Smart Cities Mission: Truly 'smart' cities remain a dream even six years later

The government renamed the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) as the Smart City Mission and embarked upon building 100 smart cities. Six years later, the Report Card is a mixed bag

Smart Cities Mission: Truly 'smart' cities remain a dream even six years later
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Pooja/Bhopal

E arlier this month rainwater entered Union Minister Jyotiraditya Scindia's bungalow in Bhopal, which is ranked first among the 100 smart cities. Rainwater was not partial to just this bungalow. It wreaked havoc in several other areas and, as usual, the poorest living in the slums were the worst affected.

One of the key reasons, believes environmentalist Subhash C Pandey, has been the indiscriminate felling of trees. Bhopal, known for its greenery, lost an unknown number of trees, some of them a century old, in a bid to make Bhopal 'smart'. Citing the example of TT Nagar, he claims to have no idea where new trees have been planted.

Another fallout has been air pollution, which was unheard of in the city. Last winter the AQI (Air Quality Index) in Bhopal reached 429, reported from various parts of Delhi as well.

Ironically the 200-odd smart lamp posts, connected with underground fibre cables are equipped with CCTV, sensors, Wifi and digital bill boards. Some of these boards inform citizens of the AQI levels, the only benefit they derive from the smart poles, people exclaim. Otherwise, the poles are used more for marketing and advertising.

Smart underground dustbins are few and even they are not cleared regularly, leading to garbage heaps gathering frequently around them. Mechanised vacuum sweeping of roads has also been selective and benefits the VIP areas. Dust is a perennial problem.

Promises to provide non-stop water and electricity supply too have bypassed large sections of the population. In some areas this summer people have waited for 100 hours for water supply in the city known for its lakes. Several streets are also plunged into darkness often enough.

The Integrated Traffic Management System works in fits and starts as the traffic signals frequently stop working. Every time this happens, traffic goes haywire and it’s a free-for-all. The multi-level parking is a novelty but is expensive and takes a lot more time to first park and then take the vehicles out.

As a result, many continue to park vehicles on the roadside and pay traffic constables, if they are challenged. The Atal Path road is truly impressive but is not used by even a quarter of the city’s population.

With cities hosting 31 per cent of the country’s population, it was proposed to identify 100 cities for the Smart City Mission and develop them over five years. The last city selected was Shillong in 2018. A decent quality of life, a clean environment and ‘smart solutions’ were the goals. Till June 2017 only 40 cities had been selected and the rest were added in the next one year.

If there was ever a method in the madness, it has not always been clear. Dholera in Gujarat, which Prime Minister Modi had promised would be twice the size of Shanghai, is outside the Smart City Mission. But an enormous investment is being made to provide a swanky airport, an expressway connecting the ‘smart city Dholera’ to Ahmedabad and turn it into a defence manufacturing hub.

Chandigarh, the City Beautiful as it has been called for decades, is one of the ‘smart cities’ identified under the mission. The bid to make it smarter involves smart water meters, a Wif-Fi zone, integrated solid waste management system and a tech-driven bicycle sharing facility. Much of it is being spent on Sector 43, where the major chunk of the smart city funds is expected to be spent.

Smart Cities Mission: Truly 'smart' cities remain a dream even six years later
Smart Cities Mission: Truly 'smart' cities remain a dream even six years later

Bhubaneswar, one of the first cities to be identified in 2016, spent the money on repairs, housing in slums, developing parks and green areas etc. Clearly every city has a different focus and projects are targeting select areas and population.

Even as cities grapple with pollution, water shortage and waste management crisis, besides affordable public transport and smoother traffic, it is difficult to conclude that even the smart cities are becoming more “liveable, environmentally sustainable and economically vibrant” with opportunities for people to pursue diverse interests.

The budget allocated for each city for five years is around Rs 1,000 crore, which is approximately Rs 196 crore annually. The Government of India had proposed to spend Rs 48,000 crore each over five years. By June 2021, Rs 40,622 crore had been released and Rs 27,862 crore or 69 per cent of it had been utilised.

But the utilisation certificates submitted by the cities indicate that almost 40% of the transportation projects focus on roads and parking lots and 20% on public transportation with only 2% of the transportation budget dedicated to buses.

The Pune Smart City talks about 15 modules of development from physical infrastructure to customer care. Physical infrastructure includes road widening, redesign of streets, footpath retrofit, junction redesign of 14 junctions, rainwater harvesting and adequate water supply. Some nice footpaths, wide, well paved with creative installations and exercise equipment have come up but have made the roads smaller.

In the last six years a little less than Rs 1 lakh crore have been allocated for smart cities. Only a performance audit by the CAG would reveal how the public money was spent. But by all accounts, it has benefitted a small section of the people living in the cities.

(This article was first published in National Herald on Sunday.)

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Published: 07 Aug 2022, 9:09 PM