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India’s cities need to be sustainable, not smart

How Modi government’s flagship missions have irreparably damaged urban governance frameworks and put people at the periphery

Written by Aravind Unni, Jasmine Singh and Tikender Singh Panwar

On June 25, the Smart Cities Mission (SCM) completed six years of its launch. Positioned as a game-changer by the government, the mission promised lighting development of cities and the scheme caught the public’s attention as a novel idea. Recently, on the anniversary of the mission, awards were announced and Indore and Surat were declared best smart cities, and Uttar Pradesh won in the states’ category. This is the first time that states have also been awarded for the overall performance of Smart Cities, in which Uttar Pradesh secured the first position, followed by Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. The ministry also announced joint winners under the “Covid innovation” category — Kalyan-Dombivali and Varanasi.

Unfortunately, these cities are glaring examples of how city governments ought not to handle a crisis. Surat experienced widespread labour unrest, where the workers were abandoned by the administration during the lockdown. Indore saw absolute chaos during the second wave, with the highest number of Covid deaths in the state. While Varanasi, located in eastern Uttar Pradesh, witnessed the gruesome spectacle of corpses floating in the Ganga. None of these Smart City Integrated Command and Control Centres (ICCC) proved to be effective and contribute meaningfully. We draw the following lessons from these schemes before arriving at suggestions to move ahead.

First, SCM selected about 100 cities in batches, covering almost 21 per cent of India’s urban population and major emerging cities. The programme aimed to execute more than 5,924 projects bringing in investments of more than Rs 2,00,000 crore within five years from the date of selection. These projects were meant to improve core infrastructure and services to make cities more liveable, economically vibrant, and environmentally sustainable. However, the latest government data reveals that 49 per cent of 5,196 projects for which work orders were issued remain unfinished. Among 33 cities that completed their five-year duration this year, 42 per cent of the projects are incomplete. As of June 23, 2021, Rs 40,622 crore has been released of which Rs 27,862 crore (69 per cent) was utilised, according to utilisation certificates.

The biggest challenge with Smart Cities is the notion of Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs), which have been created in every city to implement the mission on a PPP model. Operating as limited companies under the Companies Act, 2013, these were meant to corporatise the process of setting up a smart city and cut through the political clutter. But they ended up bypassing the democratic process.

This goes against the 74th Amendment Act, 1992, which gives autonomy to local bodies and encourages decentralisation. Many cities and states opted out of the mission as they disagreed with limiting the powers of the local governments and states, thus trouncing federalism. Now, SPVs have become the modus operandi, thereby delivering a terrible blow and destroying the governance framework of ULBs. Remember, only strong local bodies were able to respond to a crisis like the pandemic.

Second, while there has been a stress on capturing data and meticulous follow up on the implementation of schemes, there seems to be a complete lack of transparency in sharing information and relevant details of the proposals, projects and so on. Aside from the grand figures which announce the success of the projects, there is hardly any granular data in the public domain.

Thirdly, with respect to the financial support required by ULBs, these schemes come with riders and a “reform” agenda that incentivise ULB’s to focus more on competition, rating them on scheme implementation points, leading to local governments executing them under pressure to get additional resources. This pushes the ULBs to invest in projects that are the lowest priority in their cities and do not suit their context. Multiple cases can be cited where local governments are inviting investments through offering motivators for PPPs and financial institutions. There are also instances where assets of the ULBs are being sold off at market rates to raise investments for the SCM scheme and to invite other investments.

The Mission has provided limited benefits to city dwellers, with 80 per cent of the funds dedicated to area-based developments with cases like Pune where only 0.8 per cent of the population will see results. Only if we had focused more on basic services like healthcare, education, housing, and transportation – the Smart Cities would have been better equipped to deal with a pandemic-like crisis.

This leads us to the fourth point on the capacities and roles of local agencies. After over 25 years, ULBs remain ill-equipped to govern in most urban areas. Most of the functions remain under the control of the state governments and at best, sanitation and basic service provisions are under local bodies’ control, Mumbai and some other cities being an exception. It is in this context that the overwhelming burden of centrally-sponsored schemes is imposed on the cities, who due to the lack of human resources and skills hire consultants disconnected from the people.

Fifth, the push for this new “urban space at a rapid pace with the increasing use of technology” (‘The New Urban’ by Hardeep S Puri, IE, June 25) is leading to a different kind of concern — of not being participative and democratic. Organic local engagements that facilitated a semblance of democracy at the grassroots are being replaced with engagements and consultations with a select “smart” few. Twitter impressions and Facebooks likes are also being projected as public participation. While recognising the spur technology provides to reach out to more netizens, our urban centres cannot do away with physical infrastructure and public outreach programmes.

Lastly, as ideas for the future, the schemes lacked an understanding of significant issues of sustainability, disasters, and resilience building. The biggest challenge facing Indian cities is not of “smart” development, but the need for a “sustainable development”, where ecological concerns are addressed, where pollution is controlled, and resources used efficiently. Speed and scale may not be the best suited for this. As an afterthought, the Climate Smart Cities Assessment Framework was introduced, but a little too late.

It is only with the principles of decentralisation, empowerment of urban local bodies through financial support and autonomy, coupled with participation of its citizenry that a new urban environment can emerge.

Unni is associated with NCU (National Coalition for Inclusive and Sustainable Urbanisation); Singh is DGM Planning & Development at a planning firm in Hyderabad and Panwar is former deputy mayor of Shimla

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