How realistic is India’s Smart Cities Mission?

While much of the vision of India’s Smart Cities project is rational, their implementation within the context of existing socio-economic conditions, might be tough. Here’s an analysis of the challenges our smart cities will face

Urbanisation in India, is increasing at a rapid pace. It is estimated that by 2030, over 40% of Indians will live in cities, accounting for a population of 600 million people. Consequently, it is expected that India will need at least 100 new cities, over the next 10 years. These cities will need to be developed in a structured manner and built for the future. They should have adequate control on their natural resources and will need high-grade urban planning.


Challenges faced by Indian cities:

  • Increasing population
  • Lack of physical and social infrastructure
  • Environmental and regulatory deficit
  • Declining tax bases and budgets
  • Increasing costs


What is a ‘smart city’ in the Indian context?

The dynamic changes in physical, economic and technological environments across the globe, have resulted in cities using smart elements, to improve the quality of life of their citizens and to provide superior services to businesses.

Smart cities provide a high level of livability, work environment and sustainability to their residents, through superior urban planning and adequate provisions for basic utilities and control of resources. In developed countries, a smart city is one, where existing infrastructure is augmented, monitored and controlled, leading to highly sustainable development.

In the Indian context, the approach is necessarily different.

As many cities lack basic infrastructure, institutional frameworks and proper governance, a smart city initiative will first and foremost, involve providing basic civic requirements and making the infrastructure robust and scalable.

This will include identifying new and smart ways to manage problems, ranging from pollution, overcrowding and urban sprawl to inadequate housing (especially for low-income populations), high unemployment, resource management, environmental protection, rising crime rates and the delivery of a variety of services including water, sanitation, education and healthcare. These challenges can be met in two ways – building new (greenfield) cities or transforming existing ones.


Major challenges that a smart city is likely to face

Regional plan: Smart city planning is not a one-year exercise but more of a 20-year plan, with high importance given to the region’s overall development. The region’s planning must augment the city’s plans, to be able to provide a uniform experience.

Economic drivers: Economic drivers are crucial, for setting up a smart city. A clear plan of vibrant economic growth of the city, based on multiple economic drivers, must be the focus area of a smart city, especially if it is a greenfield city.

Obsolescence of technology: Control of infrastructure and resources require huge investments in technology. While the investment is a small percentage of the overall infrastructure, all this investment is being done with a horizon of five to 10 years. However, technology leapfrogs in much shorter times than that. Technology evolves faster than a city. Hence, there must be options to adapt and upgrade, as technology changes or becomes obsolete.

See also: India’s smart cities will need smart citizens

Urban mobility: A reliable, affordable and sustainable transport system is at the core of any smart city. Along with public transport systems, development of last-mile connectivity is necessary, for optimal utilisation of mass transit systems. This is why smart cities around the world, think about urban transport in a comprehensive manner to improve accessibility and mobility. A new city’s mobility system must be integrated with the regional transport system. For example, Lavasa as a city requires external transportation links, which implies that smart cities cannot plan and invest in matching regional infrastructure. This would devolve on the state or national infrastructure planning authority.

Water management: The water cycle (water resource, production, distribution, consumption, collection and treatment of waste water) plays an integral part of an urban system. Water and its sustainability are of key importance in new cities, which must aim to be water neutral or positive as much as possible.

Waste management: Sustainability in solid waste management, calls for a new approach to solid waste and converting it into a resource. There is a need for solid waste management through smart solutions for clean roads and a healthy environment. While technology can help, the upfront investment in some of these technologies or the minimum scale investment is high.

Social infrastructure: A city needs social infrastructure, to make it habitable and most of this social infrastructure needs a critical mass of population and consumption, to be viable. This means that in the initial years, participation of private enterprises would be limited. Hence, to start a greenfield city, the projects need to be funded by the promoting government or subsidised.

Funds: A new city would take a long time, to develop the requisite economic drivers and the infrastructure. Only after that, will it see people moving in. By the time the city is habitable and has a basic population, the project would at least be seven to 10 years in the making. Unfortunately, the current funds available for this sector are only for the short term of 10-15 years. Unless the development of the city is done out of funds that have a horizon of 20-30 years, these projects are unlikely to survive.

Employment generators: Job creation in these cities, should be in sync with the regional planning and the government’s initiatives. The focus should not only be on primary economic jobs but also on service jobs. The city has to be serviced by people working on the support infrastructure.

Rental housing: There is considerable need to develop a rental housing market, to ensure that more people can move in and work in a smart city without having to buy properties there. The real estate laws for a smart city, must be such that investors will come in and provide rental residences, to people who move in to stay there.

Phasing: A greenfield smart city must be built in phases, on the basis of real demand. Otherwise, we will end up with ghost cities, where infrastructure has been built, but with no takers.

Maintenance: Building a greenfield city is relatively easy; however, it is continuous maintenance, which differentiates a great city from the rest. Smart cities should be easy to maintain, extend, modify and accommodate the growing needs of citizens. Smart cities need to be smart for the long haul, not only at the outset.

(The writer is managing director – strategic consulting, JLL India)


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