What will make PM Narendra Modi’s Smart Cities mission a success

Narendra Modi launched urban development missions – Smart Cites, Atal Mission For Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) on Thursday.

India's business environment has improved but much more needs to be done across dimensions such as land acquisition, dispute resolution and procurement process to propel its global standing, says a report. (Photo: Reuters)

While the Central government has taken the initiative for futuristic development of urban areas, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi launching three flagship schemes, it is the local governance — by state governments and the urban local bodies (ULBs) — that will have to take the lead, armed with technology. Modi had, on Thursday, launched urban development missions — Smart Cites, Atal Mission For Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY).

The focus on improving the quality of life in urban India comes on the back of projected growth in population across cities in the coming years.

A report prepared by IT industry body Nasscom, in partnership with Accenture, states that India’s population in towns and cities will rise to 600 million by 2031 and therefore infrastructure in these zones will need to keep pace with the growing requirements. The report also points that technology would play an important role in making cities and their governance smart.

If development of greenfield smart cities is the benchmark, an improvement in infrastructure holds key.

However, there are apprehensions as to how cities like Kanpur, Allahabad, Agra, Varanasi, etc, that are densely populated and have crumbling infrastructure will be turned into smart cities.

While the report highlights various issues such as power, water distribution, waste disposal, drainage, healthcare and education that need to be worked upon extensively with the use of technology, governance comes at the core of maintaining existing infrastructure and development of new ones.

For example, last week’s incessant rains in Mumbai almost choked and paralysed the city. Flooding of Indian cities with the arrival of the first shower is a common phenomenon and it has got more to do with the governance (maintenance of civic infrastructure and preparedness of civic authorities) than with the physical infrastructure itself.

The example of Surat, in terms of cleanliness, is also a lesson on how improvement in governance can transform a city. A plague scare in 1994 not only frightened but even transformed the residents and the municipal corporation.

It’s just the will power and vision of the authorities that saw the city go through a paradigm shift. Now, it has one of the best water-treatment plants in the country and a superior solid waste-disposal system. The city has also seen exponential rise in the number of gardens over the years.

A smart city must comprise mechanisms that ensure smooth functioning of all systems and processes within it. The report carves out four key elements that, if taken care, will make city governance smarter: operations and maintenance, public infrastructure asset management, integrated operations and citizen services.

While operational maintenance comprise of inspecting, cleaning, servicing, preserving and adjusting, infrastructure asset management is an integrated multidisciplinary set of strategies to sustain public infrastructure or municipal assets such as water treatment facilities, sewer lines, roads, utility grids, bridges and railways. A command centre helps in monitoring the city services on real-time basis; improvement in citizen services such as bill payments, tax payments, registering complaints leads to better governance and public interface.

As Indian cities currently lack efficiency and synergy between various agencies that govern them, the report puts the blame on existing manual processes for the same and calls for a holistic and technology-based approach to solve them. This includes information and communication technologies (ICT) and geospatial technologies (GT).

Stating that the exiting institutional framework for urban planning and governance does not clearly identify the roles and responsibilities of state governments, parastatals like water supply, sewerage boards and urban local bodies need to work better.

The report points out some ICT- GT based solutions for smart governance:

Operations and maintenance:
Issues: City services such as water, energy, transportation are delivered by different entities and there is minimal collaboration during planning and maintenance which leads to duplication of efforts. While maintenance is mostly reactive than preventive, on most occasions service providers are not held accountable for low-service performance. Also, since different departments have different set of staff there is little synergy and high cost.

ICT-GT enablers: The report states that for smart governance, cities must have integrated command and operation centres that will not only enable better management of services but will also lead to integration of operations across various departments leading to optimisation of cost and efficiency. It helps monitor city services on a real-time basis and therefore improve on synchronising maintenance activities. Use of business process re-engineering and automation will help improve efficiency and reduce turnaround time. Also use of predictive analytics will help understand equipment performance and maintenance requirements.

Another important enabler is city performance dashboard that helps monitor the performance of city subsystems through the use of digital technologies and big data analytics to manage city governance, efficient performance and proactive crisis management. Workforce and resource management solutions should also be used as they can help improve workforce engagement and task management. They can help optimise the workforce with the help of workforce management solutions like planning, forecasting & scheduling, shift management etc.

Infrastructure asset management:
Issues: While municipalities across the country have limited asset inventory, even wherever it’s available it is not up-to-date. Also, there is a comprehensive asset management strategy in place. The report also points that asset tracking is not possible and when unavailable in the market, maintenance works have to be halted until the required parts are produced.

ICT-GT enablers: Integrated asset management solutions lower operation cost by improving asset management practices. They provide visibility of asset, asset usage, maintenance schedules, parts etc.

Citizen interface:
Issues: Though some major metros have got online interface, small cities still rely on manual interface. There are limited channels that are used by the ULBs to communicate key information to citizens. Also, there is lack of single interface for citizen services or registering complaints.

ICT-GT enablers: Cities must have multi-channel citizen interface such as — mobile, web, online, phone etc for services such as bill payment, tax payment, issuance of online certificates, grievance registration etc. City authorities should use social media for two way communication with people. Also there should be a single helpline number for a single point of contact for citizens to reach authorities.

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