09/10/2015 8:17 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST

Germany's On Board, But Smart City Project Needs Government To Think Harder Too

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NEW DELHI, INDIA - OCTOBER 5: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (R) and German Chancellor Angela Merkel (L) pose during a photo call as they arrive for meetings at Hyderabad House in New Delhi, India on October 5, 2015. Angela Merkel has begun a mission to clear the path for German companies keen to do business in India, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi looks to the European powerhouse to help revive its economy. (Photo by Santosh Singh /Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

The year 2015 has been a rather eventful one for Indo-German cooperation. In January, Urban Development Minister M Venkaiah Naidu and the visiting German Minister Barbara Hendricks signed an agreement, with Germany deciding to partner with India in developing three smart cities; a six-member joint committee was set up to evolve the way forward. Prime Minister Modi and Indian MNCs were then invited to Hannover in April for the world's largest annual industrial fair and a number of agreements largely aimed at facilitating strategic cooperation and technology transfer were inked between Indian and German entities. More recently, Prime Minister Modi and Chancellor Merkel adopted a united voice, vociferously advocating for a 'Permanent Member' status to be accorded to G-4 economies (India, Germany, Brazil and Japan) in a reformed security council. And as India welcomes Chancellor Merkel's who is on a three day visit to India from October 4-7, German Ambassador Martin Ney reinforced the ever-increasing significance of strategic cooperation between the two nations in a statement: "I believe India is in a crucial phase. It overhauls its economy. It reinvigorates its international engagements in order to harness its full potential as a rising power in a multipolar world."

"Critics have panned the [smart city] project for its little or no information on key implementation details."

Now, while the newly appointed Ambassador Ney rightly projects a positive macroeconomic future for India in the decades to come, he may not be able to say the same of its cities. If he has had the opportunity to travel outside the German Embassy housed in Delhi's plush Shantipath area, he is bound to realise that Indian cities are a mess. It is estimated that 30 people migrate every minute to major Indian cities from rural areas. However, these cities abysmal infrastructure are in no position to handle this burgeoning stress.

In this light, Prime Minister Narendra Modi's vision to develop 100 smart cities as satellite towns of larger cities and modernising the existing mid-sized cities is a move that recognises the socio-economic challenges associated with rapid urbanisation. Moreover, the familiar adage that India lives in its villages might just become irrelevant in the next couple of decades. Urban settings are now driving production and consumption in the Indian economy, accounting for nearly 60% of the GDP. Approximately 600 million Indians are expected to live in urban settings by 2030.

Since the announcement in the Union Budget, the vision of building 100 smart cities has garnered praise and criticism in equal measure. Those in favour of the project have argued that the mission will produce choices for the average citizen to pursue interests meaningfully, generate employment prospects, attract investments and human capital as well as ensure social, environmental and financial sustainability. The mission has also evinced international interest with countries like Germany, USA, Japan, Singapore Australia and France offering technical expertise and resources to build these cities.

However, amidst the hullabaloo over the smart city mission, the million-dollar question on every Indian's mind continues to be, what exactly is a smart city? The definition used by interest groups and stakeholders vary. Internationally, the understanding is that a smart city is the same as a digital city, and could also be understood as a sustainable city. In a note circulated to Members of Parliament, the government adopts a more unique definition. It defines smart cities as "those that are able to attract investments." Good infrastructure, simple and transparent online processes that make it easy to establish an enterprise and run it efficiently are to be considered key features of an investor-friendly smart city.

While the project has received a great deal of attention ever since the announcement in the 2014 budget, much of this attention has often been negative and cynical. Critics have panned the project for its little or no information on key implementation details. They argue that the government would not be in a position to ensure inclusiveness for the urban poor, migrants and the marginalised. They question the kind of safeguards the government can possibly have in place when it is only providing 20% of the funding and believe that these cities would end up being nothing more than gated communities for the already privileged.

"[T]he NDA government needs to move beyond mere slogans and simplistic definitions to addressing the more pressing issues specific to smart city development in India."

As the government embarks on its ambitious plan, India is in a unique position to learn from best practices and mistakes made elsewhere. Cities in Germany are consistently ranked as some of the "smartest" in the world, possessing the best physical, social, institutional and economic infrastructure. Citizens participate and consult with the government in a fairly transparent manner and government structures make effective use of ICTs in public administration to connect and coordinate between various departments. Germany has also been at the forefront of piloting a host of ambitious and successful smart city experiments in the last decade. (See Friedrichshafen, for example). Numerous projects aimed at ensuring smartness in urban transportation, environmental management, governance and economy have been successfully developed by German businesses and the progress from discovery to the market has largely been smooth.

A concept note on smart cities released by the Urban Development Ministry defines smart cities as those that ensure a "very high quality of life (comparable with any developed European city)..." Now, while that definition might flatter Chancellor Merkel, the NDA government needs to move beyond mere slogans and simplistic definitions to addressing the more pressing issues specific to smart city development in India. The ball is now in Prime Minister Modi's court. It's about time he played he played it smart.

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