This mission is perhaps the best thing that should happen to India, but a few glaring wrinkles need to be ironed out.
- Flawed Planning
About 80% of the budget is to be spent on ‘area-based plan’, rather than for the entire city. A few chosen areas within a city will get a big chunk of funds. Such unequal infra development within a city may lead to social, economic, administrative and other problems later. How will government prevent a gold rush to these parts of the city and justify lopsided development to people living in other areas? Will the ‘area-based plan’ be a silo development within a city, or will it fit into a larger master plan for the region & city? What are the potential socio-economic impacts of such a limited area development within a large city and what actions are being taken to manage potential political & administrative chaos? What’s the 20 year roadmap to develop all parts of the city in an equitable way?
2. ICT vs physical Infra
Smart cities are not just about mobility, information & communication technologies. About 40% (or more) is to be spent on these areas. How about essentials like low-cost housing, sanitation, waste management, water, energy etc., which are perhaps more important and have gotten lesser share of attention & funds?
About 25% of the budget is expected to be footed by private sector. When our history of managing public finances municipalities is dismal, will the private sector be eager to jump into these PPP projects? Most of our 4000+ municipalities (including metros) do not maintain balance sheets, are not mandated to do internal and external audits, & do not publish financial statements. We need many trillions to build infra country-wide, but all these municipalities generate just about a trillion of revenues. Sustainable financing of infra build-out is still a question mark, even as the central & state governments are financing the first phase of the smart cities mission.
4. Governance & accountability
Will the envisioned smart city SPVs run the cities (or a few smart areas within big cities) in a silo? What happens to the rest of the city? Who is ultimately responsible or accountable – the municipal body, state government, or SPV? Will a separate city government be a better governance model (as in NY & London)?
5. Citizen participation
How will the SPV & government mobilize and promote citizen participation to build these smart cities, almost from scratch? Without (at least) some citizen participation, this project will fail. Citizen participation is critical in areas such as contributing ideas, participating in development discussions with government, making adjustments to their lives as the cities are being built, contributing to making the cities vibrant & livable etc. We have little experience in mobilizing such citizen participation for large public projects. This requires cultural, political, & social changes, which take time. Importantly, it requires seasoned & committed leadership. Do we have such leaders?
Cities will be built. But, how smart will they be?