SMART CITIES : A FLAWED BEGINNING.

The government has announced the names of 20 cities ( out of 100) to be covered under the Smart Cities project. Over five years Rs. 96000 crores ( approx. US$ 16 billion) shall be spent on it, with the Central govt. contributing Rs. 500 crores per city and the rest being made good by the state governments.Smart Cities A flawed begenning

In my view this mammoth outlay would have been better spent on developing 10000 villages ( Rs. 10 crore per village) out of India’s six lakh or so villages so as to provide basic infrastructure and employment opportunities in rural areas where the vast majority of our population still resides. Owing to the abysmal conditions in most of the villages( lack of education, healthcare, employment, power, connectivity, public transport) ever increasing millions of villagers are migrating to urban centers( in Bihar, it is estimated that 40% of youth above 14 years of age have gone to cities!). Our cities and towns are already bursting at the seams and are on the verge of collapse, thanks to decades of faulty planning, corruption and misgovernance. There are already 380 million Indians living in towns, and it is estimated that by 2030 this will go up to a mind blowing 800 million. There is no way that our decrepit cities can absorb these numbers, with or without Smart Cities projects. In fact, the tom-tomming of this project will only attract more migration.

An enlightened government would, therefore, have focused its resources on developing our villages, providing them the essential services and institutions whose absence is the prime driver of migration in the first place. The priority in planning should be to stop this rural-urban migration; not only would this lead to more balanced development, it would also stop the emergence of forces and pressures that would make our cities unlivable and ungovernable, which is already happening.

This is not to deny that our cities also are in dire need of upgradation and modernisation- I have already stated that they are on the verge of collapse. But their dilapidated and precarious state is primarily of their own making, unlike the villages who have never been on our planning radar at all. Even though governments continue to pump in thousands of crores into these cities every year their deterioration has been steady. Secondly, the cities have the potential to raise their own resources, which the villages lack. If the rank politics and misgovernance on display in our urban areas were to be eradicated, they would have no dearth of funds. To give just one example, the MCD of Delhi ( which today has no money to pay even wages and pensions) recovers property tax from just one million properties, even though its records show there are five million properties in the city. Even this tax has not been revised in the last eleven years! Every town and city in India suffers from the same plague where the priority of city governments is to win elections and line individual pockets, and not to provide efficient services.

What I am trying to convey is that the potential to raise funds for their own development exists in cities and they should exploit that rather than be given hand-outs by the central government through such projects. Even private capital can be attracted through PPP schemes in such areas as public transport, toll collection, parking, maintenance of green belts, waste removal etc. By putting them on state sponsored drip feed we create an adverse disincentive for them make any attempt to improve their functioning. Villages, on the other hand, are denied these advantages and should have had first claim on the nation’s scarce resources.

However, we have to accept that for Mr. Modi and the NDA that old adage still applies: Big is beautiful, and Smart Cities follows other big ticket egregious schemes such as the ” world’s tallest statue” of Sirdar Patel and the Bullet train ( Rs. 76000 crore), neither of which, incidentally, will improve the life of the average Indian in any way. So the project is here to stay and needs to be examined on its own merits. But here too its beginnings appear to suggest that government’s thought processes have not changed and the pettiness of politics as usual has prevailed over any rational assessment of what the country as a whole needs. I refer, naturally, to the selection of the first 20 cities.

One would have expected that the first criteria for selection would have been the maximisation of benefits- i.e. choose the biggest cities with the biggest problems so that the largest number of city dwellers are covered. That has not happened. Only 8 of India’s largest cities feature in the list: some of the largest such as Kanpur, Hyderabad, Mumbai, Bangalore, even Delhi ( NDMC is a favoured civil cantonement) have been left out.

So have states such as UP, Bihar, and West Bengal- a third of India’s population!

Not a single city in the hill states has been included- all these states are in the ” special category” class, are vulnerable to earthquakes and are being devastated by mass tourism. Including one of them would have provided a model for planned and sustainable development in the urban areas of the hills. Nor has any city from the north-eastern hill states been included, confirming the general perception that they are peripheral to the national planning process. It appears that the central government considers all these states as worthy only of being exploited for their natural resources.

