Vol. XLIII No. 08 February 24, 2019
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Modi ji Where are the Smart Cities Lost

Tikender Singh Panwar

MODI in his euphoric ‘Mann Ki Baat’ (speech from the heart) broadcast on December 30, on the all India radio focused about the ‘positivity’ that should be made viral in the coming days. But where will this positivity emanate from. It can and should from the worksheet spread across his 55 months of rule in the country. But the positive vibes do not emerge from this period rather it has been a very sorry state of affairs. There is something that got missing and this is not in the latest ‘Mann Ki Baat’, rather since last many episodes, and that is the euphoric claims over the ‘smart cities’ in the country. It seems the smart cities project is a forgotten one at least with the ruling dispensation.

The smart cities project announced in June 2015 was not just a pet Modi project, rather it figured quite prominently in the BJP manifesto during the 2014 election campaign. The smart cities were supposed to be the flagship programme and also a lighthouse to other cities. The entire model of city administration and governance was supposedly to change with emphasis on physical infrastructure building in the cities along with super use of technology to find solutions for the never ending problems in them. And this was then to be copied for further unleashing the development model in rest of the country.

However the Modi government has stopped talking about the progress of the smart cities project rather it is keener to show development in sectoral terms. That is why these days, the propaganda channels like radio, television and print are flooded with advertisements pertaining to sanitation, health and housing but not a word about the smart cities project. Not a misnomer that in ‘Mann Ki Baat’ it is not that Modi forgot the smart cities rather it is a deliberate attempt to wash off the memories of the people from the smart cities model.

Hence the positivity that is supposed to be spread out by the Modi fans cannot become viral at least on the smart cities project.

WHAT IS MODI HIDING ABOUT THE SMART CITIES ?

The Modi government picked up a few cities to exhibit the model of development which was to be followed by other cities as well. The premise in which the project was conceived was that the private sector must play a major role in infrastructure development; the present governance model in the cities is a hindrance to overall developmental projects and hence a business like model should be developed. It is because of this, that the tool to carry out this model of development, special purpose vehicles(SPVs) were designed to minimize the hurdles in the development of the cities.

However the recent data collected by ‘Wada Na Todo Abhiyan’(do not break the promises campaign-NGO run body) has exposed the fallacy and the hollowness of the entire smart city project. The SPVs, the considered tool to enhance the pace of the smart cities development have been released just 5 percent of the total sum required in a list of 60 short listed smart cities. There is not much science required to understand what it means. Just 5 percent would also quantify a commensurate doze of development in the respective cities.

Another revelation was made to a question raised in the Rajya Sabha. In the reply in the upper house , the government admitted that just 14 percent  of the projects have been offloaded as of now under the smart cities. Presently 70 percent of the projects proposed under the smart city mission are still in the project development stage i.e., preparation of the DPRs, with completion of just 5 percent so far.

Another area of intervention has been through the tomtomed scheme called the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), which was announced in 2015 for 500 cities. A few cities were kept in both AMRUT and smart cities project.

The data for AMRUT reveals that 19% of central assistance has been released so far. The status of the projects is no different from that of the smart city mission.

WHY IS IT THAT THE SMART CITIES PROJECT COULD NOT OFFLOAD?

There may be multiple reasons. But one of the core reasons is that the entire intent of expecting the private capital to invest in cities where there are no chances of return of capital is erroneous and has been proven wrong with the passage of time. The private capital will merrily invest in larger cities and is doing so but will evade from the smaller ones or the Tier II cities. The financial capacity of the cities is so poor that more than 80 percent of them are even unable to pay the wage bill of their staff what to talk about inviting investments in such cities. The government has and it cannot abdicate from its responsibility of principal investor in such cites especially to provide the basic minimum in the utilities sector mainly of water, sanitation, electricity, roads etc.

The second and quite obvious reason is the way the smart cities project was structured. The SPVs have taken control of the smart cities development project. These SPVs are too bureaucrat centric with a chief executive officer and a chairperson along with board members where the elected institution has virtually no standing either to influence or guide them. This has brought in a new contradiction in these cities where the CEO of the SPV and elected council mainly the Mayor come to loggerheads. Ultimately the project gets influenced from both the quarters with neither of two owing it.

The third one is linked to the basic structure of the smart cities project. That is to the area based development (ABD) and pan city specification in which the smart cities were designed in the country. The ABD was supposed to focus on infrastructure projects in a dedicated area either for retrofitting; re-development or green field projects. Majority of the cities have opted for re-development of the area. The ABD is a very small geographical area which was targeted. Since this area did not even comprise more than 2-5 percent of the entire city, there was hardly any interest amongst the residents of the city. Thus there was no ownership of this project from them as well. It meant that the city residents were not very eager to see the fulfillment of such projects under the ABD.  The pan city development plan of the smart cities has focused mainly on the usage of high speed connectivity to improve smart solutions either for transport or other utilities. Thus 85 percent of the budget and that too if it was available was usurped by just 5 percent of the area and a commensurate fraction of the population. Thus for a majority of the people in the cities the smart city projects were meaningless.

The positivity of smart cities never emanated from them rather there is a strong negativity that is spread out from the cities that were chosen to become lighthouses. Hence Modi did not forget to mention the smart cities rather the smart cities project got lost quintessentially in its design, structure and implementation.