Smart Cities Mission: Flaws in a flagship programme

The Smart Cities Mission not only prioritises parts of a city over the whole but also truncates the role of local city governments.

June 29, 2016 01:00 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:03 pm IST

The Narendra Modi government would be celebrating a year of the launch of its flagship urban programme, the >Smart Cities Mission , this month. In January, >20 from a pool of 100 cities were selected by the Central government under the Smart Cities Mission. Aimed at allocating Rs.10 billion to each selected city over a span of five years (Central government funding of Rs.5 billion, matched with equal funding from States/local bodies), the mission has been claimed by Venkaiah Naidu, the Minister for Urban Development, as a “first in the country and even in the world [where] investments in urban sector are being made based on competition-based selection of cities”.

According to Census 2011, 31 per cent of India’s total population lives in urban areas — a marginal increase of a little over three percentage points from the previous Census of 2001. In absolute numbers, however, India added about nine million people to the urban areas, bringing the number of urban residents in India to a total of 377 million. Additionally, for the first time since Independence, the growth in total urban population is higher than the absolute rural population growth. It is in this context that a close scrutiny of the Smart Cities Mission, as this government’s articulation of what it thinks of India’s urbanisation, is warranted. With the final list of smart cities being announced, the process route taken and the proposals selected provide profound insight into what the mission would do for our cities.

Bhanu Joshi

Prioritising the area The 20 cities were selected on the basis of a “Smart City Proposal” which was submitted by the city. The proposal was to contain two ideas — one, for the development of an area, and two, for the entire city. Proposals from a majority of cities have financially prioritised developing a small area rather than the entire city. According to the proposals analysed by the writer, 71 per cent of the funding from the mission will be spent on area-based development, the beneficiaries of which are about 4 per cent of the city’s population on average.

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.

No framework for development First, the Central government incentivising development of a small area and not the entire city doesn’t augur well. Explicitly, the Smart Cities Mission is aimed at land monetisation. Indeed, one of the big issues of our cities is that land, as a resource, hasn’t been fully exploited. The mission is arguably trying to articulate this particular aspect of our cities — that is, to suggest that land monetisation has not been addressed and there needs to be some thinking on this. One of the ways of doing this is to begin a project-based development, something that the mission proposes. But 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.

Second, the mission also fails to articulate an institutional framework for urban development — a sustainable blueprint for governance for our cities — on two counts.

The first is convergence. There are multiple policies for urban India: the Swachh Bharat Mission which is gearing up to make urban areas clean; Housing for All which promises universal housing by 2022; the National Urban Livelihoods Mission; the National Urban Information System; and the Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY). Additionally, there are multiple infrastructure projects like expansion of city roads and highways, water reservoir and storage-related development which are mostly undertaken by development authorities or the State governments. The Smart Cities Mission’s convergence with all these schemes is not known.

The second is governance. During the launch of the mission last year, Mr. Modi said, “The decision to make the city smart should be taken by the city, its citizens and its municipalities.” Ironically though, 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), a body to be set up and which would implement the mission. The purported lack of capacities in our city government is arguably the rationale for the creation of an SPV. But is an SPV the right institutional architecture for our urbanisation and city development?

In 1992, the 74th constitutional amendment had envisioned an elected local government with neighbourhood committees and mohalla sabhas as an institutional architecture vis-à-vis the functional, financial and legislative domain of city governments. The mission buries this arrangement and at the same time fails to provide an alternative.

Bypassing political chaos and employing participation shortcuts to produce aggrandising structures of glass and steel, thinking that our cities would become inclusive and sustainable, is clearly not a very smart idea.

Bhanu Joshi is a public policy researcher at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi.

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