.
It will need refurbishing of many laws, better implementation, and accountability from those who implement them. Otherwise, the return on investment will remain as unsatisfactory as ever.