Smart City Mission & Challenges in Urban Planning and Governance

Urban Planning
Developing countries have witnessed unprecedented urbanization in the last 2 decades. India’s urban development has been rather slow in comparison but now picking up and expected to surpass all the records in the next 20 years or earlier.
On the one hand where accelerated urban growth is important for the economy, it throws a number of challenges in how to plan and govern urban areas. Currently about 300 million people live in urban areas, this number will double in about 2 decades. If not well managed, and well planned, the swiftly increasing urban population can throw all the systems for a toss.
Besides being slow India’s urban growth has been unplanned and unsystematic also. The level and speed of managerial and policy changes that was required was not there. India had an advantaged of distributive urban development with a vast expanse and spread of urban centers, in the form of small to large cities and towns. Almost all the centers have developed simultaneously. Almost all the centers are developing almost without any supervision. The land-use norms, the building norms, the design norms, the shops and establishment’s norms, the water table norms, the energy efficiency norms, almost all the norms have become rendered archaic and unusable.
India needs to wake up to this increasing urban challenge and develop better, detailed, comprehensive and feasible plans of urban management. What we need is both short term as well as perspective plans that should help us achieve the targets in the next 20 to 30 years. Urban planning is still a scattered, half-hearted function, suffering from lack of skilled manpower, factual database and innovative ideas. This laxity is blocking capability and resolve for urban reforms. In the absence of planning it is difficult to make use of the city spaces for a vibrant and “happy” urban society. It is hampering our capability in providing solutions to problems such as housing, transportation, employment, water, power and so on.
India is going to witness an unprecedented shift of population migrating from rural to urban areas. This will place unprecedented demands on the system for basic services. There will be a five to six fold increase in middle and low income house-holds in the cities. With better and systematic urban planning and governance, India can leverage this shift towards more sustainable economic growth. But if India does not gear up to meet these challenges timely, this may very well boomerang and we may not be able to achieve our dream of self-sustaining, vibrant and prosperous economy.
India spends far too less on its urban infrastructure. Whereas most developing countries devote a much larger percentage of their GDP for developing urban infrastructure, India still has not opened strings of its purse. Urban infrastructure requires an investment of nearly US$ 1 trillion in the next 20 years. The present government has shown more interest in urban development through its SMART City plan and this has resulted in commitment of more funds towards urban development. However, SMART city plan has to be replicated on a much larger scale.
Urban Governance
Besides infrastructure and planning, urban governance is also in a confused state. In spite of the the 74th Amendments to the Constitution, the devolution of most of the functionary powers and responsibilities to the elected bodies is still not complete.
India definitely needs to increase its capacity at the municipal level to meet the urban challenges that will boost up with the booming economy. India needs to strengthen and reform its urban governance model.
The reforms have to start at the level of the governance system. What India urgently needs is true devolution of power and responsibilities from the states to the local and metropolitan bodies. They are better placed to understand and undertake people centric and need based actions. What is required is urban transformation on an unprecedented stage. This cannot be achieved unless and until the elected representatives at the primary layer of governance are not given more responsibilities, freedom and an independence to plan and implement. Here the role of the financial management capacity becomes all too important. Local bodies starving of funds is a big block in governance reforms.
By 2030, India will have largest cities in the world. India’s urban governance needs a complete make-over to meet the challenges it will bring. Elected representatives need clear mandates, tenures and accountability for the city development and governance. Their roles have to be redefined and re-written in accordance with the increasing new requirements.
Major reforms are needed in urban financing. Devolution of financial powers should be aimed at reducing dependence of cities on the Centre and state governments and establish a better system of internal revenue and resource generation capability at the city level. Our metropolitan authorities need more effective role in land-monetizing system, property tax collection system, user charge establishment, levies and fee collection system, public-private partnership decisions and implementation.
The dependence on Central and state government funds for urban development may not be enough in the coming years. In case of smaller cities and towns, however, external funding is the only source, this has to change and property taxes, user fee and other sources have to be enhanced even in smaller cities along with other innovations. All in all, a city’s own capacity to raise and manage its funds needs to be enhanced. At the same time, share of the cities in Central and state taxes need to be fixed as per the required need. This will help in growth of these taxes due to local incentives involved.
