Soon after coming to power last May, Prime Minister Narendra Modi made a grand announcement of setting up 100 new smart cities in the country. The smart cities are Modi’s way of giving a leg up to Indian infrastructure and construction companies. But apart from the announcement, there has not been much action yet, though Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu announced that a blueprint will be out by January-end (the earlier deadline was December-end).
As of now, most Indian cities are in a very bad condition with horrible traffic, inhuman living conditions and unsafe train rides. But instead of initiating new cities, there is a rush to convert existing cities into “smart cities.” If just changing names would have made life in Indian cities better, then Modi should visit Mumbai and Kolkata – where nothing on the ground has changed for the common man despite their respective name changes.
Experts suggest a smart city should involve building a new, well planned and world class digital cities which can provide high quality infrastructure, and standard of living to its citizens. It will be a futile exercise to rename existing cities as so-called smart cities just to meet Modi’s target of 100 such cities.
The development of new cities has the potential to move the econony at a faster pace on the lines of Golden Quadrilateral road project. If brand new, smart cities are developed, it would provide impetus to a variety of companies including cement, construction, power and infotech.
Smart cities can be developed over a minimum area of 500 acres and will require at least Rs 6,000 crore of investment for basic and back-end infrastructure. Experts say it can generate employment for at least 200,000 people per city.
In fact, even 10 such new cities can bring in about Rs 9 lakh crore investment (including investments by users) and usher in unprecedented economic growth which Modi is targeting in the next five years. The smart cities will result in new orders for city planning, engineering, designing, and construction companies.
The project will also generate huge interest among the global players who might want to partner such projects.
One sector where results can be made visible almost instantly is urban development, where both public and private sectors can identify 500-5000 acres at a single location and kickstart the development process.
The projects can be set up as public private partnerships (PPP) as the private companies will need help from both central and state governments on a daily basis. Land acquisition will obviously be the biggest hurdle while setting up smart cities, but with the changes to the Land Acquisition Act, this problem can be overcome.
The idea will work as millions of poor are migrating to cities for job opportunities and better standard of living. Existing cities are unable to bear any extra load of migrants. If these cities can provide the basic infrastructure with a high quality of life, I will not be surprised if people from existing cities move to these "smart cities". There is an acute scarcity of good medical/sports facilities in India. If a new smart city just markets itself on providing world class medical/sports facilities, this will click with young Indians.
If implemented well, smart cities can really bring in smart solutions, both for government and people at large. I believe this idea by Modi has the potential to change the look of Indian cities. The time has come for Modi’s ministers to burn the midnight oil to make smart cities a reality instead of turning it into a pipe dream.
(Dev Chatterjee is Corporate Editor at Business Standard)