Why Smart City Mission is impossible without Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, NHCD and HRIDAY

Image credits www.oneindia.com


By Sujaya Rathi

New Delhi: With the simultaneous launch of the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), Housing for All and the coveted Smart Cities Mission (SCM) on June 25, 2015, it was a landmark day in the evolution of India’s urban agenda. The message of convergence emerging from the common launch of all three programmes will hopefully be sustained in the future while implementing them.

The Smart City guidelines seek the convergence of different schemes like AMRUT, Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), National Heritage City Development and Augmentation Yojana (HRIDAY), Digital India, Skill Development, Housing for All, construction of Museums funded by the culture department and other programmes connected with social infrastructure such as health, education and culture. SCM, with an outlay of Rs.48,000 crore ($7.5 billion), is expected to enhance the quality of life in 100 cities, which will be identified over the next few months.

Since the initial declaration of building Smart Cities in the BJP’s election manifesto in early 2014, the Modi government’s plans on this front have been taking shape slowly, and will need time to evolve. The SCM guidelines highlight the need for a holistic approach to urban development. This will require an integration of physical, institutional, social and economic infrastructure. Thus emerges the need for a strategically articulated framework to address a city’s urban challenges, which will greatly aid this process of integration. This framework should focus on a more process-oriented path than a simple project-oriented path.

The guidelines provided by the government do not mention a specific definition of Smart City. There are, however, four key imperatives that emerge from the guidelines along with various other perspectives on smart cities obtained from both academic literature and deliberations in India over the last 15 months. The first imperative is that a city needs to be sustainable in order to be smart. This will mean that the interventions under the Smart Cities Mission need to align their goals, objectives and processes to the overarching principle of sustainability.

The draft Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), released by the United Nations, can be a useful and handy reference.

The key principles emerging from SDGs include ensuring well-being, equity, efficiency, and embedding foresight in all plans and actions.

Adhering to these principles at all stages of all programmes will ensure consistency in the outcomes achieved and thus enable the much-intended convergence of programmes sought by the Smart Cities Mission Guidelines.

The second imperative that emerges is the importance of imbibing the characteristics of good governance for achieving sustainability. For example, transparency, accountability, participation and consensus-building are some of the key characteristics of good governance, which form the foundation for ensuring equity.

The third imperative is to understand the role and use of technology in urban development. There needs to be a departure in the way technology is being portrayed as the panacea of all urban ills. It is in fact an important enabler, which can yield the desired results only when applied in a context-specific manner. Collective vision, supportive policy instruments and domestic stability are equally important in achieving smartness in a city through technology.

The fourth and a frequently discussed imperative is that urban institutions, especially the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) need the capacity to work towards the three imperatives mentioned so far. This gains additional significance as the prime minister himself has said that ULBs will be key instruments in implementing the Smart Cities Mission.

The four imperatives mentioned above suggest that India needs to formulate concrete Terms of Reference (ToR) to realize the Mission’s objectives, drawing from the initial ideas proposed in the guidelines. A reference framework based on a set of guiding principles is needed to enable state and city governments to implement different schemes, understand the complementarity of schemes and maintain consistency. This Smart City Reference Framework (SCRF) for India can be envisaged to be the point of departure from other urban development initiatives. The Smart Cities Mission needs to initiate this to gain both short-term (such as meaningful utilization of investments under various schemes) and long-term benefits (such as initiating important structural reforms in urban planning and management processes, empowered by technology).

The Reference Framework should be the overarching and all-encompassing umbrella that will guide all urban development and related schemes to achieve sustainable urban development in India.

Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP), a Bengaluru-based think tank, has been working on re-conceptualizing various notions associated with smart cities in India. The culmination of this study is a set of ToR, which is also being referred to as the Smart City Reference Framework(SCRF). The final report of this study will be released in mid-July, under the aegis of NITI Aayog.

The positioning of SCM can be seized as an opportunity to address the challenges discussed in this article and achieve the larger goals of urbanization featured in the national development agenda. The complementarity of the schemes presents the biggest opportunity in this trajectory of urban development. It could also be the biggest challenge! Streamlining the efforts of various organizations by ensuring that various aspects of sustainable urban development are addressed will be a critical factor in taking this Mission forward “smartly”.