When you think about a smart city. What are the things that you imagine? Some skyscrapers? Roads devoid of bumps? Fast network? Free wifi? What is it that really makes a city smart enough?
Well, globally, the basic definition of a smart city involves a system that is fully equipped with the necessary Information and Communication Technology to improve governance and quality of life for general public.
However, in India, the idea is quite different.
According to the Indian Government, a Smart City is the one that provides core infrastructure and gives a decent quality of life to it's citizens, a clean and sustainable environment and application of "Smart Solutions". This is exactly how the Govt of India website defines it.
Sounds wholesome and dreamy right? But there's a thing about dreams you see, they are vague until you start planning.
The quite clear and concise promise of "100 New Cities enabled with the latest technology and infrastructure" mentioned in the election manifesto of 2014 soon succumbed to the logic concluding "There's no universal definition of a smart city since it means different things to different people" in the guidelines.
You kept talking about an idea in your campaign that lead to you getting a majority after years of being in the opposition and now you're saying the public might have misinterpreted your promises? That's some classic toxic relationship stuff.
It almost feels like they conceptualized the idea of a smart city the way an Indian parent raises a son. With no basic life skills but smart enough to fleece lacs in dowry.
It's only during the launch of the mission when people got a clear idea of what it's really going to be like (although it isn't).
The Mission doesn't aim to build 100 new cities but to make certain areas of the existing cities, smart. The nominated cities also have to develop a pan-city initiative but broadly, it's about making a compact area within the city advanced through retrofitting or redevelopment of an existing area or by developing it completely in a vacant area.
The idea is to build areas in a way that they work as a role model for the rest of the city. The advanced development plan of the model area is supposed to rub off on the other parts of the city and nearby cities and towns in turn creating more smart cities.
As if Bhayendar never saw Bandra and thought of building a sea link. Or Dasna was like "Mujhe nhi banna hai Delhi".
All they needed was a plan. What are funds for right?
Speaking of which, another thing about the Smart City Mission is that it challenged the administration of the cities to develop their own "Smart City Plan". The city with the best plan was to get selected to be the part of the mission.
Now, interestingly enough, the Hub of Entertainment, Mumbai, proved to be entertaining in this challenge as well.
The city didn't get selected for the Mission for two rounds straight. Reason being the power struggle between the centre and the local administration. According to the authorities in the BMC, the amount of money they were being allocated for the project was too low to give up the amount of autonomy they were losing for it.
Therefore, Mumbai was like: I'm too "smart" for this shit! 🤷♀️
And they started their own Smart City Projects.
Right now, there are various Smart City Projects operational in more than 10 different areas of Mumbai, Navi Mumbai, Kalyan-Dombivali and Thane, independent of the centre's Smart City Mission. Along with this, there are Private players that are investing in various Smart City projects in these areas.
West Bengal also became the only state to pull out of the mission that too after two of it's cities were deemed qualified for it. Their selection didn't come as a surprise though. After all, there are still some BJP workers alive in Bengal.
Mamata didi rejected the proposal stating that there's no smart way to development and she would rather work on her "Green Cities" project instead. The skewed nature of investment by the Centre was the driving force for her decision to opt out from the mission. The compulsory Water tax on Smart Cities also contributed to her resentment.
Now let's have a look at the monetary aspects of the mission.
The centre had proposed the allocation of 48000 crores (i.e 23.4% of Smart City Proposal Value) over 5 years to the mission. This gives an average of 500 crores per city. The same amount was to be provided by the State/Urban Local Body.
Apart from these, 42,028 crores (i.e. 21%) were expected from convergence with other development missions introduced by the government, 41,022 crores (i.e. 20%) from Public Private Partnerships, 4.8% from loans and remaining 1.3% from own and other resources.
It has been 6 years since the launch of the mission and the implementation of the plan can only be called sloppy at the best. The Area Based Development projects in the mission take up a whopping 80% of the funds but make for only 5-10% part of the cities. This creates an uneven division of resources amongst the people of the same city and further deepens the class divide on the basis of peoples potential to use the technology and resources emerging in these elite enclaves.
