The recent expansion of the Union Cabinet followed a performance report on the ministers. Prime minister Narendra Modi reviewed the progress of his ministries in implementing the government’s decisions and the announcements made in Union budgets since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came to power in 2014. Though no changes were made in the urban development ministry (MoUD) in the reshuffle (apart from minister Venkaiah Naidu getting the information and broadcasting ministry), for HT Estates, however, the time seemed to have come for an assessment report on one of the most ambitious plans of the government: The Smart Cities Mission.
The biggest drawback of the scheme, urban development experts say, is the narrow focus of the scheme on the prism of area-based development as it benefits only a small portion of the society. “It needs to be made more participative and should focus on real problems faced by cities,” they say.
In January this year, 20 cities from a pool of 100 cities were selected by the Central government and allocated Rs 100 crore each for a period of five years. A few weeks ago Modi launched another set of 13 smart city projects in Pune, and started 69 initiatives in other smart cities in the country. The prime minister emphasised that the country’s people “who are the smartest” should take decisions on how urban spaces are to be developed.
Launched in June 2015, it is being touted as the “first in the country and even in the world (where) investments in the urban sector are being made on the basis of competition-based selection of cities.” Every smart city will receive Rs 500 crore in the next five years, which is expected to generate private sector interest in all 100 cities. Experts say the government could have been a tad overambitious. This is because even under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission or JnNURM (replaced by the Smart Cities Mission) data reveals that in spite of opening up investment for private players, the PPP model has failed to take off in a big way, especially when it comes to implementation of infrastructure projects.
Narrow prism of area- based development
Cities made it to the smart list on the basis of plans they submitted to MoUD for their development (including select areas in the city). “Proposals from a majority of cities have financially prioritised developing a small area instead of the entire city. As much as 71% of the funding from the mission will be spent on area-based development, the beneficiaries of which are only about 4% of the city’s population on average,” says Bhanu Joshi, a public policy researcher at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi.
In Bhubaneswar, Odisha, for example, the focus is on developing an area around the railway station which will ultimately benefit only about 4% of the population. In the Capital the New Delhi Municipal Corporation (NDMC) area has been picked over Sangam Vihar, which probably has more pressing infrastructure issues.
“Under area-based development, cities have proposed redevelopment of old and creation of new central business districts, retrofitting infrastructure such as water supply, sewerage, and creation of public spaces, apart from reinventing landscape. The proposal for the entire city, however, has been limited to IT-based services like CCTV-monitored central command system, “smart” education portals and “intelligent” water and traffic management systems. This prioritisation of area might enhance the ‘lived’ experience of residents of the area, but poses two larger questions on the substance of this mission,” says Joshi. The Smart Cities Mission is aimed at land monetisation. “To present a land monetisation plan in the garb of national urban policy and encourage it as a model for the entire city is inappropriate and deeply worrying,” says Joshi.
Issue of governance
Yet another challenge is the issue of governance. In the guidelines for the mission, the role of the local governments was significantly cut short — delegating the decision-making powers to a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) to be set up to implement the mission.
“The Smart Cities Mission, the Union government’s flagship programme in urban areas has been a non-starter as of now. One of the key constituent of the Mission is to have a SPV in each city. In a reply to the parliament in April, the MoUD said that only 13 of the 20 cities had created the SPV. Since then, 13 more cities have been added, taking the total to 33. How many of these cities have created SPV – which is the implementing agency, is not yet known,” says Joshi.
By prioritising SPVs as implementing agencies, the mission is invariably neglecting the one lakh elected representatives from the urban local bodies which continue to remain functionally, structurally and financially neglected in the urbanisation debate. And that is the reason there was uproar over the selection of the smart areas in Bhopal when the competition was first announced.
In Dehradun, citizens have been protesting the exclusionary proposal. Similarly, in Pune, the state government replaced the commissioner (and to be head of the SPV) with a state official in a much-controversial decision.
Pratap Padode, founder and director, Smart Cities Council India, says that the procurement process is the next big challenge. Cities will have to ensure the integrity of the process of procurement. What this means is that instead of using low grade raw material that perhaps will last just about a year, they will have to ensure that the material they finally decide to procure will last longer and will be sustainable.