How smart are our cities after six years?
The Smart Cities Mission has been a fabulous idea which needs dynamism in approach with a little change in policy; In context of the pandemic, however, it has failed to prioritise healthcare infrastructure and disaster management projects.
After six years of having launched the Smart Cities Mission (SCM), the government brought together its report card of completed projects, tendered projects and work orders issued.Of the total proposed projects under SCM, 5,924 projects worth 1,78,500 crore (87 percent by value) have been tendered so far and work orders have been issued for 5,236 projects worth 1,46,125 crore (71 percent by value).
The Smart Cities Mission has been a fabulous idea which needs dynamism in approach with a little change in policy; In context of the pandemic, however, it has failed to prioritise healthcare infrastructure and disaster management projects. After six years of having launched the Smart Cities Mission (SCM), the government brought together its report card of completed projects, tendered projects and work orders issued.Of the total proposed projects under SCM, 5,924 projects worth 1,78,500 crore (87 percent by value) have been tendered so far and work orders have been issued for 5,236 projects worth 1,46,125 crore (71 percent by value). A total of 2,665 projects worth 45,080 crore (22 percent by value) have also been fully completed and are operational, as on June 23, 2021. So, has the Mission achieved its objective? If projects worth 22 percent have been completed, have these provided the desired results? What has been the impact of these completed projects? Are these cities closer to satisfying their citizens than when the Mission began? The questions raised above could be the truest way of testing the Mission’s success or failure. While citizens were consulted when forming plans for city development and for submissions for claiming funds, they have not been consulted on the impact that these projects have made in their lives. But let us explore how this mission has impacted urban planning. The 100 chosen cities began to work on a time bound plan and the incentive was that funds would be provided. Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) or corporate entities were created to bring about a parallel administration in securing project management for some of the projects outlined and selected. City administrations entered the challenge and competed. The planning of cities began, considering the various parameters they needed to fulfill for claiming development funds.Importance and priorities got rejigged. Politicians also began to appreciate why the city administration needed to pay so much attention to projects, which their citizens had indicated as a priority. Accountability was another aspect which began to be understood. In fact, Public Private Partnership (PPP), a subject which is conceptually alien to city administrations, was also mandated for project development. In fact, 212 PPP projects worth 24,964 crore have broken ground and are at completion stage. Technology interventions, which were factored at 20 percent of project development plans, helped cities access Command and Control Centres, LED streetlights (88 lakh streetlights replaced with energy efficient LED lights leading to energy savings of 193 crore units), WiFi and CCTV cameras, among others. As on date, 70 Smart cities have developed and operationalised their Integrated Command and Control Centres (ICCCs) in the country. These operational ICCCs functioned as war-rooms for COVID management helping information dissemination, improving communication, and predictive analysis. Given the above, a lot seems to have been achieved. But there have been misses too, which are vital to urban transformation. With the ruling dispensation’s mandate, these need to be addressed for a defining change. The average tenure of a Municipal Commissioner is estimated to be under 12 months. So, although we have a Smart City CEO who reports to the board for the SPV, the Municipal Commissioner who is a vital board member, in most cases, cannot contribute as much to the cause as needed. Cities have traditionally faced the silo phenomenon where various verticals like water, waste, energy, transportation, governance etc, have multiple departments and department heads, who do not work in an integrated manner. The Metro Rail policy has clearly laid out the need for a comprehensive mobility plan (CMP) as a mandatory prerequisite for planning Metro rail in any city where there should be a statutory body called Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority (UMTA) for ensuring an integrated approach in planning and management of urban transport. To get the best results from a city, the tenure of the Municipal Commissioner and his/ her appointment and selection process needs a review. Most budgets of municipal corporations are spent on salaries, leaving no funds for development projects. This too requires a review. The bulk of the spending of 73 per cent of the completed projects has been on ICCCs, 32 per cent of the amount spent on completed projects followed by Smart Roads constituting 21 percent and water projects at 20 per cent. Among the rest, the most significant has been on PPPs, which constitute 17.5 per cent. In context of the impact therefore, it is essential to see the value added by ICCCs, which have constituted 32 percent of the expenditure. In context of the devastation caused by the pandemic, the Smart Cities Mission has failed to prioritise a) healthcare infrastructure projects and b) disaster management projects, both of which do not figure as a priority in the plans. The Mission’s projects therefore had a limited role to play in protecting regions and cities during the cyclone attacks (there have been six cyclones since 2019) and during the pandemic where equipping healthcare facilities with telemedicine in remote villages could have helped tremendously. In fact, during the first wave, apart from offering the police ICCCs for crowd control there was very limited assistance. Even contact tracing, which would have been a useful technological intervention, was not worked upon collectively by all ‘smart cities’. Just like the work of National Optic Fibre Network or the Jan Dhan accounts or Aadhar or UPI revolutionised life, there was no such path breaking change that the smart cities initiatives brought about. Even the LED streetlights were part of EESL’s programme, in which the Mission benefitted. The Railways have done a bigger programme in WiFi and in solar energy. Cities need to become sustainable, and the purpose of the Mission will not be served unless cities are able to create models of sustainability by conceptualising projects with inherent sustainability mechanisms. The projects that drew most attention, probably, was by spending 6.5 per cent on creation of vibrant public places. But another major drawback has been the lack of emphasis on waste management projects, which not only save cities from diseases but also can create a sustainable ecosystem by generating energy as well. Overall, the Mission has been a fabulous idea which needs dynamism in approach with a little changes in policy. The barometer of success needs to be measured by a National Index of Citizen Empowerment and Satisfaction (NICES). This index should be a transparent dashboard where citizens can select options of levels of satisfaction monthly. The score on NICES will let the city administration know where it stands as judged by the citizens. Smart cities need citizen empowerment. About the Author Pratap Padode is Founder & Executive Director of Smart Cities Council India affiliated to Washington DC-based Smart Cities Council. He is also Founder & Editor-in Chief of Construction World & FIRST Construction Council.