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

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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”.

(IANS)

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How telecom has become driver of economic change in India

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The country's hyper-competitive telecom sector has led the revolution from the front.
The country's hyper-competitive telecom sector has led the revolution from the front. Wikimedia Commons
  • India has done well to stay ahead of the curve in the technological revolution
  • The sectoral change in productivity has been the highest in the telecommunications sector since the reforms of 1991
  • India has managed to provide the cheapest telephony services around the world

For the most part of human history, the change was glacial in pace. It was quite safe to assume that the world at the time of your death would look pretty much similar to the one at the time of your birth. That is no longer the case, and the pace of change seems to be growing exponentially. Futurist Ray Kurzweil put it succinctly when he wrote in 2001: “We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century – it will be more like 20,000 years of progress (at today’s rate).” Since the time of his writing, a lot has changed, especially with the advent of the internet.

India has done well to stay ahead of the curve in the technological revolution. The country’s hyper-competitive telecom sector has led the revolution from the front. In fact, according to Reserve Bank of India data, the sectoral change in productivity has been the highest in the telecommunications sector since the reforms of 1991, growing by over 10 percent. On the other hand, no other sector has had a productivity growth of above five percent during the same period. It is no wonder that it has also been one of the fastest-growing sectors of the Indian economy, growing at over seven percent in the last decade itself.

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Such an unprecedented pace of growth has been brought about the precise levels of change that Kurzweil was so enthusiastic about. Today’s smartphones have the power of computers that took an entire room in the 1990s, and the telecom sector has had to keep up with a provision of commensurate internet speeds and services. Meanwhile, India has managed to provide the cheapest telephony services around the world, which has hit rock bottom after the entry of Reliance Jio. This has ensured access to those even at the bottom of the pyramid.

A rise in internet penetration has distinct positive effects on economic growth of a country.
A rise in internet penetration has distinct positive effects on economic growth of a country. Wikimedia Commons

Even though consumers have come to be accustomed to fast-paced changes within the telecom sector, the entry of Jio altered the face of the industry like never before by changing the very basis of competition. Data became the focal point of competition for an industry that derived over 75 percent of its revenue from voice. It was quite obvious that there would be immediate economic effects due to it. Now that we’re nearing a year of Jio’s paid operations, during which time it has even become profitable, we saw it fit to quantify its socio-economic impact on the country. Three broad takeaways need to be highlighted.

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First, the most evident effect has been the rise in affordability of calling and data services. Voice services have become practically costless while data prices have dropped from an average of Rs 152 per GB to lower than Rs 10 per GB. Such a drastic reduction in data prices has not only brought the internet within the reach of a larger proportion of the Indian population but has also allowed newer segments of society to use and experience it for the first time. Since the monthly saving of an average internet user came out to be Rs 142 per month (taking a conservative estimate that the consumer is still using 1 GB of data each month) and there are about 350 million mobile internet users in the country (Telecom Regulatory Authority of India data), the yearly financial savings for the entire country comes out to be Rs 60,000 crore.

To put things in perspective, this amount is more than four times the entire GDP of Bhutan. Therefore, mere savings by the consumer on data has been at astonishing proportions.

Today's smartphones have the power of computers that took an entire room in the 1990s, and the telecom sector has had to keep up with a provision of commensurate internet speeds and services. Wikimedia Commons
Today’s smartphones have the power of computers that took an entire room in the 1990s, and the telecom sector has had to keep up with a provision of commensurate internet speeds and services. Wikimedia Commons

Now, this data has been used for services that have brought to life a thriving app economy within the country. So, the second level of impact has been in the redressal of a variety of consumer needs — ranging from education, health and entertainment to banking. For instance, students in remote areas can now access online courseware and small businesses can access newer markets. Information asymmetry has been considerably reduced.

Third, a rise in internet penetration has distinct positive effects on economic growth of a country. These effects arise not merely from the creation of an internet economy, but also due to the synergy effects it generates. Information becomes more accessible and communication a lot easier. Businesses find it easier to operate and access consumers. Labour working in cities has to make less frequent trips home and becomes more productive as a result. Education and health services become available in inaccessible locations. Multiple avenues open up for knowledge and skill enhancement.

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An econometric analysis for the Indian economy showed that the 15 percent increase in internet penetration due to Jio and the spill-over effects it creates will raise the per capita levels of the country’s GDP by 5.85 percent, provided all else remains constant.

Thus, India’s telecom sector will continue to drive the economy forward, at least in the short run, and hopefully catapult India into 20,000 years of progress within this century, as Kurzweil postulated. The best approach for the state would be to ensure the environment of unfettered competition within the industry. Maybe other sectors of the economy ought to take a leaf out of the telecom growth story. The Indian banking sector comes to mind. However, that is a topic for another day. (IANS)

(Amit Kapoor is Chair, Institute for Competitiveness, India. He can be contacted at Amit. Kapoor@competitiveness.in and tweets @kautiliya. Chirag Yadav, a senior researcher at the institute, has contributed to the article.)