A Trip Down the Rabbit Hole of Modi's Smart Cities Wonderland

The signature scheme is marred by ill-conceived projects and confusing directions. Urban bodies across India would do well to stay away from the Smart City initiative for now.

Twin towers at GIFT City, Gujarat. Photo: Chirayu Bhatt

Twin towers at GIFT City, Gujarat. Photo: Chirayu Bhatt

No urban development project has been more confusing and misleading than the Smart City scheme.

In the year since the Narendra Modi government announced this as a nationwide project, there have been many hasty decisions and policy flip-flops. More chatter than plans with clear substance, the Smart City project in its present form is a recipe for skewed development rather than a vision for a sound urban future.

The government did not conceptualise Smart Cities as an integrated urban planning project that would transform India’s ageing civic infrastructure, mobilise technology to improve environmental performance and enhance the quality of city life.

Gujarat’s GIFT to India

It initially thought of them as new cities on the outskirts of existing ones to function as special investment regions that would attract global capital. Smart Cities were designed as real estate enclaves that provide serviced land to private companies. These greenfield projects were to have a centralised surveillance system, a digitally monitored water-supply programme, technology-enabled waste collection and other Information and Communications technology (ICT) driven amenities. Two of the earliest examples of this model of a Smart City – Dholera and GIFT City (Gujarat International Finance Tec-City), in Gujarat, notified in 2009 and 2007 respectively – are investment zones.

GFT City, from the official brochure

GFT City, from the official brochure

About one-third of the 886 acres in GIFT city is designated as a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) and the remaining part includes a domestic finance centre, business clubs, a retail mall, hotels and apartments. Dholera, which on completion would cover a developed area of about 22,790 acres, is a special investment zone catering to sectors such as electronics, IT and biotechnology. It would also include resorts, apartments and a commercial city centre.

The Smart City idea started to morph into a grand urban strategy during the 2014 national elections. Though the BJP manifesto did not use the word `Smart’, it promised to ‘initiate building 100 new cities; enabled with the latest in technology and infrastructure.’ The phrase soon appeared in Narendra Modi’s election speeches, where he promised to get rid of Indian urban problems by building 100 Smart Cities.

Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s first budget soon after the BJP came to power in 2014 provided Rs 7,060 crores for building the promised smart cities. In his budget speech, Jaitley said, “Unless new cities are developed to accommodate the burgeoning number of people, the existing cities would soon become unliveable.” In subsequent statements, Smart Cities were officially promoted as new cities built with substantial private investment. The Gujarat investment-oriented models remained the reference points. GIFT City in Gujarat was considered the prototype of a Smart City.

Changing the concept

Following criticism that promoting Smart Cities as new towns would exclude existing urban centres that badly required an upgrade, and end up creating satellite cities as islands of prosperity, the government revised its proposal.

In a draft concept note published in December 2014, the Ministry of Urban Development, which is implementing the Smart City project, said that the new scheme would promote not only satellite towns but also modernise existing cities. The scheme would include upgrading of social, institutional and health infrastructure in existing cities. It would support a broad range of projects related to education, healthcare, and entertainment, facilities for the poor, governance and institutional modification. Almost every conceivable urban project was brought under the new scheme.

In other words, the Smart City project now started sounding like every other urban development programme that preceded it. The differences, if there are any, lie in two areas. One, all proposed development under the Smart City category must have a mandatory ICT component. Two, money would not be allotted to preselected cities but to those which compete and qualify as smart city.

Both these defining features are problematic.

First, the Central government has completely overlooked the fact that Indian cities have already taken to technology enabled service delivery and governance. Many cities have realised the value of spending on digital initiatives and have steadily shifted to digital platforms. E-governance, digital property registration, GPS-based bus movement monitoring, real-time citizen interaction and online building approvals are a few examples of this. Cities are steadily increasing their investment in technology-enabled solutions and, in course of time, would choose larger systems that match their priorities and resources.

The Modi government has not studied how cities spend on digital initiatives, the benefits of transition, and the priority areas that need support. Instead, it is pushing the Smart City project that promotes capital intensive, technology-driven infrastructure projects. The UD ministry insists that 60 percent of allocated funds have to be spent on infrastructure, but it has not probed the possible costs and suitability of the new products. This serious flaw can force cities to choose projects that can burden their resources and skew priorities.

High-cost fetish

For instance, GIFT City has adopted a pneumatic underground waste collection system, which will transport waste from multistoried buildings to a collection centre at a speed of 110-140 km per hour. This system, as the Swedish manufacturer described it on the company website, is “a minimum requirement for SMART City Concept and Initiative across India.”

Data about the cost or benefits of the automatic waste collection system are not available. However, research by the University of Helsinki in 2012 on similar technologies in the Finnish capital provides a fair idea about the costs involved. The study concluded that a vehicle-operated door-to-door waste collection system is economically six times superior to pneumatic systems because of the high investment. The research also observed that integrating high technology waste collection systems with existing city infrastructure is highly challenging. In Indian cities, given the low labour cost, the economic advantage of conventional waste collection would be even greater. For cities here, the pneumatic system need not be a priority. In the absence of informed research and faced with enticing Smart City propaganda, can cities make rational choices?

Cities need to upgrade infrastructure, but that does not mean they have to choose a system that involves prohibitive capital and high operating costs. The UD ministry estimates cities in India will have to invest Rs 43,386 per capita in infrastructure for a 20-year period to improve the existing condition. Adopting smart systems may substantially increase the investment burden. Local bodies struggling to provide conventional infrastructure to the entire city have to think carefully before choosing high-end systems. Cities can step up their digital investment, but it should match their resources and capacity to sustain.

What’s smart about real estate?

Two other aspects of the Smart Cities concept are equally disconcerting

First, many details and parameters of the Smart City projects have not yet been worked out. The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Urban Development, in its report published in April, had also pointed to the incompleteness. Disappointed by the lack of finalisation of components, the committee cautioned the UD ministry that this approach to the Smart City project would lead to `adhocism’ in the urban planning process. Strangely, despite these severe shortcomings, the ministry is going ahead with the project and has set aside funds for the next five years. It looks as if the government is in a hurry to implement a hastily crafted slogan rather than to carefully build a sound urban future.

Second, the government’s obsession with creating real estate enclaves out of every urban initiative persists. The ministry has directed that cities which receive funds from the Smart City scheme should spend 60 per cent on infrastructure, 10 per cent on e-governance and the remaining 30 per cent on two integrated townships to be developed in partnership with private developers. If GIFT City is a role model as Jaitley described it, the townships proposed by the government are going to be gated communities. They would be expensive and serve a limited number of people. If the Smart City concept is about making cities more efficient and convenient, and about investing in new systems and processes, where is the need to spend precious public resources in creating real estate projects that would serve a small privileged group?

It would do well for local bodies to stay away from the Smart City scheme for now. Rather than adopt ill-conceived projects and follow confusing directions, cities should concentrate on mobilising their own resources, and intelligently setting their own agenda for development.

A. Srivathsan is a professor at CEPT University, Ahmedabad. Opinions expressed are personal.