The Central government’s framework for 20 cities to become ‘smart’ over a five-year period can cover new ground if it makes intelligent use of information technology to deliver better civic services. Rapid and poorly regulated urbanisation has overwhelmed urban governments, rendering them incapable of providing even basic services such as clean water, sewerage, pedestrian-friendly roads, public transport, uninterrupted power, street lighting, parks and recreational spaces. So weak and uncoordinated is governance that commercial entities have wilfully violated building regulations and put up unauthorised structures — with severe impact on congestion, air quality and flood management — and governments have gladly regularised the violations later. Thesmart city plan now proposes to intervene and bring some order by upgradingthe physical infrastructure in select enclaves, and incentivising the use of information and communication technologies. Urban Development Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu has come up with a generalised definition of a smart Indian city as one that “enables a decent life to the citizens, and green and sustainable environment, besides enabling adoption of smart solutions”, but the exercise should lead to measurable outcomes.
The first batch of smart cities would create virtually new business districts in several cities, marking a departure from the disaggregated urban development witnessed over the past few decades. This area-based development approach makes it imperative that the resulting demand for mobility to and from the ‘smart’ area be made an integral part of the plan, with an emphasis on walkability, use of non-motorised transport and access to public transport. Ahmedabad and Bhubaneswar have shown high ambition by opting for a common travel card. Others such as Indore, Davangere and Belagavi plan Intelligent Transport Solutions, something that has been unattainable for even a big metro such as Chennai. Although it enjoys high visibility, the smart city programme is merely a framework for urban development aided by the Centre with a small initial seed fund of Rs.500 crore, while additional finances have to come from public-private partnerships and local revenue. State governments, including those left out of the first list, could unlock the potential of all cities with development policies that aim at structural change. Improved public transport, for instance, has an immediate positive impact on the local economy. Technologies such as GPS to inform passengers in real time on their mobile phones, and common ticketing, increase the efficiency of transport use. Universal design in public buildings and streets would help all people, including those with disabilities. The challenge for Smart Cities 1.0 is to provide proof of concept quickly and make outcomes sustainable. Care also needs to be taken that the effect is not to create gated communities of best practices and civic upgrade in a wider landscape of urban distress. It is crucial that these urban enclaves cater to the housing, health, education and recreation needs of a wide cross section of society, and that the convergence of the Smart Cities programme with existing urban renewal projects countrywide be smooth.
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