Anil Kothuri: The way forward

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Smart cities will necessarily require an unified leadership committed to the cause

It is a historical truism that India lives in its villages. The pace of urbanisation in India has been slower than most other countries of comparable economic development. While only 31.6 per cent of India’s population lives in urban India (according to the 2011 census), the comparable numbers for other BRICS countries is 50.6 per cent for China, 62 for South Africa, 74 for Russia and 84.6 per cent for Brazil.

However, this is expected to change quite rapidly. It is expected that the urban population in India will double in the next 35 years from 41 crore to 81 crore. Not only will this put pressure on the existing cities, but it will also cause new ones to come up.

Smart cities: With a view to proactively addressing this situation, the government of India has embarked on a project to build 100 ‘smart cities.’ The number of cities with a population of one million and above is slated to increase from 54 (as per the 2011 census) to 68 in 2030. The ‘smart city’ project could consist of making these 68 cities ‘smart’ in addition to building new ones.

Defining smart: While the specifics of what makes a city ‘smart’ are yet to be outlined, it is not difficult to see what the contours of a modern and efficient city will be. A ‘smart city’ could be one that meets a threshold minimum in terms of housing, urban infrastructure, transport and service delivery.

Let’s examine each one of these issues in order.

Housing: Building inclusive cities. Our cities are currently not designed to include all sections of society. Rules pertaining to land use and apartments such as floor space index, setbacks, and plot reservations force the wealthy to consume more land than they would like. This pushes up the price of land and forces the poor into informality and illegality. The result is the proliferation of slums and shanties, which are bereft of amenities, thus compromising the quality of life for all inhabitants and inhibiting the productivity of the city as a whole. An important determinant of how ‘smart’ a city is will be whether it caters to all strata of society and actively plans for the same.

Civic infrastructure: Various civic facilities such as hospitals, schools and parks have been erected in our cities over the years. Each year’s budget has plans and grants for erecting some more. However, there has been little focus on the delivery of services through the infrastructure already erected and on its quality. Thus, we have a situation where only those who cannot afford an alternative use the municipal hospitals and schools. A ‘smart’ city will ensure that the civic services are of an acceptable standard for the use of all its citizens.

Transport: Public transport networks in our cities are woefully inadequate. Additionally they report to transport authorities, which are independent of the municipal commissionerleadership. Consequently, the development of the city, construction of roads and transportation operate in a disjointed fashion. This results in a rapid increase in the number of private vehicles, which in turn chokes the limited room available on the roads. A ‘smart’ city will have a vast and viable public transport network so that its citizens are not constrained to buy their own vehicles. The city needs to have an airport and railway station to ensure connectivity with the rest of the country.

Financing smart cities: There are four ways in which the expenditure pertaining to these cities can be met – budgetary support from the centre states, collection of market-linked usage charges from residents, raising debt from the market in the form of municipal bonds or similar debt instruments and letting the cities keep a portion of the GST collected there. The last option will be particularly attractive if there are manufacturingservice units that occupy the city at the time of its founding – this will guarantee a constant revenue stream for the city.

Smart governance: Currently, there is no unified leadership for our cities. The police, transport and healthcare facilities report different authorities. This is in sharp contrast to other well-governed cities elsewhere in the world. This distribution of leadership ensures that no one is in charge of the well being of the city, thus impeding the planning process and co-ordination on the ground.

Smart administration: We have a dedicated cadre of offices to help administer at the Centre and at the states. A similar cadre of officers is required at the city level. This can be kick started by deputing some officers from the IAS after training them in the issues pertaining to managing urban India.

In conclusion, the government’s recognition that the impending rapid urbanisation of India deserves needs to be addressed is timely. The creation of ‘smart’ cities should contain elements of what has been outlined above. The transformation of India into the world’s largest collection of urban agglomerations has begun. It will be interesting to watch and be part of the journey.

(The author is MD and CEO of Edelweiss Housing Finance)

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