By Debalina Chakravarty
The flagship mission of the ministry of housing and urban affairs, Smart City Mission , has released around Rs 1,26,000 crore for its urban development projects till February 2019, which is expected to impact 7.33% of the total population and 24% of the urban population of the country. The opportunity to grow with the transformational changes under the mission is significantly high and the first 20 smart cities are growing fast, but with the rest of the cities, there are still some fundamental issues left to deal with.
The 100 smart cities are only 2.5% of the total number of cities and towns of the country and it is expected that the 100 cities will set an example for the remaining urban agglomeration in the future. In most of the smart cities, the development process is planned in some pockets of the cities. For instance, in Bhubaneswar, it is in and around the road Janpath. So, is it possible to achieve economic growth as well as improve well-being by prioritising developmental strategies in regional pockets? It is expected that the pockets will generate spillover effects to the development process, but again the question arises of whether the urban agglomeration is capable of absorbing the smartness through new technologies. Building the capacity of individuals, communities and governance systems to adopt the social and economic transitions should be the topmost priority of the mission. Otherwise, development in regional pockets may infuse conflicts and issues of equity may arise with this kind of centralised development strategy. It may also cause migration to well-developed slum areas from the suburbs of the city when the city has a plan to redevelop its slum areas for improving the livelihood of the slum dwellers.
The mission was also expected to design a city-specific action plan according to the pressing needs of the city identified by the city dwellers. For instance, Bhubaneswar primarily needs a frequent mode of public transportation to provide connectivity with nearby towns, but the action plan started with the non-motorised mode of transportation for last-mile travel. Though it is a fact that non-motorised mode of transportation is a crucial aspect of the mission, which one should be the top-most priority in the current context? Most of the action plans are just replications of successful projects in large cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Ahmedabad, etc, which may not be appropriate for small and/or developing cities of the country. In Pune, for modal transport, there already exists CNG buses and a BRT system; a metro network is also in progress, and, yet, the city is procuring e-buses. The inclusion of the new transport mode may cause disruption in the transportation system as well as in the administrative process. The concern is the limited resources, including the corpus amount, skilled human resources and technologies which are to be used in priority areas to meet the needs of citizens.
Under the public-private-partnership (PPP) investment approach of the mission, the Central government is ready to finance 20% of the projects on the condition that the state government will also invest in 40% of the cost of the project. The rest of the will come from private investment. Given that urbanisation is one of the prime developmental issues, most of our Indian states are not efficient enough to decide where and how to prioritise their public finance amongst core developmental issues including education, health or small- and medium-scale enterprises (SMEs) or for the city development missions of the state. Lack of synergy between the practical evidence, research and action plans are diverting resource allocation from the priority sectors, especially for the backward states of the country.
The mission could introduce some incremental actions along with planned transformational actions. Incremental actions could be considered as an extension of actions and behaviour that are already in place to reduce disturbances towards the mission purpose. Incremental actions, like the use of the battery operated electric rickshaws, at least for last-mile and short distance travel, car-pooling, etc, could actually enhance the capability of the system. Transformational actions are already in the strategic plan to change the fundamental attributes of the system in response to actual or expected impacts of the mission. For a holistic policy like the smart city mission, experts from different fields realise that a comprehensive understanding of the mission across all stakeholders is an urgent need to arrive at a common framework for the cities. Lack of identification of the needs, proper dissemination of information and inappropriate understanding may adversely affect the fundamental objective of the mission. If the citizens cannot identify their core needs and priorities, then their participatory decisions will divert the missions principle objectives. The limited vision for the mission may cause a vicious circle of incapability especially for the smaller cities under the mission.
-The author is Post-doctoral research fellow, economics group, IIM-Calcutta