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Core sectors like waste and energy management will be the bedrock to ensure that India’s Smart Cities initiative will propel the country’s urban spaces towards ‘smart’ climate friendly growth with minimal emissions

Chennai is among 20 cities that would be the first to get funding to turn into a 'smart city'. (Image by Pratik Gupte)

Aerial view of Chennai which has made it to the first list of smart cities (Image by Pratik Gupte)

With studies projecting that 600 million people will be living in its urban areas by 2031, up from about 360 million of its 1.2 billion people now, India is on the cusp of an urbanisation wave. While this future urban space will contribute to GDP substantially, it is also vital to ensure that cities are made better places to live in but with minimal carbon footprint. The government’s Smart Cities Mission, aimed at creating 100 smart cities that will ensure transformational changes in the way of living for the urban population, can be seen in this perspective.

Core sectors like waste, energy management, transport, buildings and public spaces are targeted to ensure this transition. Given the commitments that the Indian government made recently at the climate summit in Paris, this will mean shifting cities towards a low carbon trajectory so that their ‘smart’ objectives are met with minimal emissions. That is the only way to meet India’s core commitment to reduce its emissions intensity by 30-35% by 2030.

Across the world, the thrust is towards sub-national low carbon and emission reduction actions. At the UN Sustainable Development Summit last year, countries agreed to undertake several actions to ensure that sustainable development is built into the systems of city development. Already, there are initiatives like C40 Cities, a network of megacities to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and the IBM-initiated Smarter Cities project.

In January, India announced its first list of 20 cities to be turned into smart cities. It is hoped that this will result in substantial emission reductions and introduce holistic management of resources to meet city needs. A look at the potential emissions reductions of some core sectors:

Waste management

The latest study by suggests that India currently generates 226,572,283 tonnes of solid waste and 38 billion litres of sewage every year. The 20 cities identified account for 25,966 tonnes per day (TPD) which is equivalent to 346 MW of waste to energy potential and 56.2 tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions reduction potential from solid waste alone. The sewage can account for nearly 46 MW of electric power from 7,827 million litres per day (MLD) in the 20 cities. Currently, the potential in the country is 226 MW from 38 billion of sewage per day. However, there will be substantial cost to be incurred by the municipalities of these cities to implement these low carbon initiatives.

Energy management

The total energy required by the 20 cities by 2022 is projected to be around 12 million units (MU) per year. Of these, as per the smart cities proposal, 10% will be from solar power. This is over and above the existing solar energy programmes which the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy (MNRE) is currently implementing. According to MNRE estimates, Indian cities will account for nearly 30% of the total renewable energy production.

Smart meters

Smart meters are to be installed in the smart cities as part of efficiency increase in electricity systems. These two meters can measure the amount of energy being supplied to a household from the grid and vice versa. The trouble is that there is no real estimate of the money required to install so many smart meters, though there are many back of the envelope calculations. The smart cities mission has identified a series of complementary infrastructure developments required for the success of smart metering.


Commercial buildings are in focus under the smart cities proposals. According to a McKinsey report, almost 66% of the building requirement needed in India by 2030 is yet to be constructed. The average consumption of energy under different commercial buildings categories is 15.36kWh/sq.ft/yr for office spaces, 15.31 kWh/sq.ft/yr for shopping malls, 3.62 kWh/sq.ft/yr for IT parks, and 37.2 kWh/sq.ft/yr for hotels.  Almost 80% of this can be sourced from renewable energy resources, estimates MNRE.

Institutional challenges

The government hopes to leapfrog from the business as usual development trajectory towards aggressive low carbon pathways through the smart cities initiative. However, it has to overcome competing institutional challenges. The Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban) objectives, smart solar cities, Power for All initiatives and JNNURM programmes have competing implementation strategies. City officials have to report to multiple organisations. Furthermore, competition among cities on progress-based incentives mechanisms excludes non-priority areas.

The needs

Initiatives under the smart cities need automation, so that they can be adopted by people at low literacy levels. The current plan does not address this.

Plus, the present concept is limited to creating wealth and assets around infrastructure. The government needs to expand its perceived boundaries of what constitutes urban ‘smartness’. Smart cities must pass the ‘climate friendly’ test to be sustainable.

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