The chosen six: Indian cities, European fix

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Anil Sasi | Published: March 19, 2016 6:41:59 PM

The Smart Cities project, a flagship scheme of the Centre under which 100 smart cities are to be built in the due course, has seen a selection of 20 cities in the first competitive round.

smart citiesThe Smart Cities project, a flagship scheme of the Centre under which 100 smart cities are to be built in the due course, has seen a selection of 20 cities in the first competitive round.

For the NDA government’s Smart Cities programme, an offer of assistance from France and Germany could prove to be a shot in the arm. Between the two European economies, there is now a firm commitment for assistance in upcoming projects across six cities — Germany offering to help out in Kochi, Bhubaneswar and Coimbatore and France for Chandigarh, Nagpur and Puducherry.

The Smart Cities project, a flagship scheme of the Centre under which 100 smart cities are to be built in the due course, has seen a selection of 20 cities in the first competitive round. The government has committed to providing financial support to the extent of Rs 48,000 crore over five years. An equal amount on a matching basis is to be contributed by the state or urban local bodies, with more funding likely to be leveraged from private companies and through monetisation of services. The second round of the smart cities programme starts in April.

Countries such as Germany and France could be relevant in the larger scheme of things, considering that both countries have extensive experience in city development. One of the most comprehensive German smart city projects is Telekom City Friedrichshafen in the federal state of Baden-Wurttemberg, where for five initial years and then for a further three years, smart city applications in administration (under e-government), traffic (e-ticketing) and networked homes have been tested.

The project, completed in February 2015, was aimed at showing the positive outcomes of innovative information and communication technologies. In France, ‘EcoCite’, a programme launched by the French government in order to set up demonstrators of sustainable city development and spread innovation, has led to the Alpine town of Grenoble in southeastern France emerging as the largest and most diversified project amongst 13 French ‘EcoCities’.

In India, each of the selected cities has identified specific areas that will serve as prototypes for other areas, including solid waste management, security, healthcare, traffic management and parking. Running themes across the projects are the use of IT connectivity, e-governance and citizen participation in projects. The cities have been entrusted with the task of having to translate proposals into specific project requirements, and also finding and managing the funds for the proposed projects.

Germany’s commitment to assist India on the Smart Cities initiative was extended by State Secretary Gunther Adler of the German Ministry for Environment, Nature Conservation, Building and Nuclear Safety, who proposed that the European economic powerhouse would contribute to projects in Kochi, Bhubaneswar and Coimbatore.

Adler, who was on a two-day visit to India earlier this month, affirmed that the German Building Ministry would support German companies that want to cooperate intensively with Indian partners in order to assist Indian cities in implementing their plan. Germany, where there is an emerging political commitment for developing Berlin as a smart city (the Berlin Senate in April last year decided on the Smart City Berlin Strategy that aims at, among other things, creating a pilot market for innovative applications), is undoubtedly very strong in the area of planning for urban centres.

These include solutions and interventions such as sustainable urban mobility, water and waste-water management, renewable energies and energy efficiency. Incidentally, India is the biggest partner of Germany’s development cooperation programme worldwide and, in 2015, this collaboration has touched a new record of 1.5 billion euro (Rs 11,000 crore).

In case of France’s plans to help out for developing Chandigarh, Nagpur and Puducherry as smart cities, the Agence Française de Developpement (French Development Agency) has signed memorandum of understanding with the Chandigarh and the Puducherry administrations, as well as with the Maharashtra government.

The French have a historical connect with two of these three cities. Chandigarh, designed by the French architect Le Corbusier half a century ago as a model city, is spread across 114 sq km and the urban infrastructure and green belt of the city provide it a distinguished status among India’s planned cities. Puducherry has a French colonial connection.

There are some grey areas that are being flagged as well, especially with regard to the commercial aspect of smart city projects. Globally, it is an established fact that big companies have long been pushing smart cities. The technological development of New Songdo City — a spanking new smart city built from scratch on 600 hectares of reclaimed land along Incheon’s waterfront, 65 kilometres southwest of Seoul — is being handled almost entirely by Cisco, while the Fujisawa Sustainable Smart Town is being built by a consortium of companies led by Panasonic.

German tech major Siemens has taken pole position in the building of the smart city of Masdar on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates. Critics flag the case of the development of smart cities happening in a top-down manner led by corporations, who allegedly push the entire development agenda for commercial gains even as municipal corporations and citizens do not have as much a say as they should have in such projects.

For India, though, sustainable urban planning is an imperative. Given that the urbanisation level is still at just around 31 per cent, far lower than China’s 54 per cent, Brazil’s 90 per cent and well over 80 per cent in most developed economies, the government’s policy thrust on upgrading urban infrastructure through Smart City projects makes practical sense.

Especially since the importance of these urban centres as drivers of India’s growth story cannot be underestimated. McKinsey’s report — India’s economic geography in 2025: States, clusters, and cities—had identified 49 metropolitan growth clusters covering 183 districts across India, which it estimated would contribute 77 per cent of India’s incremental GDP, 72 per cent of consuming-class households, and 73 per cent of its incremental income pool in the 2012-25 period.

In terms of economic growth policy making in India, the supply of affordable housing and large public transportation networks are central to the growth prospects of any large metropolitan area. States need to prioritise the long-term development of these areas, with the Centre stepping in wherever they overlap across states.

The compelling argument in favour of giving greater play for technology companies in projects such as smart cities is to tap into futuristic tech interventions. While the development of these projects through foreign government interventions could mean more play for companies from these countries, in the Indian context though, it might be a small trade-off for the potential gains from deployment of technology that could ensure that these new cities indeed make a difference in the country’s chaotic urban landscape.

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