The concept of ‘smart cities’ is celebrated globally as one solution to the problems of urbanisation. Jagan Shah argues that in India, the Smart Cities Mission helps to overcome outdated structures in urban planning and governance.
As poorly governed cities are an impediment to national development, the reform of urban governance has become a top priority for the Government of India. For almost six decades, the idea of a predominantly agrarian and rural India dominated the political economy, legitimising state governments’ neglect of municipalities despite their responsibility to local self-government in urban areas as per 74th Amendment to the Constitution of India. The states barely invested in maintenance of infrastructure and services in urban areas, relying on meagre funds from the urban schemes launched by the central government under its Five Year Plans to meet their constitutional obligation.
Meanwhile, municipalities catered to a new urban middle class that benefited from the availability of subsidised new properties in the suburbs, thereby encouraging a conspicuous over-consumption of space and resources. Overemphasis was put on urban expansion, meaning that the state handed over new areas as fait accompli to municipalities that were already struggling to service existing areas. Without adequate capacities, the municipalities struggled to manage their ever-increasing footprints.
While new, car-oriented enclaves on the fringes of the city cornered the available funds through the influence of their political representatives, the historic centres of economic activity became congested and decrepit. The continuous influx of workers, archaic rent control laws, and weak enforcement of building regulations resulted in the obliteration of the commons: ‘water supply’ became synonymous with unregulated ground-water extraction; sewerage networks lay incomplete or obsolete, often unconnected to treatment plants; storm-water drains conveyed sewage into natural water bodies; garbage was strewn everywhere; public transport was almost non-existent while private vehicles hogged the roads and encroached on open spaces; building regulations were violated with impunity, often with the collusion of local officials. The historic cores of cities that featured a complex mix of land uses were treated as incompatible with the normative segregation of land uses that became the fetish of modern urban planning.
For more than fifty years, all levels of government in India repudiated the historic city centres, despite their economic and cultural significance. Sporadic funding for public housing and basic services like water and sanitation did little to alter the inexorable decline of Indian cities. Reforms in urban governance and finance were an overwhelming imperative. This was also reflected in the design of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission and its sub-missions launched in 2005. However, the scheme suffered from poor management and execution of projects, leading to cost over-runs and delays which attracted the wrath of the Comptroller and Auditor General of India in its “Performance Audit of JNNURM” published in 2012.
A New Vision
The launch of the Smart Cities Mission in 2015 introduced a new paradigm to urban development, entailing several novelties. Firstly, the ‘smart cities’ were selected through a competitive process that required exemplary demonstration of integrated planning – combining spatial, physical, economic and social aspects – and strategic thinking: a logical progression from baselining and collective visioning by citizens and stakeholders, to the projection of desired outcomes and the identification of projects, timelines, and funding required to achieve those outcomes. Risks were assessed and mitigation identified.
The second novelty was the creation of a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV), to be established by each city to plan and manage the lifecycle of built assets. The SPV would augment the capacities of the municipality while introducing an intervention mechanism free from political interference.
The third novelty was the requirement of every smart city to converge the funds from various government programs in order to enhance coordination between projects and departments, and to reduce the disruption caused by different agencies implementing projects in the same location at different points of time.
The most significant aspect of the Mission was that each city leveraged the inherent strength of its economic and cultural identity. Not surprisingly, most cities chose to retrofit their historic centres, aiming to reverse seventy or more years of neglect. Each brownfield area within a smart city area would be provided with essential features pertaining to energy, waste and water management, mobility, economic development, management of public spaces and application of information and communication technology. Of the over 25 Billion USD being invested in the smart cities, about 70 to 80 per cent will be invested in brownfield areas. Barely three years after the launch of the Mission, about 10 per cent of the projects have been completed and 60 per cent are in the process of being finished.
Profound and Positive Change
While the Smart Cities Mission has ushered an era of improved planning and execution of urban projects, it has also transformed the discourse about urban development itself, advancing a number of innovative policies and good practices. Public transport, transit-oriented development, low-cost housing and environmental management are accepted as priorities by all cities. Land value capture, tax increments, and municipal bonds have become active financial instruments, accounting for more than 20 per cent of the total project budgets. Most significantly, mixed land use, which characterised the historical city centres, has been accepted as a desirable alternative to the segregated and sprawl-inducing dogma of master planning.
Urban reform across the country will be accelerated if stakeholders from other municipalities show willingness to learn from the smart cities. The 100 smart cities have been envisaged as ‘lighthouses’ that will guide the remaining 7835 cities to become “inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable”, meaning that they will be able to efficiently handle natural resource management, spatial planning, and regulation including land records management, improved infrastructure planning, design and execution, efficient service delivery and cost recovery, public participation and feedback. This can only be achieved through extensive digitalisation, which will promote greater transparency and accountability.
The smart city movement will profoundly alter the way that cities are managed. By embedding the practices of e-governance in smart cities – removing human intermediation and embedding a culture of monitoring and evidence based planning and decision-making at all levels of government – they will radically reform the future of urban India.