There is no one definition for India’s proposed smart cities. The Ministry of Urban Development provides benchmarks for various services — maximum commute time should be 30 minutes in medium-sized cities and 45 minutes in metros; water availability must be 135 litres per capita per day; 95 per cent of homes should have shops, parks, primary schools and recreational areas within 400 metres, and so on. The proposed cities range from Varanasi to Dholera to Amravati, covering brownfield and greenfield areas. Benchmarks would be different for both; given lack of significant Internet penetration, brownfield smart cities cannot, for instance, focus on skyscrapers or lavish promenades first.
City planning has undergone several changes since Independence. In the 1950s, regional planning and the city master plan grew in importance, but stayed divorced from the complex realities of a poor, independent, post-colonial country. While urban poverty rose, master plans fetishised about leisurely, low-density, spread-out cities, and obsessed over removing slums. This “high modernism” resulted in plans for newer cities. The National Commission on Urbanisation identified 329 cities called GEMs (Generators of Economic Momentum), which were further divided into National Priority Centres and State Priority Centres. Urbanisation was expected to grow along those corridors.
Bhubaneswar and Chandigarh were especially planned to represent modern India, emblems of “a new town, a symbol of India’s freedom, unfettered by traditions of the past” (Nehru, 1948). A ‘garden city’ with no high-rise buildings, Chandigarh’s wide boulevards broke the city into self-sufficient sectors, promoting liveability and exclusion.
However, the structure had its failures. Chandigarh’s urban planning was defined by an “absence of local authority, a lack of understanding of the local culture and values on the part of the planners, and the history of the region.” (Kalia, 1985, 135). In a survey of 21 cities in the Annual Survey of India’s City Systems (2014, Janaagraha Centre), Bhubaneswar and Chandigarh came close to the bottom in quality of life. Bhubaneswar scored low in urban capacities and resources as well as in transparency, accountability and participation.
Over time, national plans grew more reactive, and stuck to managing things as they were. A desire for better, cleaner, inclusive cities remained unfulfilled. We renamed more cities than building new ones.
The idea of a smart city, for most of the 20th century, was science fiction. But cities can now integrate critical infrastructure such as roads, rails, subways and airports; optimise resources better; and plan preventive maintenance. Given India’s finance crunch, any smart city we plan should focus first on three things: urban transportation, e-governance and land titling.
For a sustainable city, public transport has to be the main artery. With metro systems viable only in large cities, integrated bus services will be primary. While the National Urban Transport Policy, 2006, pushed for public transport to rise from 22 per cent to 60 per cent, only 30 major Indian cities out of 90 have an in-place bus system. Even Delhi, with its extensive metro, faces significant gaps in its efforts to provide cross-sectional connectivity, with just 6,500 buses instead of 20,000. India’s bus services continue to be hamstrung by limited or declining fleet sizes, loss-making services, inadequate resources, poor service quality and ignorance about modern vehicle technology.
Cities should design bus routes to ensure multi-modal integration. A city-level Unified Metropolitan Transport Authority, backed by legislation, should facilitate coordinated planning and implementation of transport projects. We need an intelligent software to improve systems for vehicle location, collecting online fares, priority signalling for buses, and real-time bus information. Cities should also set up Traffic Information Management Control Centres for effective enforcement and monitoring of traffic rules.
Financing this will require significant restructuring. A dedicated Urban Transport Fund, as seen in Ahmedabad, Bengaluru and Jaipur, should seek to generate inflows through advertisement revenue, additional vehicle registration fees and congestion taxes to fund new projects. A special purpose vehicle (set up in collaboration with the municipal corporation, city and private players), as seen in Indore and Jabalpur, could manage bus operations.
The Indian government has experimented with various e-governance initiatives, most of which have failed to materialise, given poor cyber security and significant privacy and data protection risk. But the implementation of a secure ICT Infrastructure, comprising wireless hotspots, wi-fi networks, and fibre optic Internet delivery at home, remains fundamental.
E-governance could learn from these examples. The U.K.’s “Tell us Once” service allows citizens to inform public authorities about birth, death or significant life events just once. San Francisco’s DataSF.org displays public transportation arrival and departure times, recycle zones, crime patterns and more. Service requests for pothole repairs can be tweeted. Sweden has verksamt.se, both for entrepreneurs and for citizens to use theme-based portals on healthcare, taxation, etc. All procurement and invoicing is conducted electronically, restricting corruption.
Providing affordable housing remains a critical challenge. The has been exacerbated artificially by poorly conceived Central, State and municipal regulations, leading to land prices that are much higher than intrinsic levels. Urban development projects still have to undergo a lengthy approval process — developers have to spend two-three years getting permissions from nearly 40 departments.
Titling issues and the lack of property rights information make this worse. While the law requires compulsory registration of the sale of land, it does not ask the registration authority to verify land history or ownership from the seller, weakening buyer protection and acting more as a fiscal instrument for the state, instead of a statutory support of certainty to title. Cities recognise presumed ownership to land, a questionable claim, which can be challenged on many fronts.
A smart city would provide formal digitised recognition of property titles, along with increasing transparency and registered brokers, cutting down long search times and high costs of acquiring real estate. A less cumbersome process of accessing land records through the Department of Registration would increase its use, while helping to show actual transaction prices. Further, land inventory needs to be mapped comprehensively, and be accessible to buyers.
Globally, many countries offer streamlined online processes and incentives to facilitate affordable housing — these can include tax deductions, density bonuses, direct subsidies, land grants, land use changes etc. Many countries such as Malaysia and Canada have revamped their administrative requirements through fee waivers and fast-tracking procedures.
Smart cities can make daily life easier for residents simply by automating routine functions, and providing a basic transportation and housing network. Grandiose visions can be kept for later.