Urban Governance and Challenges for managing Smart Cities with SPV
In this backdrop, the government’s Smart Cities Mission launched on 25th June 2015 is an aim for promoting cities with core infrastructure, quality of life and clean and sustainable environment through application of “SMART” solutions. The mission is expected to facilitate an investment of over US$ 7.5 billion across 100 cities over the next five years. In the first round, government has selected 20 cities to kick-start the campaign.
For the first time in India the selection process it-self saw an extensive participatory planning approach at the city level across the country. A positive outcome is that we have been able to change the traditional approach to city planning as the cities have been able to come up with multiple, innovative and out-of-the box proposals. A lot of scope has been generated for citizen engagement in city planning and governance. To a great extent the Smart City Challenge has brought closer to enlisting people’s participation for realizing their smart city vision. This citizen-government interaction in city planning is a good sign and similar coordination is expected at all the levels of implementation also.
One of the achievements of the Smart City Mission is that it has been able to considerably shift focus from our basic needs challenges to global benchmarks for a good city. Most cities are now looking at themselves in terms of their capacity in giving sustainable environment, resilient social and economic outlook, inclusiveness, vibrancy and infrastructure development of the international levels. This exercise has opened up a large number of innovative possibilities that were otherwise hidden from the domain under the garb of the traditional urban planning systems. There are innovative ideas on how we can improve our transport systems, waste management systems, water and energy supply, ICT based governance system, citizen-centric governance and data based informed choices for city planning and governance.
While Smart City Proposals are no doubt a very encouraging step towards urban reforms, achieving this mission has a lot of challenges and road blocks; such as, constraints in data acquisition on the present and future projections of needs and requirements, lack of human resources at all the levels and systemic in-capabilities. For example, even the basic systems like revenue collection, billing, grievance redressal and information address systems are not in line with the aspirations. This it-self requires setting up new and advanced governance system immediately. The delay at one level can cost in delays for implementing other time-bound plans.
Secondly the Smart City plans lack at meeting many socio-political challenges, such as influx of migration, increasing slum populations, urban poor and challenges that will be posed by the changing nature of our local, Central or state level governance. While it is important to develop the aesthetics of a city, it is also important to manage population and polity issues at its core.
The financial roadblocks that were faced in previous urban reforms projects, such as JNNURM, are somewhat addressed in the Smart City Mission, by creating a “Special Purpose Vehicle – (SPV)” that will have independent fund-raising and fund-management powers within the smart city framework. But the fund-investment challenge for the SPV, estimated US$150 million for each city, looks like a wishful thinking given the poor investment options and opportunities in most Indian cities. Also the investments are based on profitability of the options available which in most cases is limited or mired by poor investment environment. Many ambitious investment plans, such as Uttar Pradesh Industrial Corridor and Film City projects in Uttarakhand and other places have been failures in the past. What is the guarantee for the industry partners that the plans taken up in the Smart Cities will be successful?
The SPVs are dreamed of as something more than just an urban development agencies. To develop economic viability, vibrancy and foresight in the SPVs is not an easy and over-night task. It takes many years for an entity to develop financial fore-sights that would appeal to the investors. Moreover, the kind of urban challenges that will face the future smart cities could not be handled by investment route alone. We need a complete paradigm shift in our urban civics and citizenry outlooks. We cannot assume to make our tourist spots world class-unless we do away with touts and anti-social elements surrounding most of our tourist attractions.
Whether a handful of people representing on the SPV, mostly from the state and Central governments, public bodies and industry, will be able to address the multi-sectoral challenges as a cohesive body is yet another challenge. Normally SPVs are mostly created by the experts of same or similar industries. For example, a Textile Committee has textile experts on board who have the vision and capability to enhance textile business and investment environment. How will an SPV with so many different challenges and so many different dimensions will be able to function efficiently with people of the different mindsets and different backgrounds is yet to be seen. The SPV for smart cities may see the same fate as many in past, like the UID or the UGC where each member has a different mission and aspiration. Secondly SPV working as an autonomous and independent body may face challenges from the state governments, local bodies, political parties and even religious groups.
