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Overcoming Roadblocks On The Path To Smart Cities

28/04/2016 3:59 PM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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The changing landscape of Chennai (India). Seen here is a building under construction near Elliot's Beach in Chennai.

There can be no two opinions about our Prime Minister's intentions of converting India into an economic powerhouse. The announcement of the Smart Cities Mission is a step in that direction--if executed properly this initiative can be a game-changer, attracting not only huge investments in infrastructural projects but also creating millions of jobs in both the service and manufacturing sectors.

However, there is a wide gap between vision and action. India's past record of implementing projects is dismal, with impediments in the form of bureaucratic and legal tangles.

The problem of land acquisition

The development of Smart Cities depends on the availability of huge swathes of land, and this alone indicates at trouble ahead--an important Bill on land acquisition is languishing in the Rajya Sabha and the opposition seems to have dug in its heels. Moreover, the farmers' lobby, which enjoys the patronage of several political parties, may not agree to the sale of cultivable land irrespective of the compensation that the government may decide to give. In short, without the passing of the Land Acquisition Bill, India can't move forward in realizing its vision of creating Smart Cities.

Without the passing of the Land Acquisition Bill, India can't move forward in realizing its vision of creating Smart Cities.

Need for new urban strategy

Most of 20 first Smart Cities chosen by the government have very poor delivery systems, including inefficient municipalities, public transportation, water, power, solid waste management, IT connectivity, housing, sanitation, traffic management and virtually non-existent urban planning. Inadequate healthcare, schools and colleges complete the picture. It would be a giant task to convert them into Smart Cities unless the basic infrastructure facilities are improved.

The government should come up with a new way of addressing these problems if it wants to successfully implement Smart Cities as the quality of urbanization is the most important driver of city's value and productive capacity. One way is to upgrade existing towns and cities by improving the basic service delivery systems. Further, the municipalities should be made accountable to the citizens, and there should be a yearly performance audited conducted on its working.

Centre -state partnerships

The Centre and states should work in tandem in retrofitting our existing urban planning department. They need to create a team of high-level professionals with considerable experience in implementation of mega projects to study the existing services and suggest improvements in delivery systems. In this direction, public-private partnerships should be formed for executing the various projects within the budgeted resources. We have seen that such partnerships have proved extremely successful in building national highways. Such teams should be made answerable to a CEO to be appointed by the government.

Lessons from Chinese, Korean and Australian models

India has a lot to learn from the Chinese experience. China has managed to create several world-class cities, like Tianjin, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Dongguan and Hangzhou. Most of the cities were developed near the coastal regions of China. They attracted huge foreign direct investment for setting up manufacturing facilities in and around them because of the availability of land, power, world-class infrastructure, housing, and above all quick clearances of projects.

India should also learn from the mistakes made by China, which went into overdrive to create new cities. Many new cities have become virtual ghost towns...

Foreign direct investment (FDI) in China has been one of the major success stories of the past 10 years. From a base of less than $19 billion in 1990, the FDI in China rose to more than $1262 billion at the end of 2015.

However, India should also learn from the mistakes made by China, which went into overdrive to create new cities. Many new cities have become virtual ghost towns as the people are not able to afford the rent for the luxury apartments. The owners are also not able to sell the flats because of crash in real-estate prices. Moreover, building too many cities has caused irreversible damage to the country's rich architectural and urban past. The slowing Chinese economy has added to these woes. It appears that China has built too much infrastructure too quickly. It is here that India should not blindly follow the Chinese model.

Also, one must not forget the fact that the Chinese success is attributable in part to bulldozing ancient villages for building mega cities. As a democratic country, our laws will not allow the government to adopt such an approach. Moreover, China will also be soon facing a humungous problem of accommodating around 250 million of its population who have been or are likely to be displaced from villages.

Lee Sang, a leading architect from South Korea, who was recently in India to address an architects' meet in Ahmadabad, was of the view that it would be difficult to develop Smart Cities out towns with a population of more than 5 lakh. He cited South Korea's example, where several small cities were built in areas that had less than 5 lakh of population. The city of Sangdo was developed from scratch, keeping environmental considerations in mind. He felt that the Indian government, instead of converting metropolises into Smart Cities, should improve transportation, build better roads, boost power generation and make potable water accessible to all citizens. We need a well thought out urban development strategy that is in harmony with the present limitations in various cities.

By creating smaller and more liveable cities, the government would be able to reduce the pressure on existing urban centres.

We should also learn from the Australian experience of building mega cities. The Australian cities of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth are among the top 25 liveable cities of the world. Notably, Australia's urban planners focused on mid-sized cities for creating modern infrastructure, excellent public transportation, affordable housing, safety and hygiene.

Develop smart cities in and around coastal areas

Like China, India should also initially consider building cities around coastal areas, which are less highly populated. It would be easier to modernize such cities rather those that are already groaning under the weight of overcrowding and failing infrastructural facilities. Moreover, by creating smaller and more liveable cities, the government would be able to reduce the pressure on existing urban centres.

"Rurban Mission" is the way forward

It is in this context, the Prime Minister's launching of the Rurban Mission for developing 300 villages across the country as urban growth centres, assumes significance. This will not only accelerate the pace of economic development in rural areas, but will also stem the migration of people from villages to cities. As the farmers may not part with their land easily, the government should consider acquiring land on lease from the farmers and ensure regular income to them. This will turn into a win-win situation both for the farmers and the government.

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