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How SMART are Indian Smart Cities?

Friday, August 11, 2017

With potholes and infrastructure of Mumbai becoming a matter of national debate, it can be said that the city is in dire need of a smart makeover. Sulakshana Mahajan gives insights into the real meaning of a SMART city

The concept of a Smart City (SC) has evolved from modern Information, Computer and Telecommunication (ICT) technologies and their convergence in the last two decades. The concept is selectively adopted by advanced cities in efforts to further Sustainable Development Goals and improve urban infrastructure. It is only in India that the concept has been exploited and furthered by aruling political party with little understanding about SMART technologies, sustainable development goals, and the poor condition of infrastructure delivery systems of Indian cities. Let us examine the SMART Concept from a project management perspective.

The farce
The letter‘T’ in the word SMART indicates time bound delivery of projects. How has the Indian Smart City Mission has fared on this parameter? The SC mission for 100 cities was allocated funds in the budget presented by the NDA Government in 2014. Details were announced after more than 15 months. The selected cities were given deadline for submission of projects by the end of 2015. The first 20 cities were selected in September 2016, followed by three additional rounds ending in June 2017, with a total of 90 cities. The West Bengal Government and the cities of Mumbai and Navi Mumbai have opted out of the programme.

The letter S of the word SMART can mean a ‘Specific’ or ‘Scientific’ against a general or random approach. The specific project proposals submitted by individual cities reflect the specific needs of these cities. However, the selection of projects has no scientific or rational basis, primarily due to the lack of data about available resources or finances. The central government grant to each city is fixed at Rs. 500 crore. The rest of the money for a project is to be raised jointly by the respective state government and municipal authorities. This itself is against the grain of the specific needs or capacities of municipalities. No wonder that the relatively rich and capable municipal authorities of Mumbai and Navi Mumbai have opted out of the SC mission.

Poor planning
The letter M of SMART indicates “Measurable” goals. This is a rational way to assess the outcome of any project.  JNNURM, the first government scheme designed to improve urban infrastructure in 66 metropolitan Indian cities, had delivered a success rate of less than 40% when measured against pre-set parameters. The most important reason for such a low rate of achievement was identified to be the capacity of the Municipal Authorities. Most municipal authorities were found to be poor in conceptualising, planning, budgeting, technically designing, financing, and managing the construction of infrastructure projects. There is no accountability in the governing structure since the elected city mayors have little capacity to undertake technically sound projects while the officials have little time or inclination to address city challenges.

The letters A and R of the word SMART are identified with “Achievable” and “Realistic” goals. Even acursory look at the proposals put forward by Smart Cities such as Nellore from Andhra Pradesh or Dharamsala from Himachal Pradesh and many others indicates goals that are clearly not achievable nor realistic. However, one hopes that the Smart City initiative is not a complete failure because to not recognise the transformational power of technology will be a regressive response. Instead, citizens must demand that that the SC mission live up to the SMART principles that underlie the initiative.

(The writer is an urban planner and architect)

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