The unkindest cut of all is the inclusion of NDMC ( New Delhi Municipal Committee) in the list. This urban unit is already the most favoured urban conglomeration in the country and its residents ( politicians, senior bureaucrats, rich businessmen, well connected journos, the gin and tonic habituees of premier clubs) the most pampered lot of all. NDMC covers only two percent of Delhi’s geographical area and contains just one percent of its population, it is awash with funds ( its budget is 25% of the rest of Delhi’s three corporations put together), it has the widest avenues, the maximun green cover, and it is not dependent on public transport. It consumes four times of water, per capita, as the average Delhi citizen. It certainly does not need the additional largesse of being included under the Smart Cities project. Its deliciously ironic that its inclusion has been announced on the same day when the rest of Delhi began its tryst with garbage( the third time this year) because it cannot pay its staff.

The selection process is deeply flawed and the central government’s defence- that it followed prescribed criteria- is as disgenuous as it is mischievous. It is like fixing a tender- prescribe conditions that favour those whom you wish to reward: it is a tactic that is as old as the bureaucracy!
The main criteria was to assess the states’ plan of action in four key areas: Swachh Bharat, Make in India, making governance citizen friendly and e-governance. Is this all that it takes to make smart cities? Make in India may be Mr. Modi’s pet peev but it has no relevance to city management. Citizen friendly and e-governance can only be additives to basic policies, not the policy itself. What about slums, housing, waste removal, SUSTAINABLE USE OF NATURAL RESOURCES, public transport, a healthy environment, a better quality of life, education, health ? What about GOOD GOVERNANCE, the elephant in the room no one wants to talk about but without which all else matters little ? The evidence is right there under Mr. Modi’s nose- Swachh Bharat in Delhi means seventy thousand tonnes of garbage piled up on Delhi’s thoroughfares and the BJP encouraging the strike instead of finding a solution to this endemic problem. The first criteria should have been : TAKE POLITICS OUT OF CITY ADMINISTRATION.

Critical developmental initiatives have to be need based, must provide benefits to the largest possible number, and must support those states which are the weakest. Development projects cannot be formulated on the lines of a Miss India contest- reward those who are best packaged and can best answer questions put to them by the judges. The best consultant report cannot be the basis for deciding that Solapur shall be chosen above Kanpur, for example. Resources should be directed towards areas where the problem is most intense. The government will always monitor progress before releasing funds and non-performance on set parameters would result in non release of funds.

I have deliberately refrained from going into the politics behind the selection, but its stench is unmistakeable. The Planning Commission, with all its arbitrariness and feudal discretionary power, may have gone but not its mentality- like Banquo’s ghost it still haunts the edifices of power.

Avay Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service in December 2010. He is a keen environmentalist and loves the mountains. He divides his time between Delhi and his cottage in a small village above Shimla. He used to play golf at one time but has now run out of balls. He blogs at http://avayshukla.blogspot.in/

1 Comment

  • Very well analysed and articulated. Considering the projected urban population growth going through our polluted skies, it could be argued that what we need is a 100 NEW CITIES and not dubious Smart cities. There is very little one can do, apart from cosmetic changes (like trying to paint Kolkata blue!), for a Shimla or a Dharamsala, towns that are by now complete write offs. May be intelligent upgrading of smaller district headquarters would have a much higher cost / benefit ratio and check the imminent urban migration nightmare? Well planned and connected small satellite towns could be an option in states with lower population densities? In the mountains, maintaining roads well and good public transport could cut down the need to move to cities.

    An important and sweeping change that is and has been taking place for some decades now, is that the rural-urban divide is blurring, especially around cities. Just look at any ‘city’ or town in Himachal. The municipal limit is quite small in area but the surrounding urbanised and peri-urban areas which add up to more than the area (and population) of the town itself, remain classified as rural. This is true of most towns across the country now. At the same time, as our cities deteriorate, the well off seek to move to the rural suburbs where real estate is booming. But there is no planning, no sewage lines, no garbage management and the little greenery that remains is being built and paved over.

    A critical requirement for cities to develop appropriately and become sustainable is to first have genuine democracy and decentralisation in urban bodies and management. Central and State governments are unable to ‘let go’ of urban bodies (just as empowering panchayats has failed). The case of Delhi remains a constant reminder of not letting urban governments function effectively.

    With each passing day, Delhi and our other metros demonstrate what cities should never become.

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