The route of SPV, by-passing the urban local bodies, into directly addressing the urban solution may look as a speedy and efficient way but this is not a sustainable way of managing cities. First of all, it will limit the role of elected bodies and hence people’s participation will be limited. Secondly, it will add to the multiplicity of authorities with overlapping functions and hence result in further chaos and laxity in implementing development plans at the city level.
Challenges of Urban Planning and Governance
Though urbanization has a defining role in economic growth, it has also led to new forms of challenges and socio-economic-environmental problems. The urban population boom, haphazard and unsystematic urban planning, and laxity in developing speedy infrastructure have led to a chaos situation in the urban centers. There is a lot of stress on basic civic infrastructure, housing, transport, water, power, health, education, and all the other sectors. The influx of migrants has resulted in urban poverty, unemployment and rise of anti-social activities. On the other hand urban development is having an adverse impact on rural development also. There are many areas in the country standing on a rural-urban divide and thus generating more unemployment and poverty in rural areas.
Thus on the one hand urban development has a challenge of sustaining our urban areas on the other hand safeguarding sustained development of rural areas.
We now take a look at some of the immediate and future challenges of urban planning and governance that India is going to face.
Cities are expanding, both in terms of population and area. Unplanned new developing areas add up to the already increasing urban problems. These problems are escalated due to the influx of migrants from rural areas as well as from small towns into big cities and a lacking economic base to sustain everyone. As a result some are left behind in the race of a standardized life and represent the major part of the problem. Big cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore and Hyderabad have seen hyper-migration and therefore have been subjected to hyper-urbanization that has projected the city sizes which are beyond planning and visionary abilities.
This has left large parts of the city unplanned and ungoverned. Cities have seen land encroached on the banks of the water bodies, parks, green-spaces. Law and order situation has been on the down-turn with new challenges. Ribbon settlements and “in-fil” settlements are giving rise of no-man land type areas termed now as ‘conurbation’. These areas are even more difficult to govern given the legislative and jurisdictional challenges.
Population Density
Cities are facing a situation of overcrowding. Too many people clustered in too little spaces. This is a major fall-out of over-population in urban areas. Almost all the big cities of India are suffering from overcrowding. Overcrowding is a major failure of the urban planning. Naturally the planners 20 or 30 years thence have not been able to imagine the hyper-migration that the city is witnessing now. The challenge for current planner is to break that imagination barrier and think 30 years hence. We need fool-proof population and migration projections to feed into the future planning of the city, its resources and governance. Decongestion planning is also an effective way of dealing with over-crowding, it can be implemented by planning new roads, new housing and economic zones and centers that are well within the reach and yet outward to the crowded parts of the city.
Urban areas are suffering from a chronic problem of shortage of houses. Unemployed migrants escalate this problem. Overwhelmingly large number of people in large cities are residing in one room or even less. A majority of them are tenants.
Construction of new and affordable houses is a major urban planning challenge. In urban areas, construction of new housing blocks is a very slow and tedious process. Indian cities are not able to provide even 15 per cent of the required dwellings annually. Further, the quality of housing is another issue that needs large scale policy interventions.
India has about 15-20 percent unemployed labor force. Unemployed educated people form a substantive part of this population. With unemployment, wage disparities are another factor. Women employment and wages are even lower than males.
Rural people migrate to urban areas mostly in search of a livelihood and better living. This migration is necessary as agriculture is not able to sustain these populations and their migration to secondary and tertiary sectors, concentrated in cities, is necessary for economic transformation of the country. When these people fail to obtain livelihood and better living in cities, it is a double jeopardy for the country’s economy. While urban migration is going to increase, creating employment in urban areas needs very effective policy and planning intervention and innovative approaches.
Slums and Squatter Settlements
Unsystematic, unplanned and haphazard growth of urban areas is responsible for growth and spread of slums. Slum free urbanization and industrialization is dream for most city planners. Initially slums were formed by the migrating industrial workers. But now slums are home for the city’s unorganized labor force, constituted mostly by unemployed migrants. Slums have no place in urban planning and yet they are there, very much occupying a substantial portion of the city space and city life. Most slums have no drainage systems and even lack basic utilities such as toilets. Absence of clean water and covered defecation are common in slums. There is higher percentage of people falling ill to water-borne diseases. Everything from health to education, livelihood to social law and order in the slums is a challenge for urban planners.
