13/02/2015 8:15 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:24 AM IST

India's Smart Cities Need Smarter Utilities

Let's face it! Cities in India that have been built without much foresight of having to accommodate a surge in population are quite literally, idiomatically put, bursting at their seams.

Premshree Pillai/Flickr

Let's face it! Cities in India that have been built without much foresight of having to accommodate a surge in population are quite literally, idiomatically put, bursting at their seams. Rapid urbanisation caused by job creation has led to migration of people from rural Indian villages to cities. India's urban population is forecasted to increase from 340 million in 2008 to 590 million in 2030 as nearly 70% of the new jobs in the country are estimated to be created in urban India by then, according to a research report on Urbanisation of McKinsey Global Institute (MGI). Indian cities are 30 times more densely populated than Europe's urban centres. This gives a clear indication to the massive infrastructural challenges that they are beset with, hampering the quality of life.

Contours Of India's Smart Cities

With the Indian government's '100 Smart Cities Project' taking shape with budgetary allocations as well as support pouring in from countries such as Singapore, Japan, Germany and the US in terms of offering technical expertise to actualise these cities, the draft concept paper defining the contours of these 'Smart Cities' includes State Capitals, Union Territories, 44 cities in the population range of 1-4 million people, 9 satellite cities with a population of 4 million or more, 10 cities that are of religious and tourist importance and 20 cities in the 0.5 to 1 million population range wherein reliable utility services, sanitation, solid waste management, storm water drainage, energy efficiency and improved access to information would be ensured for citizens.

This indicates the government's focus on elements that constitute Critical Human Infrastructure - Power, Water and Telecommunications.

India's Critical Infrastructural Inefficiencies

Despite being the fifth largest producer and consumer of electricity in the world, 24x7 power supply still remains to elude India. One of the main problems at electricity utility companies is distribution losses constituting 1.5% of the country's GDP. India's transmission and distribution (T&D) losses as a proportion of electricity output are among the highest in the world. The average all-India loss levels in FY13 were in the range of 27 per cent, according to a recent report by ICRA (October, 2014), an investment information and credit rating agency. The reasons for high Transmission & Distribution (T&D) losses include electricity theft, meter tampering, faulty meters and inadequate investments in transmission equipment hampering the financial status of utility companies. Unless these issues are remedied, reliable power supply will not be possible in the country.

Water supply in India is characterized by poor coverage, inadequate treatment and high non revenue water (NRW) with low user charges and lower collection efficiency. According to the 65th round of the National Sample Survey (NSS), only 47% of urban households have individual water connections. The current distribution system is the cause behind loss of 40-50% of water.

On the telecom front, availability of spectrum or radio frequency holds the key to quality of service. Despite India's telecom subscriber base continuing to grow from 915 million at the beginning of the year to 963 million by end-October, while that for broadband rising from 55 million to 73 million and overall tele-density increasing from 74 percent to 77 percent, delays in auction resulted in poor voice quality and call drops in 2014 (Source: IANS). The availability of infrastructure in the form of telecom towers is another challenge for the people to migrate to superior 4G for broadband services. Without such infrastructure in place, the government's 'Digital India Program' in conjunction with the '100 Smart Cities Project' would continue to remain a pipe dream, as telecom connectivity forms the crucial cog in the wheel.

Smart Utilities Make Smart Cities

Having smart utilities that ensure 24X7 supply of electricity, reliable water supply and tele-connectivity for citizens as well as industries, forms the most crucial element of planning a smart city. With resources being limited to generate supplies and demand constantly on the rise due to urbanisation, India's cash-strapped utilities need to get a serious look by the government to mend not just their finances, but also to improve their cost effectiveness, mitigate losses and improve their efficacy in distributing reliable supplies to the proposed smart cities. Utilities need to invest in better automation of metering, thereby avoiding meter reading, billing and bill delivery inaccuracies and improving the revenue realisation.

The Road Ahead:

Insights from Black & Veatch's 2014 Strategic Directions Report on Utility Automation and Integration

Adoption of smart grids or distribution automation is the need of the hour. Solar power in the form of distributed rooftop generation will have a significant role in providing smart cities with an environmentally sustainable power supply. Distribution automation can provide an excellent way to integrate power from renewable and traditional sources, by scheduling each energy source to optimise value. It also has the possibility to identify customer outages before individual customers call the utility to report them.

To maximise performance of water utilities, new automated systems that can interpret data from factors such as water source, pump efficiency and others need to be deployed to estimate customer usage and making billing more efficient and accurate.

It can be beneficial for utilities to share communications infrastructure. Wireless infrastructure needed for remote meter reading is just one example of where utilities could collaborate to leverage the investment costs between utilities implementing similar functions. Network convergence lowers the operational and maintenance costs of supporting mission critical infrastructure, while providing scalability.

Application of data analytics and management programs will allow utility managers to make smarter operating decisions and efficiently deliver on the business goals of the utility enterprise.

Improving the efficiency of utilities, which in turn would make communities more adaptive, resilient and sustainable, is the key to development of 'Smart Cities'. With a smartphone in the hand of every Indian by 2019, the prospect of a cloud-controlled infrastructure platform would pave the way for every urban citizen to utilise resources in the most optimal manner, heralding an era of a smart, responsible and an environment conscious citizen.