India’s 100 Smart Cities Mission is flawed

Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong, Seoul, Shanghai and Beijing compete with London, Paris and New York for the top of the global city ranking. Do not take rankings like these too serious but the absence of Indian cities in the higher tiers is not startling. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) India releases the fourth largest amount of CO2 emissions in the world and Delhi is the world’s most polluted city. Air pollution is the direct cause of 627.000 deaths annually. The dysfunctionality of the infrastructure is not limited to transport: An official study of 1,405 cities revealed that only 50% of urban areas have water supply connections and that water is supplied on an average for only three hours a day. Waste disposal and sewage treatment plants are missing in most Indian cities, 30 per cent of the households have no toilets, the coverage of the sewage network is merely 12 per cent while the treatment of sewage is even lower at 3 per cent. Most of the untreated sewage is discharged into rivers, ponds or lakes, which by-the-way are the main source of potable water.

Without mayor changes the problem will worsen every year because of the unprecedented growth of the urban population. Between 2010 and 2050 about 500 million inhabitants must be added to the urban population of 377 million nowadays.

In the meantime, India’s economy is expanding rapidly. By 2030 it is expected to have grown by five times, buoyed largely by the country’s urban centres and resulting in a growth of its labour force by 200 million workers. India’s energy demand is expected to increase three times in the coming 10 years.

The Mission

Against the background of these challenges, prime minister Modi presented a ‘Mission’ in 2015 named “Digital India” announcing the foundation of 100 smart cities across the country. This plan is envisaging making India a leader in digitally delivering a broad array of services:

  • Adequate water supply
  • Assured (green) electricity supply
  • Sanitation, including solid waste management
  • Efficient urban mobility and public transport
  • Affordable housing, especially for the poor
  • Robust IT connectivity and digitalisation
  • Good governance, especially e-Governance and citizen participation
  • Sustainable environment
  • Safety and security of citizens, particularly women, children and the elderly
  • Health
  • Education

The Mission is definitely not lacking in ambition!

Project management

A competition that took two years resulted in the selection of 107 areas where the new cities are supposed to appear. Each project is funded with $150 million spread over five consecutive years. Hiring foreign project management is mandatory. For instance, the city of Kota is collaborating with the Dutch HaskoningDHV.

Artist impression of the World trade Centre of Dholera Special Investment Region.

Taking into account the total costs of the realization of each plan, the available funds are peanuts, which necessitates the acquisition of additional sources. Options are public private partnerships, commercial bank’s lending, take out financing, infrastructure financing institutions, external commercial borrowing, and foreign direct investments.

The competence of the incumbent administrative bodies was judged to be inadequate to lead the projects. Therefore, Special Purpose Vehicles (SPV), acting under company law and headed by a CEO have evoked. The private sector might even become the biggest single shareholder of an SPV, so long as the combined shareholding of the state and local government is bigger. All rights and obligations of the municipal council with respect to the smart city project will be delegated to the SVP, including the power to collect taxes!

Artist impression of Gujarat International Financial Tech-City

A strategic turn

At first the ‘Mission’ had two strategic equally weighted components: Area-based developments and pan-city initiatives. The former are aimed at transforming existing precincts through retrofitting and renewal, and to develop new extensions to cities through greenfield developments. The latter envisage the application of appropriate smart solutions to existing city-wide infrastructure.

Reviewing the proposals which have been accepted, contrary to the original requirements, 71% of the funding will be spend on area-based development, the beneficiaries of which are about 4% of the city’s population on average and it involves less then 3% of the total area.

Under area-based development, plans have proposed redevelopment of old and creation of new central business districts, retrofitting infrastructure within these districts such as water supply, sewerage, and creation of public spaces. The proposals for the entire city, however, are limited to IT-based services like a CCTV-monitored central command system, “smart” education portals and “intelligent” water and traffic management systems and do not include investment in the infrastructure itself.

