Why Smart Cities Mission must allow real-time project feedback
The Smart Cities Mission (SCM) is a dynamic programme whose strength lies not, as popular culture would have us believe, in futuristic or technological solutions but in the simplicity of a selection process that has the capacity to improve in real time. If this structure is used effectively and employs citizen-engagement in the implementation process, the SCM could reduce its chances of being afflicted by two of the most common development maladies in the country - over promising and under delivering.
Three examples demonstrate the potential for flexibility in the SCM. One, Aizawl was recently inducted into the mission despite the fact that the city’s planned form of development eschews the mission’s basic tenet. Aizawl plans to direct a greater portion of its budget on pan-city initiatives rather than focus on the compact area-based development that the mission promotes. This could result in finances and development spreading more evenly across the city. To the credit of the ministry of urban development, this demonstrates that there is space to move beyond the norms of the mission if the change allows for more appropriate and thus, ‘smart’ solutions being implemented.
Aizawl was selected in the latest round of the competition and the intervals between these rounds allow for patterns of change to become apparent. These patterns demonstrate the dynamism of the mission itself, which is learning from its own decisions towards building, hopefully, more resilient cities.
Two, there has been a clear movement away from ‘greenfield developments’ or cities that were going to be built from scratch, towards more affordable and perhaps more effective forms of urban regeneration within existing cities. These shifts signify the possibility of active communication between municipalities and the ministry, where the focus is on urban regeneration rather than enforcing ineffective forms of development. While the ministry should retain this level of flexibility, some clarity on how these changes occur could allow for processes of transparency and accountability, which would improve the strength and credibility of the mission.
Three, the proposals from Davangere and Chandigarh demonstrate the versatility of the mission. Davangere has proposed a more grounded economic regeneration process that incorporates energy and ecological sustainability. Chandigarh, however, has a far more formal form of economic growth. The city will build a large hotel-cum-mall retail compound that will cost over Rs 1,300 crore. The plans of both the cities may or may not come to fruition, however the fact that both the cities are part of the same mission demonstrates a dynamism that is exciting and if approached with care could help cities forge identities, economies and infrastructure that they truly need.
It is important to note that the mission has had the benefit of hindsight by learning from older urban missions in India, such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), which sought to create access to basic services and promote processes of good governance. At its core the SCM has embraced all the primary themes in the basic services that JNNURM sought to provide (Transportation, Housing, and Sanitation and Water) while bringing in newer ideas that were not essential to JNNURM (Energy and Economic activity). This again reflects the possibility for introspection and improvement through the SCM.
There are, however, several projects that could lead to exclusion and disempowerment, especially those like waterfront projects that have historically resulted in displacement of people’s homes and livelihoods.
For the SCM to be truly dynamic it needs to be institutionalise real-time feedback when projects are under implementation to enhance the possibility of inclusion.
If the SCM is able to push for an informed citizenry and active municipal engagement while continuing to adapt the SCM’s framework to suit the evolving needs of Indian cities it could trigger meaningful change and genuinely improve the lives of millions of Indians.
Persis Taraporevala is a research associate, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi
The views expressed are personal
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