Getting smart PDF Print E-mail
Thursday, 02 April 2015 01:07
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Use smart cities to catalyse governance reforms

Getting state governments to compete for which city will be chosen as a ‘smart city’—prime minister Narendra Modi’s pet project for 100 smart cities was allocated R7,060 crore to start off with in FY15’s budget—is a very good idea if used imaginatively. Given how 40% of Indians will be living in cities in another 15 years, India obviously needs a lot more cities, and it helps if they are ‘smart’—obviously not all the smart cities will be new, many will be made ‘smart’ by retrofitting of existing cities. Just as cities are not just about the infrastructure, smart cities are not just about the technology—24×7 monitoring of traffic, sewerage, water, electricity and proper town-planning to minimise carbon footprint, etc—though both are an intrinsic part of them.

This is where the government needs to plan smartly, to use this opportunity to get states to fix many of the issues that have bedeviled urban planning in India so far. Obviously, land availability is the primary need of any ‘smart’ city, so states that want to be in the reckoning will have to ensure they have secured the land required, a big hurdle in today’s times. More important, as the Isher Ahluwalia committee on JNNURM found in 2011, only 8 cities charged enough to even cover the O&M costs of supplying water, 4,861 of the 5,161 towns/cities in India do not even have a partial sewerage network and less than a fifth of the road network is covered by storm water drains. If state governments have to be allocated smart cities—part of the funding will come from the Centre, the rest will have to come from PPP projects—there will have to be complete willingness to charge fees for services with, in the initial years, subsidies from the states’ coffers. No city can be financed indefinitely, so a modern property tax system has to be put in place. More powers need to be devolved to local mayors to be able to plan/run cities, something that no political party has been willing to do so far.

Essentially, urban India’s challenge has been to get to charge correctly for the services it provides, with obvious subsidies for the poor, and to not be able to plan its own destiny—the lieutenant-governor of Delhi, an appointee of the Central government, has to okay property tax rates, not the elected government of Delhi. If the bait of a smart city can get states to institute reforms in certain areas, that is the way to go. To use an analogy from another area, it was when Delhi showed how successfully a metro rail could be run, this inspired other cities to also set up their own massive rapid transit systems—indeed, in some, non-metro solutions such as the bus rapid transport corridor were found to be more effective. The smart city project has the power to encourage similar competition.


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