With population soaring and urbanization growing, India needs to discover smarter ways to manage intricacies, reduce expenses, increase competency, and improve the quality of urban life. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mission to build 100 smart cities, in a determined endeavor to elevate the urban landscape and make them convenient to reside, is said to be amongst the most aggressive projects launched for the development of the country. Going further, the project has drawn substantial backing and wide-ranging interest from various countries and international organizations who are interested in discovering investment and shared opportunities with India. Ramesh Kumar Raja had a conversation with Pratap Padode, the founder director of Smart Cities Council India, to understand opportunities and challenges associated with the ambitious project. The SCCI, a consulting firm which has been formed to promote development of smart cities, recently launched ‘India Readiness Guide’ to help urban planners understand the framework of a smart city and take steps to improve infrastructure, thereby setting the platform for collaboration between local government and technology providers. Edited excerpts:
How do you see the progress of Smart City project in India so far?
For the first time since independence, urban planning has been given prime importance in a government’s prime mission. For the first time, a time bound plan has been laid out with a clear roadmap and milestones. For the first time, 97 cities have submitted their city development plans for a competition to vie for financing city plans.
But this drive is most timely and essential. It comes when we have run out of options. Our cities have reached a point where a crumbling and ill planned urban infrastructure will hinder growth and therefore our engines of growth will start to sputter.
Deficiencies in the existing city services need to be hastily provided for. Benchmarks need to be set for fulfilment of basic needs and amenities. Resources will come from a sharp reduction in the wastage that emanates from an apathetical administration. Technology can enable the detection of this wastage and it can help identify the area and extent of reduction.
The unique component of the smart cities mission has been the mandated citizen participation which has been to the extent of 12 per cent of the population of the 97 cities. Citizens have voted, endorsed, commended, suggested and have shown their participation in the future of their cities. Further the mandatory provision of involvement of citizen groups on the board of the special purpose vehicle which will be established to undertake the approved city development plan, ensures a continued participatory process.
India has gone in for converting existing cities into smart cities. Do you think it is the right approach or we should have created initial few smart cities anew?
This mission is strategic as it lays emphasis on area based development which is envisioned to proliferate the entire city gradually. Once we have areas within cities which demonstrate the benefits of smart living, other areas will begin to emulate the success. Besides there is not enough money in our coffers to fund entire new cities for the migration flow which is going to take our urban population from current 377 million to 600 million by 2031. New smart cities take 15 to 20 years to build and need very deep pockets.
The investment requirement is huge for the project and PPP has been named as the preferred model for financing the project. But Indian experience in PPP projects is not rosy. Don’t you think it will make projects very risky in terms of financial closure?
Indian infrastructure has been built on the back of private capital and effort especially between 2003 and 2012 and the contribution was to the extent of 45%. The government was hoping for a replay of the same enthusiasm but given the experience of red tape and the reticence in settling disputes over payments, private capital has gone shy. PPP therefore will require the government to create an environment of trust which is going to be very difficult. Due to the same reason, the National Highway Authority of India has had to innovate a hybrid model of annuity where some risks are borne by the government to make it attractive for bidders. Similarly, city governments will have to win over the trust issues to attract private capital to PPPs.
Many experts believe that instead of trying to make smart cities the efforts should be instead made to make cities liveable with good basic amenities which is so lacking today. Where do you stand on this?
Both are needed. One cannot comment enough on the deficiency in delivery of public services but that does not mean that tools to enhance the efficiency of cities should not be administered. Controlling wastage is one of the great benefits in smart cities especially because tools of measurement and accountability can be incorporated.
The ability of the public service bodies to implement and manage a tech based smart city is highly suspect. How can the manpower be improved to undertake such a task?
Manpower availability and training is one of the biggest challenges of the urban renewal mission. But we should not forget that our IRCTC which sells rail tickets online of an equivalent revenue as Flipkart is run by the railways or that BSNL, MTNL compete with private operators in delivery of internet services or that Aadhar card of now nearly 950 million contacts is one of the biggest databases in the world and is run by a public service institution. Having said that new models of motivation, skill training, capacity building will need to be devised and incorporated to attract the right talent to such positions in the future.
By when you think we would be able to see first few smart cities in existence? Which are the cities you feel are most prepared to put in place systems and infrastructure for necessary upgrade?
Area based development will begin to show results in the next three years if not earlier. The pan city initiatives in the form of CCTV surveillance, WiFi availability, LED street lights are already being deployed but the ones which require a systemic change will take longer and the challenge would be to keep them consistently active with defined quality and sustain.
Which are the business sectors which would generate maximum revenue from the project?
In the short run, like I said earlier, CCTV cameras, LED lights, street poles, energy efficient products, consultancy services, urban planning services, power equipment etc. while in the long run, master planning services, construction equipment , building material, telecommunication products and services, waste management technologies and services, water management products and services and so on.