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The advances in science, revolutionary communication technology and the state-of-art engineering are not incompatible with the art of public policy making for building inclusive urban ecosystems to create livable cities for all. We need to create a robust urban ecosystem to have a seamless nexus among the frontiers in science, technology, engineering and public policy with a level playing field for each entity to produce quality outcomes to provide an antidote to challenges without losing the ultimate goal of creating livable cities for all. However, in the world of highly advanced interconnected communications and technological developments, the rational persuasion of people to be smart in the public sphere and be civic conscientious is still a huge challenge.

Also, people becoming more technology-addicted with physical infrastructure facilities like well-furnished houses, well-built streets, roads, highways, metros, malls, etc, do not make a civilised nation without the well-meaning behaviour and inclination to keep high order of hygiene and sanitation. Cities are not minus human beings, they are one and the same. For lack of facilities and services in cities, most people would blame the authorities, maybe rightly so to some extent, which in turn puts the blame on politicians and bureaucracy and makes prolonged vicious circles. Eventually, the fact is simply dividing the house of public policy making does not serve any purpose if we apply systemic thinking.

What is missing? It seems to be that the belief among educated people that communication technology by itself is an end and not just a means for doing a whole lot of things to make better cities and thereby a better country. In any sensibly literate community, public demand for basic rights to make choices to eat, drink, gather, work and live as they wish with complete freedom, but at the same time most of them tend to forget that they are equally responsible and dutiful as citizens to upkeep the facilities and services offered by the public or private agencies. We need a sense of pride and belonging to build a city for our future generations, but the actual action should begin from us aggressively with TESS—technology, efficiency, speed and scale.

Also, being responsible by not spitting, throwing away waste in public spheres, etc, will also add value for everybody else to replicate. As patriotic citizens, we express our heartfelt salute to the brave soldiers guarding us at the border for peace and prosperity, but most of us tend to fail to refrain from polluting the empty land, streets, roads, rivers, water bodies, public utilities, etc. Is it not that we are contradicting our beliefs and thereby compromising our health, city, economy and the country?

These are some of the key issues posing huge challenges for the urban planners, policy makers, service providers like architects, engineers, academia, think tanks and industries, which were all in some or the other way part of India’s Smart City Mission—one of the most ambitious initiatives launched five years ago. The Union Government had launched the Mission in June 2015 to improve the urban ecosystems and make the livable for all by fixing the challenges identified in four folds: i) Retrofitting development, ii) Redevelopment, iii) Green Field development, and iv) Pan-city development.

Out of 99 cities, 60 were selected in 2016, 30 in 2017 and 9 in 2018. During the last five years, a total of 5151 projects worth `2,05,018 crore were identified in 99 cities across the country. The funds sanctioned for these projects largely come from the Union Government, State governments and in some cities the Private sector, but a very negligible portion is from the urban local bodies. 

A big challenge for the cities is that they are unable to raise money using their resources. Several studies indicate that the overall performance of the smart city initiatives has been largely still or in a very nascent stage. Moreover, in terms of qualitative assessment, the outcomes were not so outstanding for most cities, but the initiatives had created positive energy and huge awareness among different stakeholders even though it lagged behind the Clean India Mission achievements at the national level.

According to the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, total smart city projects tendered were worth over `1,66,000 crore (80.96 per cent), out of which total projects work order issues were `1,25,000 crore (75.30 per cent) as on June 25, 2020. Whereas, total projects completed were `27,000 crore only, which is just 13.16 per cent. Moreover, the total projects completed worth `12,100 crore (44.81 per cent) were in the last one year.

The dismal performances of Smart City Mission projects are attributed to many elements such as lack of good governance and decentralisation at urban local bodies’ level even after the Constitutional Amendments made close to three decades ago. Moreover, Smart City Mission projects mainly were faced with lack of political leadership to drive effective transformations at national, state and city levels; the lethargic bureaucratic planning, project designs minus citizens’ participation; complete dilution of mission guidelines and norms of special purpose vehicles (SPVs); not including subject experts from industry and public policy practitioners in the planning stage itself; lack of transparency in detailed projects preparations by private consultancy firms; and more importantly, corruption in tendering process with political interferences, especially in Tamil Nadu. Also, there were no links between the actual projects initiated and initial reports prepared by private consulting firms involving citizens for feedback.

Further, by and large, the approaches adopted to develop smart city projects were not India-centric with the change in mindsets along with informed sound data-based decision making. Most of the cities still lack comprehensive data, both qualitative and quantitative. Thus, it is an all top-down approach of the age-old centralised planning methods in a new package. Further, the Union Government had failed to recognise the fact that the municipalities and city corporations are in systemic dysfunction for many decades.

For instance, out of 11 cities selected in Tamil Nadu, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) was appointed in one city only (Chennai) and in the remaining10 cities neither CEOs were appointed nor the SPVs were formed as per the original guidelines of the Union Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs. In fact, in some cities, one person has been included as a board member for many cities as subject expert or industry member.

Most Smart Cities still do not have a website for communication to engage with citizens. The present government in Tamil Nadu is implicitly against the idea of smart cities projects and was never bothered to implement the schemes seriously from the very beginning, including the Clean India Mission. Whatever is done or being done is because of the pressure from the Union Government, people, civil society and industries.

However, there are exceptional cities such as Ahmedabad, Bhopal, Chennai, Indore, Kanpur, Nagpur, Pune, Surat, Thiruvananthapuram, Visakhapatnam, etc. that have outperformed both quantitatively and qualitatively. All these cities were able to do better because of the participation of citizens along with other stakeholders.

In an unfettered functional democracy like India’s, cities will continue to grow without adequate facilities, but when a crisis hits, then the entire urban community will blame the State and National governments. The hard truth is that Indian cities cannot be reformed without the decentralisation of power for taxation, inclusive planning and execution of projects with transparency and accountability, and addressing core issues realistically with the participation of citizens.

Unfortunately, the cities are governed still with colonial mindsets and centralised decision making. It is strange that we had to wait for 73 years even after the Independence for the Union Government to announce a five-year vision for the Urban Learning Internship Programme (TULIP) to engage undergraduate students as interns in urban local bodies.

Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan
Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan
Chandrasekaran Balakrishnan is Research Fellow (Urban Eco-system and Skill Development) with CPPR. His areas of research interest are economics of education, vocational education and skills development, economic reforms, liberal vision for India, water management, regional development, and city development. Chandrasekaran has an MA in Economics (University of Madras) and an MPhil in Social Sciences (Devi Ahilya Vishwavidyalaya University, Indore).

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