Questions remain over the govt’s ‘smart city mission’ project, says new report
The SCM in India relegated to enhancing existing infrastructure of cities in areas of water supply, mobility, and other such aspects
New Delhi: Initiatives under the flagship Smart Cities Mission (SCM) launched by the NDA government in 2015 are already noticeable. However, there are a few question marks over its overall impact on Indian cities, noted the India Infrastructure Report (IIR) 2023. The report was released by former vice president and former union urban development minister M Venkaiah Naidu on Monday.
The IIR 2023 report, compiled by the National Institute of Urban Affairs, Infrastructure Development Corporation (Karnataka) Ltd, and the IDFC Foundation, has authored papers on issues such as planning and governance, smart initiatives, PPPs and financing, housing and migration, public service delivery, integrating infrastructure, and urban redevelopment by subject matter experts.
The authors of this chapter — Tathagata Chatterji, professor at Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneshwar and Chetan Vaidya, independent director (non-executive) of GIFT City in Gujarat, noted that SCM has been the “most important initiative” to reform urban management and improve the urban situation. But if the SCM can transform Indian cities into “livable and efficient cities is still an open question”, they wrote.
The authors noted that while the mission had started to “smarten” Indian cities to emulate advances made by cities of the global north, the SCM in India had relegated to enhancing the existing infrastructure of cities in areas of water supply, mobility, and other such aspects. Some of the projects that have been taken are developing parks and cycle paths, and the redesign of streets to be friendly to people and children.
Smart cities work under a special purpose vehicle (SPV) model by forming a company jointly owned by the urban local body and state government for the particular city. A CEO appointed for the SPV is an IAS officer working under the state government. The board of the smart city company is composed of high-ranking IAS officers who choose the projects that are to be taken up following broad-based guidelines of the Union government.
The elected mayoral council has no role in the board of the Smart City initiatives.
The authors of this chapter said that this parallel authority of the SCM is “a violation of the spirit of the 74th Amendment”. The 74th Amendment to the Constitution of 1993 recognised urban local bodies as constitutional entities and granted them autonomy for decentralised governance. However, since the CEOs of these SCMs are not autonomous and neither the existing framework of urban local bodies is disbanded, the authors doubted if the present structure will work.
The report also said that worldwide, smart city initiatives such as New York, Amsterdam, Barcelona, Sao Paulo, and Johannesburg have been single-city initiatives where the cities themselves set the key policy objectives and decide upon the technical specifications. But in India, as it is done through a union government scheme, there are significant city-to-city variations in the implementation of the programme.
Unlike routine infra projects, SMC projects aim to bring qualitative change, the authors noted that there is a need to develop a comprehensive framework that would take into consideration the extent to which smart cities can improve the quality of life of the people. The authors noted that in this direction, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs has engaged 15 well-known academic institutions to assess 75 smart city projects across the country.
“These studies can provide valuable inputs towards scaling up and replicating the smart city projects, especially those in the pilot stage. However, it is also necessary to go beyond individual projects and address some of the bigger questions that have come up about the Smart City Mission’s programme design and policy implementation process,” the authors noted.
They said learnings from these will help understand issues like the lack of lasting popularity of bicycle sharing schemes launched under the SCM in various cities. The chapter highlighted the lack of planning, integration, and citizen engagement that led to the failure of such a kind of project. The authors also questioned the effectiveness of the SPV model on which smart city companies for each of the 100 cities are set up. They said it is not clear, due to inadequate research, if SPVs are better equipped to raise funds without an increase in municipal revenue as a whole.
Among other highlights of the report, another set of authors—Debjani Ghosh, assistant professor and research associate Anna Brittas of NIUA—noted that some urban indices introduced by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs for measuring the performance of cities, even though currently useful, are overlapping in nature and can be improved further.
These indices were introduced to measure outcomes of investment in urban development in India through various flagship schemes and programs. Among such exercises, the Swachh Survekshan (SS) is the largest survey of its kind and is aligned with the goals of the Swachh Bharat Mission. The authors noted that while the current trend of ranking cities against one another has a positive impact, certain challenges arise as well. “The changes in indicators, definitions, etc., make comparability difficult as there are overlaps in the parameters/ indicators. Often, the scope and definition of indicators do not consider local context – it must be kept in mind that a ‘One-size-fits-all’ approach does not work in every case,” the authors said.
They suggested that professional agencies collect data on performance with long contracts to do so under the control of the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), or by the NSSO itself rather than by consultants, ad hoc chosen for the purpose.
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