Mayors stumble on Smart City mission

On the morning of September 4, a group of mayors from various States of north India arrived at a luxury hotel in New Delhi to attend a workshop on the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s Smart City Mission. In his opening remarks, Union Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu said the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has formulated “radical policy” shifts in India’s urban governance that empowers mayors to take back control of cities from States and encourages them to be self-reliant.

But as the workshop continued, one could cut through the official rhetoric and pick holes in the Smart City initiative. From a logistical standpoint, the mayors, who are frontrunners of the mission, found it hard to follow the mission guidelines. Previous urban development schemes had rendered them powerless and they were reduced to mere bystanders watching the central government handing over projects to State ministers. As the new set of urban policies — Smart City Mission, Swachh Bharat Mission, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) — claim to transfer powers of designing and building cities to municipalities, the shift has been overwhelming.

The mandate, sidelining State ministries, establishes direct contact between the municipal bodies and the Urban Development Ministry, and the coordination assures easy access to central funding with minimum bureaucratic delays. On the other hand, the municipal commissioners, who are trained to administer the city services, are struggling to make the transition from being armchair bureaucrats to on-ground managers, tasked with designing solutions to meet peoples’ “aspirations”.

For the entire mission, the Centre has asked the States to generate half the funding (Rs. 48,000 crore) through public-private partnerships. And mayors are encouraged to use their political clout to attract private investors.

If all these elements work in tandem, the government is optimistic that one smart city will inspire an urban sprawl expected to function more on private investments, less on government funding. The endgame is to generate as many urban centres as possible and ensure a double digit GDP.

To speed up growth for a slowing economy and create a consuming class of city dwellers, the role of a municipal body is crucial. Since the Smart City initiative is cutting out aggressive State spending, municipalities have to generate funds from private investors and take capacity-building measures to initiate big projects. But that is precisely where the shortcoming exists. At the end of the workshop, when the floor was thrown open for questions, Mamta Pandey, Mayor of Satna Municipal Corporation in Madhya Pradesh, asked the panellists if she could construct a hospital instead of a smart city. Though her town has qualified to build one, the question was irrelevant, evidence that Ms. Pandey was not familiar with the project guidelines. And Ms. Pandey is not the only mayor out of touch with the shifting urban demographics. Speaking to The Hindu, Captain J.M. Pathania, Director, Urban Development in Himachal Pradesh, who also attended the workshop, said it is a rare sight to see mayors well-informed about the government policies. Most of them, he said, are devoted to pleasing their political patrons.

Shadow of JNNURM

In the recent past, the efforts of roping in private investors to quickly transform societies have often hindered urban progress. Between 2008 and 2014, the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government rolled out the ambitious Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), and partially relied on private sector investments to speed up its implementation. Much to their dismay, private investors refused to come forward. Out of 2,900 JNNURM projects, only 50 projects were backed by the public-private-partnership (PPP) model, with a private sector capital investment of just about Rs. 1,000 crore, which barely covered 0.2 per cent of the total project cost.

Sceptics also say the government’s hasty drive to urbanise small towns with the support of private money is doomed to fail. Amitabh Kundu, professor of Economics, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, points out in his 2010 essay ‘Urban System In India’ that “given the new dynamics of urban industrial development associated with the strategy of globalisation, the small and medium-sized towns, located away from the ‘emerging global centres of growth’, particularly those in backward regions, have failed in attracting much private investment.” Like in the Smart City Mission, JNNRUM also featured the need for setting up strong mechanisms for sewage treatment, solid waste management and drainage, but these were the areas where private investors were not forthcoming.

As much as the BJP-led government is advertising its empowering of the municipalities, it also burdens them with unreasonable targets. Before jumping into the deep end with urbanising 100 small towns that have met the “smart city” criteria, the government should consider whether its financing model is feasible. And simultaneously mayors and commissioners should be trained to design new projects and tap into local resources. Otherwise, the Smart City Mission will turn into an unattractive proposition right from the municipal level, which is its core.


The Smart City initiative expects municipalities to generate funds from private investors and take capacity-building measures to initiate big projects