Prime Minister Narendra Modi, in his euphoric ‘Mann Ki Baat’ (speech from the heart) broadcast on All India Radio on December 30, focused on the ‘positivity’ to be made viral as proclivity in the coming days. But where will this positivity emanate from? It perhaps should come from the worksheet of his 55-month rule in the country. However, in reality, it has been a very sorry state of affairs, where promises like ‘smart cities’ have been forgotten as easily as they were made.
The smart cities project, announced in June 2015, was not just Modi’s pet project, it had also figured quite prominently in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) manifesto during the 2014 election campaign. The smart cities in this flagship project were supposed to act like a lighthouse to other cities. The entire model of city administration and governance was supposed to be changed. The project put emphasis on physical infrastructure in the cities along with use of technology to find solutions to the never-ending problems. And this was then to be copied for further development in the rest of the country.
However, the Modi government has stopped talking about the progress of the smart cities project. It is rather focusing on showing development in sectoral terms. That is why these days, the propaganda channels – radio, television and print – are flooded with advertisements pertaining to sanitation, health and housing, and not a word about the smart cities project is said or printed. Is this the government’s attempt to focus on the purported “positives” of his rule, and distract us from the heap of “negatives”?
What is Modi government hiding?
The Modi government picked up a few cities to exhibit the model of development which was to be followed by other cities as well. The premise of the project was that the private sector must play a major role in infrastructure development. It was based on the assumption that the present governance model in the cities is a hindrance to overall developmental projects, and hence a business-like model should be developed. This is why special purpose vehicles (SPVs) were designed to minimise the hurdles in the development of the cities.
However, the recent data collected by the NGO ‘Wada Na Todo Abhiyan (Do not break the promises campaign)’ has exposed the fallacy and the hollowness of the entire smart cities project. The SPVs have released just 5% of the total sum required for the project that is supposed to be implemented in 60 shortlisted smart cities. There is not much science required to understand what this means, as just 5% would also quantify a commensurate dose of development in the respective ‘smart’ cities[ns1] .
In a reply to a question in the Upper House of Parliament, the government has admitted that just 14% of the projects have been offloaded so far in the smart cities mission. At present, 70% of the projects proposed under the smart cities mission are still in the development stage, while 5% of these have been completed so far.
Another area of intervention has been through the much tom-tommed scheme called the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT), which was announced in 2015 for 500 cities. A few cities were listed in both AMRUT and smart cities project.
The data for AMRUT reveals that 19% of Central assistance has been released so far. The status of the projects is no different from that of the smart cities mission.
Why could the Smart Cities project not offload?
An important reason is that expecting that the private players will invest capital where there are no chances of returns is erroneous. They will merrily invest in bigger, metro-like cities, and are doing so, but will avoid the smaller ones or the tier II cities. The financial capacity of the cities is so inadequate that more than 80% of them are unable to pay the wage bill of their staff. How can we imagine inviting big players in such cities? The government cannot abdicate from its responsibility as a principal investor in such cities – especially to provide the basic minimum utilities like water, sanitation, electricity, roads etc.
Another crucial issue lies in the way the smart cities project has been structured. The SPVs have taken control of the smart cities development project. These SPVs are too bureaucrat-centric with a chief executive officer and a chairperson along with board members where the elected institution has virtually no standing either to influence or guide them. As a result, the CEOs of the SPVs and the administration heads – mostly mayors – are at loggerheads. Ultimately, the project gets influenced from both the quarters with neither owing it.
The area-based development (ABD) and pan city specification in which the smart cities were designed pose another issue. The ABD was supposed to focus on infrastructure projects in a dedicated area – either for retrofitting or redevelopment or green field projects. Majority of the cities have opted for redevelopment of the area. The ABD is a very small designated geographical area. Since this area did not even comprise more than 2-5% of the entire city, this draws hardly any interest from the residents of the city. It means that the city residents too are not very eager to see the fulfillment of such projects under the ABD. The pan city development plan of the smart cities has focused mainly on the usage of high-speed connectivity to improve smart solutions either for transport or other utilities. Thus, 85% of the budget – if it was available – was usurped by just 5% of the area, and a commensurate fraction of the population.
The positivity of smart cities was never emanated from them. Hence, PM Modi did not forget to mention the smart cities, but the project got lost quintessentially due to its design, structure and implementation.
The writer is Former Deputy Mayor, Shimla.