With so much being discussed about smart cities over the last year, the country is eagerly looking forward to an actual demonstration of the smart city experience on the ground. Smart cities are meant to relieve the pressure on infrastructure, while transforming life within cities and thereby transforming India, says Anil Chaudhry, country president & managing director, Schneider Electric India. Recently, the Cabinet approved the 100 smart cities’ project. Digitisation can play a crucial role in transforming Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s vision into ground reality, the Schneider India MD asserts in a recent conversation with Sudhir Chowdhary.
Almost 10 months after its announcement, the 100 smart cities project has finally received the Union Cabinet’s approval. Isn’t this an inordinate delay that will affect the timely creation of such smart urban infrastructure?
The 100 smart cities project is a unique and orbit changing project and like all such projects has a great many details that need to be carefully worked out in order to ensure the success of this laudable ambition. Moreover, we are confident that some government projects will be dovetailed with others, thereby allowing specific timelines to be leapfrogged. The 100 smart cities project involves significant changes being made to old ways of functioning and appears to be proceeding at a better than expected pace. It should be borne in mind that the government’s Digital India programme and its vision to develop 100 smart cities share some synergies that can clearly benefit the latter initiative.
Could you please elaborate on this point?
Digital India seeks to transform the nation into a digitally-empowered society and a knowledge economy. The programme will place technology at the centre of all efforts to foster change. In other words, Digital India will be an overarching programme covering multiple domains and departments backed by the singular vision of transforming these as part of a larger central goal, which is the transformation of India. In this scheme of things, while each element may be a separate entity akin to the spokes of a wheel, it will simultaneously be a conjoined part of the larger picture or wheel.
Towards this goal, Digital India will be centred on three key areas: digital infrastructure as a utility for every citizen; governance and services on demand; digital empowerment of citizens. Coming to smart cities, this programme has some overlapping goals with Digital India, particularly since digitisation is the main mantra of both.
But are smart cities the right priority at this juncture for a still-emerging India?
On the contrary, smart cities are the need of the hour to preempt haphazard development, which has been India’s bane for decades. As urbanisation gathers traction across India and an increasing number of people move from villages to cities, the pressure on urban infrastructure rises with each passing day. Smart cities are meant to relieve the pressure on infrastructure, while transforming life within cities and thereby transforming India.
Significantly, the ‘World Urbanisation Prospects’ report by the UN’s Population Division states that the largest urban population growth will occur in India, China and Nigeria, with India projected to add 404 million in urban areas by 2050. Around 54% of the global populace presently resides in urban areas. This ratio is expected to touch 66% by 2050, adding another 2.5 billion to urban numbers worldwide by then.
With most Indian cities already straining at the seams with the present population, one can well imagine the scenario in 2050. This is where Digital India and smart cities could ensure that life in the cities need not be synonymous with traffic chaos, power outages and water shortages.
Nevertheless, some experts suggest that smart villages may be a smarter priority for India rather than smart cities. How do you react to this?
I would neither contest nor corroborate this thinking. One good priority does not preclude the other. Besides, there is no reason why smart villages cannot become a ground reality too across India. But choosing one over the other may be fallacious.
Wouldn’t swift urbanisation be detrimental to society at large in some way or the other, especially rural society?
Urbanisation is a global phenomenon that cannot be wished away and India is no exception to this trend. It should also be noted that urban areas contribute a higher proportion of the nation’s GDP. With India’s urban population presently being 31%, it contributes more than 60% of the GDP. As urbanisation rises, it is estimated that urban India will contribute almost 75% of national GDP in the next 15 years.
Against the background of the need for more agrarian reform, urbanisation may have some benefits to offer the next generation of the farming community, in particular those who are not inclined to take up their ancestral profession.
Can you cite specific examples how digitisation and smart cities will benefit common citizens?
Almost all cities across India are saddled with infrastructural challenges. A piecemeal approach will either not work or simply take too long in alleviating the problems of common citizens. Smart cities are therefore imperative to handle the burgeoning volume of urbanisation, since such cities can increase efficiencies in public utilities and boost the quality of life for citizens.
The synchronisation between smart cities and Digital India lies in their utilisation of digitisation to increase comforts and conveniences within cities, enhance their level of competitiveness, attract better talent, capital and corporate entities and finally, raise the sustainability quotient of the city and its public services. By fulfilling these parameters, smart cities can provide robust infrastructure and utility service.
Won’t smart cities be more expensive to maintain?
It will be quite the contrary, particularly in the long term, due to their inherent savings potential. Since smart cities utilise the latest digital technologies in all operations (water, electricity, gas, transport, sewage, solar energy, rainwater harvesting, recycling, etc.), these could ensure up to 30% savings on various services and other allied costs.
Since smart cities have a low carbon trail compared to conventional cities, they would contribute their mite in mitigating the ravages of climate change.
Would smart cities be better at withstanding natural calamities?
Being built as per the latest technologies that are more environmentally friendly and robust, they would be more structurally sound. Considering the universal ravages of climate change and global warming, the intersection of goals between the Digital India and smart cities programmes can play a key role in curbing India’s carbon trail through the use of smart, environment-friendly tools and technologies that can make life in cities more comfortable, convenient and liveable.