A Tale of 100 Smart Cities.
A Tale of 100 Smart Cities. The quest to build them and the problems on the way.
Twelve kilometres from Ahmedabad, the Sabarmati river runs dry. Two buildings, 122 metres high, tower over parcels of construction-ready and waste land beneath. Newly built serpentine roads sometimes lead to nowhere. As the sun sets over Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT), construction workers make a beeline out of a nearly complete data centre.
A decade from now, the place would rock. The river would brim with clean blue water. High rises with sparkling glass facades would form a necklace around the river curve, much like Shanghai. The tallest of them all would be the Diamond Tower, 410 metres high. After trading in equities, currencies and diamonds all day, nearly a million people would chill in cafes by the waterfront, shop at craft bazaars, or just jet ski.
If GIFT goes as per plan, it could be among India’s earliest ‘smart cities’. India wants to build at least a 100 of them as per Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s commitment to the nation. It’s a monstrous ambition that is fast becoming a social and economic imperative as at least 50 per cent of Indians are set to live in urban areas by 2050, as against just 32 per cent today. India must provide for these 814 million people in cities with minimum disruption and least chaos. The existing cities have failed to do so for lack of focus or planning.
The Great Vacuum
The problem is that one year since Modi’s announcement, India is still grappling with the nuts and bolts of setting up a smart city. Not a penny has been used from the Rs 7,060 crore allocated in the Union Budget 2014 “to provide the necessary focus” to smart cities. “We have not launched the scheme yet. So there is no question of any expenditure on that account. Smart city is a new concept to India… various stakeholders have to be taken on board and you have to sustain them,” says Urban Development Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu.
A 46-page concept note released by the urban development ministry attempts to answer some of those questions. It has come up with the mother of all definitions: “…cities which have smart (intelligent) physical, social, institutional and economic infrastructure which ensure centrality of citizens in a sustainable environment”. Nobody disputes that definition. In fact, panelists at the BT-Nasscom Roundtable on Smart Cities called it the most holistic definition possible. But the trick lies in execution. And there is very little to boast of that on the ground.
“It is too early to talk on smart cities,” says Babul Supriyo, Minister of State for Urban Development, biting into a chicken shawarma as he strolled in around 8.30 p.m. on January 18 for a dinner hosted by Sushma Paul Berlia, Co-founder and President of Apeejay Stya & Svran Group.
“The draft concept note has been prepared and placed in public domain. The website has been launched. The selection criteria for smart cities are at the final stage of approval. In coming days, before March, we will go to the expenditure finance committee and then it will go to cabinet and (it) will be rolled somewhere around the end of March,” assures Naidu.
Many Shades of Smart
Still, there are no clear answers as to what a smart city is – anywhere in the world. It is one of India’s struggles too. Most smart city definitions and, thereby its scope, are all western. Consulting and IT firms propound a tech-centric approachto smart cities; transport firms propose intense infrastructure-focus; utlility management firms propose a citizen-centric plan and pollution control firms propose a sustainability-based approach.
Technology and consulting firm IBM, for instance, defines smart cities as those that “make use of all the information available from city systems, processes and people to use resources efficiently, make better data-driven decisions, and proactively anticipate and resolve problems”. But for British city Manchester, smart city means “smart citizens – where citizens have all the information they need to make informed choices about their lifestyle, work and travel options”.
For many Indian municipalities, smartness thus far meant ‘e-governance+’, or anything a bit more than e-governance services. That view is changing. “Smart city is a place which is integrated – consumer to government to business; where there is optimal employment and growth and where you get the right skill sets. The growth being beyond survival issues of roti, kapada and makaan,” says Jalaj Shrivastava, Chairman, New Delhi Municipal Corporation.As more people migrate to urban centres for employment, cities need to get smarter about how they manage the utilities, transport and congestion, healthcare as well as education. So India’s concept note has put together all these to come up with one of its own.
The ministry note defines benchmarks for various services. In transportation, for instance, the maximum travel time should be 30 minutes in small and medium-sized cities and 45 minutes in metros. The water availability has to be 135 litres per capita per day. In addition, 95 per cent of residences should have retail, parks, primary schools and recreational areas accessible within 400 metres.
Advisory firm Frost & Sullivan stitches the different pieces that make up a smart city. It highlights eight parameters that make a city smart: governance, energy, homes and buildings, mobility, infrastructure, technology, healthcare, and citizen. No city has all of these and according to Frost & Sullivan, in 2025, there will be around 26 global smart cities that will have at least five of the above parameters.
Some suspect that one day a definition could be imposed top-down from Delhi. The Bureau of Indian Standards is working on a smart city standard. And while standards are generally voluntary, nothing stops the government from making them mandatory.
“We are struggling with the definition. As a country we are struggling because it’s not one definition that can fit across the country,” says Banmali Agrawala, President and CEO of GE, South Asia. One cannot have a common definition of what constitutes smart mobility, for instance. For a hill city, says S.B.S. Bhadauria, Secretary of Sikkim’s Transport Department, smart mobility means ropeways, and not trams or buses.