Almost all cities and towns in India suffer from acute forms of traffic congestions. Poor transport planning and arrangements result in complex problems as the cities grow and as more people start flocking the cities. Roads in the cities are planned on poorly envisaged future traffic flow and foot-fall. Most traffic congestions are noticed in the areas where businesses are concentrated. When the city grows and as more buildings and industry comes up, the traffic congestion will go up. Traffic congestion has a major fall-out on the health of people as it increases the pollution levels. Ensuring smooth and congestion free flow of traffic is an intrinsic part of urban planning.
Basic Amenities
Water, sewage facilities, trash disposal and power are such basic amenities that have huge gaps in India. Providing these facilities are a nightmare for many municipal authorities. Many cities are struggling to find out a solution to these in the wake of increasing urban population. Water is a limited resource. Every city in India is suffering from shortage of water and even drinking water. Water for construction and industrial use is another major problem along with polluting and depleting water bodies. How the urban planning ensure efficient supply and use of water?
Similarly urban plans are failing in many parts of the country in the area of managing waste disposal. Our cities are stinking due to insufficient and inefficient sewage facilities. At the same time urban trash is piling up in alarming proportions. We need innovative thinking and resources to overcome these problems.
Law and order
Law and order is taking a lot of attention of the urban planners. Modem cities cannot be made out-of-bounds for anyone. Crime is increasing at an alarming rate with increasing footfalls in the urban areas. How urban planners address the law and order situation through city planning is yet to percolate down the Indian thinking. Do we go for dark-free zones and ICT based monitors to stop crime against women? Do we design our roads in a way that pedestrians are safe? Planning crime free cities is a challenge but a necessity that cannot be denied to anybody. It is important for peace, safety and tranquility of the city.
Environment and Aesthetics
Rapid industrial and traffic explosion has created unprecedented levels of pollution and destroyed aesthetics of the cities. Pollution is destroying quality of life and declining urban life. We cannot imagine a smart city with high levels of environmental pollution.
Reforms required for SMART Cities
The above challenges pose reforms in almost all the areas of urban planning and governance, basically:-
Structural reforms – This would include creating new organization and departments and increasing mutual coordination. This would also include doing away with bureaucratic and red-taped approaches to more open market and business oriented approaches.
Systemic reforms – This would include cutting response times and overhaul the responsibility and accountability mechanism.
Fiscal reforms – This would include better Central, state and local government resource sharing mechanisms, financial commitments to important schemes and smooth funds flow.
Citizenry reforms – This would include a change in the attitude of the citizens towards municipal responsibilities, as well as, change in attitude of the municipal authority towards the citizens. Without more citizen partnership India cannot handle emergent urban challenges. Issues such as, efficient water usage, energy conservation, crime watch, public place ethics, civic morality, respect for women, behavior towards tourists and investors, etc. cannot be reformed without public support.
Urban planning has been rather slow in India. This may be because we have taken much time to shift focus from primary sector agriculture to secondary and tertiary sectors such as manufacturing and services. With the economic reforms, India is taking leaps in urban growth. India is expected to be adding urban population equivalent to 2 Chicago’s every year. With this kind of inevitable mind-boggling urban growth, India can no longer afford to remain lax towards its multiplying urban challenges. Growing flux of people from rural to urban areas are posing new challenges every day. If not handled properly these challenges may result in urban disorientation rather than urban dividend that India is highly depending upon in its global economic aspirations. The old and traditional planning styles will no longer work. We need new approach to urban planning and governance. Out-of-the-box thinking. Futuristic thinking. We need effective data-backed projections on sizes and shapes of future challenges. Our plans today should be effective to address those challenges say 20-30 years down the line. The SMART city mission is an ambitious step in involving people centric and need based urban planning. People are able to conceive challenges and solutions in many different innovative ways. These Plans need to be strengthened through expert advice and guidance and looked into the light beyond just aesthetics or investments destination. It is important to develop inclusive cities which are self-sustaining, civilized urban centers, contributing positively towards nation building and economic growth. The cities of future should also be able to support rural development. They should help in realizing our Constitutional guarantee – when it comes to Governance – “for the people, of the people and by the people”.


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