The most ironic part still, is that it has been discovered that most parts that have been selected to remodel are already much more developed than the other parts of the cities. And honestly, it makes perfect sense. Who would take the responsibility of developing slum areas when you can just add free wifi to CP and call Delhi a Smart City.
Right now, the pandemic might have brought the mission to a halt as we have bigger things to deal with but even till July 2019, only 17,114 Crores out of the promised 48,000 were released by the Centre. More surprisingly though, only 6160 Crores were utilized by the cities, which is just 3% of the total estimated cost of the project.
When the expenditure incurred was compared with the funds sanctioned, the results only validated the story of the underutilization of funds. Only 20% funds have been utilized by 26 states/UTs out of the 35 states/UTs selected for the projects.
Everything aside, the astonishing part of this story is that, even after such desolate facts about the release and utilization of funds, the centre claims to have 33% of the projects completed or under implementation. They claim to have incorporated Special Purpose Vehicles, City Level Advisory Forums and appointed Project Management Consultants in all 100 cities.
Only if we had someone to challenge this legacy of promising dreams and delivering nightmares, we would feel agitated by these facts rather than looking at them like any other statistics.
Now I know what you're thinking about. This isn't the first project that got delayed. We don't care how much time it takes to get completed as long as it's showing progress unlike so many other projects that were initiated when someone else was in power. We're Indians, it's a miracle if we reach at our wedding on time. Kids in west move out of their parent's homes after high school. In India they are busy getting "Maa da ladla" written on the back of their bikes at 25. We see people not getting smart all their life. So what if our cities are taking some extra time to get smart? We can wait. And I get it. It's all true. But my problem is the amount of lies that are being told. It's true. We are Indians. If we can take some fugitives running away with thousands of crores of our money and get over it, we can get over you taking more time than you promised. At least tell us the truth?
Tell us if you took vacations on our money, tell us that you used some money to change names that didn't matter, tell us you made statues with superpowers. We at least deserve the truth after all the taxes we have paid thinking our cities are gonna bloom after all these years of false promises.
And all this at what cost?
Apart from all the loopholes in the basic planning and structure of the mission, there are some other reasons as well that don't just make it inefficient but also ruthless for the under privileged.
The increasing evictions and displacement of the destitute and deprived has brought the mission under immense scrutiny. The plan evicted people living in the informal settlements with minimal compensation of Rs 1 lac and promised to give them new homes. However, the promise was fulfilled only for a few while 50% of the people were held ineligible to get new homes. On the pretext of cleaning rivers, homes on the banks of these rivers were demolished to construct parks, gardens and shops. Even the mobility plans are full of uneven distribution of budget giving just 2% to the buses that make the back bone of public transport in any city.
And not just this, the mission also takes away all the rights of the Urban Local Governments including the power to collect taxes and delegates it to the SVPs, further defeating the aim to empower local administration.
What could have been a better idea?
A balanced allocation of budget to both Area Based Development Plans and Pan-city Development Plan could have widen the prospects of elevating quality of life for the general public. The uniform division of opportunities could have contributed to collective development of the people living in the city.
Decentralization and delegation of power to the Urban Local Government could have been more productive, considering their knowledge of the area, public and their priorities regarding development.
Timely release of funds and surveillance over it's utilization in every city could have made the process more efficient.
Having some amount of empathy and considering the livelihood of people living in the informal settlements while formulating a plan rather than demolishing their homes just because you have the power to do so could have lead to a lot less misery. Not that you care but still. Just a thought.
Making plans that are conceivable, making smaller goals could have created real models that could have been used as a blue print for other smart cities. Start by making 20 Smart cities rather than dreaming about 100 and getting none.
And for the heaven's sake, stop lying! Most of us have eyes. We can see if our cities are getting better or your homes. Tell us the truth and we might forgive you for buying MLAs with our hard earned money. At least you're sharing it with friends rather than keeping it in "the family".
So, this was me just trying to rationalize the chaos around some things that affect each one of us in some or the other way. Sleep on it before taking offense as it might haunt you later that I made sense.