After the >unveiling last week by Union Urban Development Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu of the government’s list of 98 cities that it wants developed as smart cities, companies ranging from “smart” energy management firms to surveillance equipment providers have typically welcomed the “great clarity and focus for industry players to engage with the cities’ administration”. They all seem upbeat about selling their hi-tech products to the cities. But the government is >yet to reveal what kind of technology it intends to procure and deploy. So far it has maintained the line that the smart cities are meant to integrate public transportation, drinking water, solid waste management, sanitation and sewerage. But the same convergence is seen in the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (Amrut). From the objectives of the new policy, nothing appears ‘smart’ about them; they simply aim to straighten up haphazard municipal services. And you are left wondering what smartness the government could now add to the cities. Is it about having an IT-driven city where one massive control room would deliver public services? Is it about analysing police data to forecast shootouts? Is it about using rodent-related data to neutralise potential infestation spots? That’s how “smart” municipalities function in Europe and in the U.S. But in the Indian context, the new urban renewal theory is far from those lines, and the adjective “smart” is actually misplaced. This vagueness does put a finger on India’s urban planners. Have they paradropped the concept, or do they actually believe in bringing about such a radical change? And considering the amount of time and energy the urbanisation experts at the Planning Commission have invested in discarding old policies and experimenting with new ones, you wonder why they chose to invoke the flashy adjective when their motive was pretty basic. Perhaps the answer lies somewhere between the time the country had a change in political leadership in May 2014 with the BJP coming to power, and now.
Two years ago, when the Congress was in power, the urban planners at the Planning Commission believed the correct thing was to focus on setting the process of urbanisation right. Because various urban renewal programmes had failed they realised that engineers and contractors cannot make urbanisation happen; they can only support the process where it happens organically. And for the time being, they decided to keep the IT companies at bay and work towards fixing the holes. But now that thought seems to be eroding with Mr. Naidu urging local and international investors to invest in the smart cities. His office seems crammed with representatives of Chinese and German companies showcasing smart power grids, smart waste disposal plants, and smart water tanks. He must decide soon whether he’d like to entertain them, or stick to basics.