Artist impression of Vijayawada Smart City

So you’re not even going to have 100 smart cities. You’re going to have 100 smart enclaves within cities around the country, predicts Shivani Chaudhry, executive director of the The Housing and Land Rights Network

The interests behind IT-centred thinking

The direction in which the plans have evolved is unmistakably orchestrated by the bunch of IT-companies that is involved in the development of smart cities world-wide from 2006 on, when IBM started its ‘Smarter Planet’ campaign, Cisco followed with its Smart+Connected Communities initiative, Siemens launched its CityCockpit, and Microsoft presented its CityNext programme. U.S. Deputy Secretary of Commerce Bruce Andrews expressed this perfectly in his speech at the Smart Cities Summit in Mumbai: I am joined today by representatives from 18 leading American environmental technology companies, all of whom are looking for new business opportunities in India’s growing infrastructure market. Indeed, business opportunities seem abundant: The consultancy firm Frost and Sullivan estimates the global smart city market to be worth $1.56 trillion by 2020.

Cultural awareness instead of indifference

The pictures in this post are taken from glossy brochures and video’s of the plan. They reveal the direction in which the wannabe smart cities in India are supposed to develop. Let yourself be impressed for a while by the animation of Dholera Special Investment Region.

You will see fascinating architecture, futuristic transportation systems and multi-lane express ways. Not to forget, the air is blue and fresh.

Indian master architect Doshi warns that the urban vision behind the smart city proposals will destroy the informality and diversity that is the cornerstone of the country’s rural and urban society. In his view people do not have to live in multi-story towers in the age of the internet, and he rejects the necessity of expanding cities as long as adequate choices and opportunities can be generated in rural areas. I think the land pressure is actually an illusion. Why should you be close-by all the time to a million people? he asks.

Artist impression of smart Bhopal

Urban designer Rajeev Kathpalia suggests that India needs to build smart cities which respond specifically to its culture and rural networks. We have to rethink the concept of cities as centralized entities. In stead he advocates the conception of independent and self-supporting settlements at different scales, each one complete by itself or moving towards completion.

Mumbai-based urbanist Rahul Mehrotra agrees: The problem with the notion of ‘smart cities’ is that it sets up the environment to be fashioned in a single image, it’s not about cultural specificity.

Whatever problems the Mission will solve, these are not the dismal services nor the on-going growth of the population. We have to deal with the basics first, Shivani Chaudhry said. The basics are housing, employment and infrastructure and not technology as such. The Mission will not provide big public investment in expanding urban infrastructure except for enclaves where businesses and prosperous citizens are welcomed. She accentuates that Instead of trying to mitigate the effects of urbanization, the government should aim to address its causes -the agrarian crisis, rural distress, failed land reform, and forced migration.

Indian papers are critical too. They question the role of SPV’s and the curtailing of democratic control. The ‘Mission’ is a flight ahead, not only leaving the already mentioned problems unsolved, but it is unrealistic itself, as the lion’s share of the investment capital is still missing.

Artist impression of Amaravati Smart City

What would a better Mission have looked like?

Personally I believe that – in contrast to what actually happens – a pan-city approach, including a whole city and its rural fringes should have been be prioritized. The competition could have focussed better on master plans for the development of territories of let’s say 1000 – 5000 km2. These plans should have taken into account all aspects of the existing infrastructure, the expected population growth in the next decades, the options for sustainable growth and development and the cultural identity of the region. Within this master plan a handful of pilot projects could have been selected, offering a spectrum from a down-town business centres – if necessary – with 21th century high-rise buildings, to industrial areas where clean industry and housing are realized within walking distance and to small rural towns surrounded by agriculture. Delegation of power to a centralized body is probably wise, but not at cost of democratic participation. And without realistic funding any plan is a pie in the sky.

An initial experiment in ten regions might have increased the credibility of the Mission. I would have selected proposals that equally address economic challenges, infrastructural problems, and a decent life for all inhabitants as well. My winning plans will unlock the potential of the whole rural – urban continuum, promise to spread the prospective growth of the population, realize sustainable solutions, preserve environment and culture and have been developed in dialogue with inhabitants. And not to forget, they deploy the enabling potential of ITC.

*) This article was brought to you by Professor Herman van den Bosch, Professor at Open University of The Netherlands.

Herman van den Bosch

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