<b>Anjuli Bhargava:</b> How smart is it... really?

The Smart City initiative is truly representative of how new initiatives move in India


Anjuli Bhargava
This article has been modified. Please see the clarification at the end. 

Even before the Smart City initiative got going, it had all the makings of a classic flop. Let me explain why.

To start with, no one has so far come up with a cogent description of what a Smart City will comprise. It's not clear to anyone - and I mean no one - what exactly he or she is talking about, even though every other week some conference is held in one of the metros to discuss the Smart City initiative. Nobody I met, spoke to or discussed it with, could quite explain what it meant.

The Ministry of Urban Development website on Smart City missions confirms this. It says there is no single definition and that Smart Cities mean "different things to different people". In short, there are a host of definitions doing the rounds and you can take your pick.

But the Smart City plan is truly representative of how things work - or rather don't work - in India. A new idea is announced. Even before it's fully thought through, the consultants - self-styled and self-declared experts - jump right in. Full of air, ideas and of course knowledge on how it's been done in the rest of the world, the consultants hijack the idea and try and give it some shape. They know they have the best chance of doing so simply because they are more articulate than the rest.

The Smart City initiative has already been declared a $50-billion opportunity (no one likes to point this out but that's probably for the consultants themselves). Excitement is at an all-time high. I was startled to discover that a Smart City Council is up and running, with Pratap Padode as its founder-director. Discussions now include smart utilities - smart sewage, smart water, smart billing, smart meters, smart grids and so on.

But there is a spoiler in the $50-billion story. Sadly, these Smart Cities are not up in the air. They are real cities that fall under state governments. It was fine to compete to get into the list. At that time, state governments nodded in agreement - who wouldn't when it's a matter of money coming your way - but soon they realised they too have some groundwork to do. These states have to actually get involved, work has to be done, concepts have to be understood, the urban planners have to be... well... awakened. It's not just a matter of gratefully accepting what comes your way and putting it to whatever use you please.

So the states begin to flounder. Of the 100 cities identified to be smartened up, 20 were meant to be funded in the first year. Now it appears that this target may have to be scaled down. Not because the Centre doesn't have the funds, but because the states are not ready with their plans.

Even before the states submitted their initial draft plans, dissent began to arise. Just like with all new grand initiatives in India, the Smart City proposal would be incomplete if everyone just fell in line. There has to be a significant amount of protest from those who stand to lose power.

So, the municipal corporations of Navi Mumbai, Pune and Nashik had dug their heels in claiming that the project would impact the corporations' autonomy and financial independence. They feared being "sidelined" (Airports Authority of India, please take a cue from this; there's no harm in plain speaking). The Shiv Sena too was suspicious of the plans for Mumbai. Even before the Smart Cities were truly conceived, someone stands to lose from them!

But the Center stepped in to allay their fears and assured them that their powers would remain intact. So earlier this month, plans were submitted for 97 cities (of a total of 98) by almost all the states except Tamil Nadu and Telangana. Plans are now in with the ministry of urban development and will be examined. Those found worthy will be funded. How many of the 97 cities meet the criteria remains to be seen.

There is however a silver lining in this whole episode - which is far from over. The conferences served a purpose. The bureaucrats had several lunches outside their gloomy offices. Businessmen dropped in and networked. A lot of coffee was drunk. Everyone met and discussed other projects - if not the one in question.

Who knows or cares whether Smart Cities come up at all? Haven't we managed without those special economic zones?

In an earlier version of this column, it was mentioned that only six states have submitted their plans for 15 cities, which is incorrect. Almost all states have submitted their plans for 97 cities. The error is regretted. 

Disclaimer: These are personal views of the writer. They do not necessarily reflect the opinion of www.business-standard.com or the Business Standard newspaper

First Published: Dec 28 2015 | 9:48 PM IST

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