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To make cities smart, build physical infrastructure first

Deccan Herald
By Professor  

Cities never become livable overnight. Emerging from the crossroads or small trading points, they go through generations of assimilated planning to cater to contemporary social, religious and other civilisational needs and demands. In the process, they become complex organisms, and no single plan can serve as a panacea for their problems, be it the current government’s Smart City Mission (SCM) or the previous government’s Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM).

There is no denying that decades’ long measures would be required to make our cities livable and smart as per 21st century standards. This cannot be achieved through short-term measures in five or 10 years, or by investing a mere Rs. 500 crore or 1,000 crore in each city.

However, this precisely has been what governments have been doing while dictating the urban reforms agenda from the Centre, resulting in failure to mitigate the effects of rapid and haphazard growth of cities. Either there is inadequate funding in certain programmes like UIDSSMT (Urban Infrastructure Development Scheme for Small & Medium Towns), which could barely make a dent in the status, or we have programmes like JNNURM or SCM, which run the risk of being put in cold storage when the ruling party changes. Attempts at private sector funding in urban development have also not been very successful and have mostly been unattractive outside metropolitan cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Hyderabad.

The Report on Indian Urban Infrastructure and Services, 2011, prepared by a committee set up by the Ministry of Urban Development put the total investment required in the urban sector between 2012 and 2031 at close to Rs. 39.2 lakh crore, or approximately Rs 417.29 crore for each town and city, considering there are 9,391 towns as per Census of India, 2011. Another Rs. 20 lakh crore approximately would be required for the upkeep and maintenance of the developed infrastructure. Against this, the total investment in completed projects for the programmes UIDSSMT and JNNURM between FY 2006-07 and FY 2013-14 was Rs 4,692.05 crore (453 projects) and Rs 14,281.43 crore (227 projects) covering 409 and 39 cities respectively. The average investment per city stood at a miniscule Rs 11.47 crore for UIDSSMT and Rs 366.19 crore for JNNURM. Similarly, the average investment per project stood at Rs 10.36 crore and Rs. 62.91 crore, respectively, under the two projects.

Under the Narendra Modi government, these programmes have taken a backseat and the Smart Cities Mission is hogging the limelight. The mission plans to invest Rs 1,000 crore each in 100 cities, with the Centre and the states sharing the expense equally. As of October 2017, 90 cities have been selected and the total proposed investment in these cities stand at close to Rs 1.9 lakh crore for five years. Other than the government’s share of Rs. 90,000 crore, the rest of the amount is to come through convergence of other state and central schemes like AMRUT, Swachh Bharat Mission, and through revenues from development of real–estate and allied activities. The average per city proposed investment through SCM currently stands at Rs 2,102.84 crore.

Combining all the investments made or proposed under these programmes – UIDSSMT, JNNURM and SCM -- the total stands at around Rs. 2.08 lakh crore for 531 towns and cities between FY 2006-07 and FY 2018-19, at an average of Rs 392.14 crore per town. This is about 5.31% of the needed investment figures between 2012 and 2031, as forecast by the committee in 2011. Based on this average, about Rs 36.83 lakh crore would be required for 9,391 towns by 2031.

The other argument is about the piecemeal approach. The smartness of our cities cannot leapfrog the physical infrastructure development. Our cities need to have resilient water supply, sewerage, power supply, transportation and solid waste collection systems. The physical infrastructure requires simultaneous facilitation by sound and strict implementation of land use and building use regulations. For example, mixing of sewerage with chemicals due to unchecked building use and land use have been adversely affecting the efficiency of sewage treatment plants. Worse, the ever-interrupted power supply does not make treatment any easy; downtime of our traffic signals is high due to poor maintenance; and, after more than 15 years of introduction of smart card-based fare collection by metro systems, we have failed to integrate our buses, taxis and auto-rickshaws with it.

Similarly, systems for water and power management are going to be of limited use, primarily due to a large share of unaccounted non-revenue leaks. Without universal waste collection coverage, RFID-tagged bins and tracking systems in a ‘smart city’ will only be effective for small pockets within the city. This limited segregated waste, mixed with the rest of the non-segregated waste, will do us no good in reducing waste through reuse and recycling, ultimately leading us back to large, unmanageable and insanitary dumping sites.

So, in the absence of sound physical infrastructure, smart city initiatives like Internet of Things and Intelligent Traffic Management Systems will not work to their true potential, and these will become unmanageable white elephants. Our cities do not need a new programme by every successive government. What they need is seamless infrastructure-building. Smartness should just be an element in the overall process. Starting a new mission time and again only adds to the mess. Unless we understand this, nothing will work for our cities. Smart Cities Mission cannot work without the physical infrastructure development initiated through JNNURM and UIDSSMT, and vice versa. As citizens, we remain indifferent to renaming conventions as long as the intended development work goes on without interruption, with addition of new elements like smart city as and when required. We should not forget that whether we call it Planning Commission or Niti Aayog, the objective is the same – the nation’s development. Names don’t bring success, ideas and their continuous pursuit do.

(The writer is Assistant Professor, Jindal Global Business School, O P Jindal Global University, Sonipat, Haryana)