Smart cities: Is the policy smart enough?

Published: January 20, 2015 3:05 AM

The government’s Smart Cities initiative is a good one to showcase the importance of cities and their contribution to economic growth.

The government’s Smart Cities initiative is a good one to showcase the importance of cities and their contribution to economic growth. It highlights the need to improve their physical, economic infrastructure and living conditions with the assistance of technology. While the policy acknowledges that smartness in a city means different things to different people, it recognises that for its sustainability, a smart city needs to offer economic activities and employment opportunities to a wide section of its residents, regardless of their level of education, skills or income levels. It recognises that a smart city needs to identify its comparative or unique advantage and core competence in specific areas of economic activities and promote such activities aggressively by developing the required institutional, physical, social and economic infrastructure.

Further, it appreciates the importance of offering to every resident decent living options, i.e. good quality but affordable housing, cost-efficient physical, social and institutional infrastructure such as adequate and quality water supply, sanitation, 24×7 electricity supply, clean air, quality education, cost-efficient healthcare, dependable security, entertainment, sports, robust and high-speed interconnectivity, and fast and efficient urban mobility.

The policy mentions “…the relatively low base allows us to plan our urbanisation strategy in the right direction by taking advantage of the latest developments in technology especially in ICT…” Technology is certainly helpful for enabling better basic services such as creating zero-water toilets and e-toilets which could be relevant for removing the constraints to sanitation access.

While the above parameters as part of quality of living conditions are unquestionable for citizens to have access, it misses the forest for the individual trees. The policy fails to explain how Indian cities, from their current conditions, will rise up to meet the targets of smart cities. For example, basic sanitation.

One-fifth of the country’s quintessentially urban New Delhi’s households do not have latrine facility, for which they depend on a public latrine, as per Census 2011. Why, over 15% of New Delhi’s urban households do not even have a bathroom. It is estimated that lack of waste water treatment leads to $15 billion in treating water-borne diseases in India. Smart cities policy, while encouraging cities to have city-wide sanitation plans, does not explain how to go from open defecation to open defecation-free cities. This is the case with all basic services.

The other part of garnering support for the 100 smart cities idea is the need to respond to the counter-view that urbanisation is necessarily bad for the country, since it has not worked, as may be seen in the pollution, congestion, slums and lack of adequate public services, assessed by any set of norms. The most important part of the response to anti-urbanists is that urbanisation is a process over which policy-makers have no direct control in a democracy, and we cannot restrict movement to cities while migrants can just be incentivised to have better quality of living in their own rural areas by staying put (with better jobs as under the MGNREGA or better basic services as under the PURA). However, the definition of urbanisation is determined administratively. Criteria such as a minimum of 75% male non-agricultural employment, population density of 400 persons per sq km or 1,000 persons per sq mile, and a population of 5,000, make India 31.2% urban. With a more stringent definition, India could be less urban; and with a more relaxed definition, a larger proportion would be urban.

In contrast to India’s conservative estimate, many Chinese large cities today typically encompass an extensive area, which contain an urbanised core (high-density built-up area), surrounded by numerous scattered towns and large stretches of rural territory, usually with dense farming populations, as per some Chinese authors. These cities are so large that according to some Chinese scholars are more aptly called ‘regions’.

Hence, in India, the actual proportion that is ‘urban’ and needs such attention may be much higher than what is warranted by the reported 31% urbanisation rate contributing to two-thirds of the country’s GDP, hence the smart cities or other urbanisation policy is well placed at this point, but more research is needed. The positive side is that the policy acknowledges there is a need for a large capacity building programme that encompasses training, education, contextual research, knowledge exchange and a rich database.

But there are many questions that need to be answered, considering the international experience: Do smart cities have to be initiated in new townships or accommodated in existing cities? What should be the role of national and state governments here? What are the relevant timelines for completion of smart city projects? Many leaders are averse to projects whose timelines exceed their time in office. Executive leaders may be resistant to extending the project with a large geographic reach.

Only by first establishing a comprehensive economic vision can cities know what policies to adopt; from this point of view, the pre-existing JNNURM required cities to come up with a vision for themselves in a City Development Plan, which is still useful as a starting point, in the case of those cities which have done this exercise in the post-

JNNURM period, and for those that have realistic enough targets to start from.

While the smart cities policy is inadequate on many counts, taking into account the conservative estimate of urbanisation, it starts earlier rather than later. The positive aspect of the use of technology to manage urbanisation and the delivery of basic services envisaged as part of the smart cities initiative is that it forges greater transparency which should garner public interest and support for the initiative.

By Kala Seetharam Sridhar
The author is professor, Centre for Research in Urban Affairs, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore. Views are personal

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