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The government’s much-hyped Smart Cities Mission is essentially about improving physical and communication infrastructure; it fails to look at how these cities will sustain themselves, or how they can be made resilient in an era of inevitable climate change

(Image by Skye Vidur)

(Image by Skye Vidur)

The Indian government recently launched the Smart Cities Mission, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi unveiling this ambitious urban development programme. With an objective of making 100 cities in the country ‘smart’ within the next five years, the mission opens a window of opportunity to build environmental sustainability into urban management in India.

The Prime Minister launched the mission at a national conference of mayors and city administrators. He exhorted the administrators to ensure that smart cities are always a step or two ahead of people’s aspirations.

Urban centres, by their very nature, are centres of consumption. They consume agricultural produce, finished products and manufactured goods that are often produced elsewhere. Because of their high population density, cities consume disproportionately higher amounts of energy and water, and generate large amounts of wastes. Since the urban dwellers live from the point from where their natural resources, agricultural produce and manufactured goods come, they are also likely to be inadequately aware of the ecological footprint of their consumption.

Planners and administrators can incorporate measures that can strengthen sustainability while working on smart cities. Through these measures more of the environmental cost for the city’s growth can be met from within the urban area itself, thereby reducing its ecological burden and strengthening its climate resilience. However, whether the Smart Cities Mission, as it is conceived now, will support that is the question.

The mission plans to develop the 100 selected cities through an area-wise step-by-step process using one of the three means – retrofitting (making changes to an already developed area), redevelopment (developing anew an already developed area) or greenfield (developing an as yet undeveloped area).

The Union Ministry of Urban Development defines a smart city as one that has basic infrastructure; uses ‘smart’ solutions to make infrastructure and services better; and relies on area-based development. The objective for developing smart cities: “Provide basic infrastructure; ensure quality of life; ensure clean and sustainable environment; apply smart solutions; and catalyse examples for other smart cities.”

The basic infrastructure that the ministry lists are assured water and electricity supply; sanitation and solid waste management; efficient urban mobility and public transport; affordable housing; robust IT connectivity; e-governance and citizen participation; safety and security of citizens; health education; and economic activities and livelihood opportunities.

Mission lacks imagination, innovation, targets

The mission strategy is to apply at least one smart solution citywide. The green smart solutions that are envisaged include

  • Waste management – waste to energy, waste to compost and recycling;
  • Water management – smart meters and management, leakage identification and water quality monitoring);
  • Energy management – smart meters and management, renewable sources of energy and energy efficient and green buildings); and
  • Urban mobility – smart parking, intelligent traffic management and integrated multi-modal transport.

The ministry document has set green targets as well. It states, “In smart cities, 10% of the energy needs to be met through renewable sources, 80% of building construction should be green, and 35% of the housing in the new areas have to be for the economically weaker sections.”

What the ministry document lacks is in imagination and innovation. There is nothing smart about the basic infrastructure listed, but are facilities that every city administration should provide to its citizens.

The Smart Cities Mission document does not define the green targets, or any other target for that matter. Further, it does not specify how these targets can be met, or how the funds for them can be obtained. These have not even been developed into framework guidelines. Instead, the mission expects the urban administrations to develop their detailed plans for making their cities smart.

Leaving the details to urban administrations has its limitations. While developing a plan for within their city limits, they can miss the larger picture. A commitment to meet 10% of the energy needs from renewable sources is very modest, and does not indicate any ambition to move towards green energy. Similarly, without clear definitions about what constitutes green buildings, much is left to the interpretation of the local administrators.

The selection of the cities for the implementation of smart measures has been designed as a two-stage process. First, the cities will compete amongst each other within the state, and in the second stage they would send their proposals to the Centre, from which 100 will be selected for development into smart cities.

The Centre’s support is limited to Rs 100 crore ($15.7 million) per year for five years for each selected city. Each urban administration is expected to establish a special purpose institution to implement the smart city programme. This institution is expected to raise additional funds through public-private partnerships or other mechanisms.

A positive aspect of the smart cities scheme is that it emphasizes citizens’ involvement in defining and designing the systems that they need. This, in turn, opens up the space to give a local flavour to each proposal.

Two areas of focus are urban infrastructure development and internet connectivity. This is in tune with the National Democratic Alliance government’s emphasis on urban development.

Opportunity being missed

However, the initiative is missing the opportunity to build sustainability and climate resilience into urban living spaces. ‘Smart’ cannot stand only for the ease with which bills can be paid online, or the availability of wifi connectivity. There is a need to be smart to make the consumption cycles in the cities sustainable, so that the urban centres can live with reasonable independence from their surroundings. This would also ensure a greater resilience to extreme weather events and climate shocks.

Sustainable energy use would mean greater availability of locally-generated and environmentally-friendly sources of energy. This can come from increased use of rooftop solar energy and power generated from urban wastes, and transmitted through local grids. This can be promoted through economic incentives and disincentives.

A city cannot be smart if its water comes from hundreds of kilometres away. This would make the city even more vulnerable in times of natural disaster.

By focusing on rhetoric the national government seems to have missed the nuances of building smartness through sustainability in cities. The innovative ideas would need to come in the proposals being developed by urban administrations.

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