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Need To Get Smarter About Smart Cities

It is the state governments that have to go for greater devolution of financial resources, provide more autonomy to mobilise their own revenues, build their capacity for urban planning and management, and carry out legislative and administrative reforms to create an enabling environment in which cities can transform themselves to become healthy, smart and livable

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The recent Report of the Parlia-mentary Standing Committee on Urban Development has raised questions on the under spending of the Smart Cities Mission. The Government of India had committed Rs 48,000 crore over a five-year period for the 100 cities which were competitively selected. The scale of funding, in any case, does not match the ambition. What the parliamentary committee report says is that the spending is actually much less. Since the mission’s launch in 2015, only 1.8 per cent of the funds that were released have been utilised.  

More than underspending, we should be concerned about some basic issues regarding the design of the Smart Cities Mission. The mission selects parts of a city and it is not clear how problems of citywide basic services can be addressed by focusing on geographically limited areas.

The mission also neglects the need for empowerment of city governments by operating through special purpose vehicles.

It is useful to step back and look at both the ambition embedded in the Smart Cities Mission and the design of the mission. There is lack of clarity on what we should understand by “Smart City”. The best definition that I have come across is from Tharman Shanmugaratnam, the Deputy Prime Minister of Singapore, the smartest city state in the world.

According to Shanmugaratnam, “Smart cities are cities where residents demand good governance and the government through better administration and better technology is able to deliver high quality services in a transparent and accountable manner.”

The Smart Cities Mission is ambitious in aiming at delivering smart solutions in 100 selected cities. But its design is flawed in focusing mainly on technology and not adequately on institutional reforms and governance. Unlike its predecessor, JNNURM, the Smart Cities Mission chooses to dispense with the need for a City Development Plan and instead opts not to focus on the city as a whole. But this amounts to throwing the baby with the bathwater.

In the report of the High Powered Expert Committee on Urban Infrastructure and Services (HPEC 2011), which I had the privilege to chair, we had highlighted that urban infrastructure needs to be expanded and improved, and we had provided quantitative estimates of what was required. But our detailed study of the state of our cities had led us to emphasise that the government needs to strengthen the institutions of service delivery by empowering city governments and building their capacity for planning and management. Without this, infrastructure investments will not lead to improvement in public service delivery.

Also, we had pointed out that, without this, private investment can also not be expected to help build urban infrastructure.

Admittedly, the government of India can only provide strategic direction, allocate some funding and nudge the state governments to carry out the necessary reforms in empowering their urban local governments.

It is the state governments that have to go for greater devolution of financial resources, provide more autonomy to mobilise their own revenues, build their capacity for urban planning and management, and carry out legislative and administrative reforms to create an enabling environment in which cities can transform themselves to become healthy, smart and livable.

There is ample evidence to indicate that only when the state government provides such leadership can the Government of India’s vision be fulfilled.  

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


Dr Isher Judge Ahluwalia

Dr Isher Judge Ahluwalia is Chairperson, Board of Governors, ICRIER. She was Chairperson of the High Powered Expert Committee on Urban Infrastructure and Services, the Government of India (2011). Her book “Transforming Our Cities: Postcards of Change” (HarperCollins, 2014), has received wide acclaim. She was awarded Padma Bhushan by the President of India in 2009.

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