1. Digital India Dialogue: Making our cities smart and liveable

Digital India Dialogue: Making our cities smart and liveable

People’s participation, cities as change agents and the correlation between urbanisation and economic development—these were but a few ideas that policymakers, academics and institutional heads bounced around at the Digital India Dialogue.

By: | Updated: March 27, 2015 12:41 PM
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The government will be announcing two complementary schemes on urban development in the country next month—the Smart city scheme and New Urban Development Mission.

Let’s face it, urban chaos prevails in most Indian cities with haphazard development and lack of proper planning. Most of the cities and towns are facing infrastructural, managerial and environmental problems. It is estimated that by 2030, about 600 million people will be residing in cities in India, primarily due to the ongoing migration of people from rural to urban areas. Needless to say, the existing urban cities are already crunched on resources and infrastructure.

It is in this backdrop that the government’s resolve to build 100 new smart cities and to develop satellite towns around existing cities has come as a breath of fresh air. However, the government’s ambition of modernising the existing cities and also develop greenfield smart cities will require precise planning, effective disbursement of budgetary funds and a large investment in infrastructure.


With the idea of taking stock of all these complexities and to propel the agenda towards the emerging challenges, the Indian Express Group organised the Digital India Dialogue in New Delhi on Tuesday, in a venture with NewsX. The primary motivation was to encourage a frank exchange of thoughts between the political leadership, bureaucracy, chiefs of key academic and corporate institutions on each of the nine components of the government’s pet project: Digital India. Indeed, the gathering of

select thought-leaders present on the occasion extensively deliberated on various aspects of the smart city concept and provided a diversity of ideas for harnessing modern technology to improve the quality of life in our existing and upcoming cities.

In his address, the Union minister of urban development, M Venkaiah Naidu presented the government’s vision for development of smart cities in India. According to him, smart cities can only come up if the people of the country are ready for the transformation since they are the one who would be building it. “Some of us have a misconception that the government alone will build smart cities and hand it over ready-made. That is not feasible. The only model that can work here is PPPP—public private partnership with people’s cooperation,” Naidu said.

“The government intends to address the infrastructure deficit in respect of all of the four pillars of better urban living, that is, physical, social, economic and institutional infrastructure,” the minister remarked. According to him, although the degree of deficit varies, the government is aware it is huge in case of all the four. “New initiatives and innovations are important in the creation of smart cities so that the country can benefit from urbanisation. We are moving fast towards urbanisation. Today, 31% of the population are in urban habitats and we are moving towards 40%. It is estimated that we can even reach 50%. It is a unstoppable process that has already started,” the minister explained.

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Uraban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu and Anant Goenka, Wholetime Director & Head – New Media, Indian Express in an interactive session at the Digital India Dialogue in New Delhi. (Express photo: Ravi Kanojia)

The government will be announcing two complementary schemes on urban development in the country next month—the Smart city scheme and New Urban Development Mission. The brownfield projects will be completed by “retrofitting, redevelopment and pan-city initiatives promoting e-governance platforms for enabling increased citizenry participation,” Naidu said while explaining the ministry’s plans. According to him, as much as 14 countries have already approached the government to help and work with, on the smart city initiatives in the country. “The mayor of New York has offered us help to create the city challenge where we will be able to choose cities for transformation to smart cities,” Naidu said.

The minister also released a report—How smart are our cities? —put together by the Express Group and PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) conceptualising the models for future smart cities in the country. The report assesses the transformation of Indian cities into smart cities and analyses the extent to which Indian cities are using technology to make administration more efficient and empower their citizens.

During the panel discussion titled—Smart Cities: Sustainable & Flexible Models, Bibek Debroy, full time member, NITI Aayog, observed that everywhere in the world urbanisation is co-related with economic development. “I am happy that this particular government has recognised this fact. Under the earlier government, there was a suggestion that urban was bad and government must keep people in rural areas.”

On a question by Subhomoy Bhattacharjee, deputy editor, the Indian Express, who was moderating the discussion, whether we are starting urbanisation programme a bit too late, Onno Ruhl, India country director, The World Bank said that there has been tradition in India to look at urbanisation as a bad thing rather than a lever for change. “It is great that the country has realised it now. India has the potential to develop a planned Gurgaon next to Patna but right planning is needed. The plan must focus on all the basic amenities which a smart city should require. Today, Gurgaon faces huge challenges because it was not planned as a smart city. The government also needs to bring regulation which facilitates these initiatives rather that get into the way. The country has become credible from business perspective.”

Participating in the panel discussion, Amitabh Kant, secretary, department of industrial policy & promotion (DIPP), government of India said that it is true that India is a very late starter for smart city but there is a huge advantage of being a late starter. “We have the best global practices before us. Today we can learn from the experience of Atlanta and Barcelona and use modern technology to leapfrog. The concept of smart city is all about embedding a new city with solid public transportation system. If you are able to do that, you have won the half battle. Second key is building a system for proper and efficient way of recycling the water. It has been huge challenge for India to utilise rain water, so the success would also depend on how well we are able to do dual piping. Third key thing is that how well we manage our waste. These are critical component of smart city.”

In his opinion, Piyush Somani, founder, MD & CEO, ESDS Software Solution, felt that while smart cities are indeed, his concern is about the policy. “I feel that presently right policies are not in place to spearhead the smart city projects. The smart cities we are talking about will generate lot of data because you will have a high number of connected devices, but today we do not have the proper policy on data. And since we do not have right policy on data, how the country is going to make good sense of that (data) which countries such as USA have beautifully used for their benefits”.

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