India's smart cities project hounded by delays

The Smart Cities Mission (SCM) aims to tackle India's rapid urbanization by investing billions into 100 cities across the country. The government hoped to finish it years ago

Mumbai city pulled out of the Smart City deal because of a ruling party not being able to reach agreement (Photo: DW)
Mumbai city pulled out of the Smart City deal because of a ruling party not being able to reach agreement (Photo: DW)


India's Smart Cities Mission (SCM) was launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in June 2015, identifying 100 cities in order to provide them with core infrastructure, along with a clean and sustainable environment. The government earmarked over $22 billion (nearly €20 billion) for the initiative.

City planners and architects warn that India's metropolises, already crumbling under the massive pressure exerted by continuous migration, could easily descend into urban chaos.

The SCM enabled over 7,800 projects across selected cities with the goal of facilitating economic growth and improving quality of life. So far, 73% of those projects have been completed, according to a government statement issued in response to IndiaSpend news outlet in May. But some of the cities have fared much worse than others.

"This lag in project completion is distributed asymmetrically across the 100 cities, with some cities boasting a good track record, while others fared poorly in execution of projects," said a report from the Centre for Financial Accountability, an independent platform which aims to strengthen and improve financial accountability.

"This asymmetry is also seen in utilization rate of funds for these projects. Some cities have a good track record of percentage of projects completed and yet, the funds utilization rate for these projects has been poor," it said.

Organizers initially hoped to conclude SCM by 2020. But with the COVID pandemic hitting that year, authorities granted an extension to June 2023. Then, with many cities still a long way from the finish line, they issued another extension, pushing the completion date to June 2024. Meanwhile, a number of cities including Mumbai decided to pull out of the project over political disagreements.

What is the project about?

The SCM was envisaged as a large-scale urban infrastructure renewal and retrofitting initiative aimed at making urban infrastructure climate resilient and sustainable, providing for affordable housing, adequate electricity and water, and effective waste management.

As many as 232 public-private partnership projects have been taken up across 53 smart cities — both small and big. These projects are multi-sectoral and include infrastructure like multi-modal transport hubs, common mobility cards, multi-level car parking and public bike sharing.

With about 768 initiatives, Karnataka topped the list of states with the most completed projects, followed by Madhya Pradesh (577), Uttar Pradesh (553), and Tamil Nadu (531).

Indore had the highest number of completed projects among all cities, while Shillong had the lowest, having completed just one.

SCM's performance 'dismal', activist says

According to SCM guidelines, the central government provides financial support and also requires state governments and urban local bodies (ULBs) to contribute an equal amount for implementing projects. The government is concentrating on encouraging Public-Private Partnerships (PPP) for successful implementation of the SCM.

However, urban planners and policy makers believe not enough thought has been given to infuse technology-based "smart solutions" in these proposed smart cities. This could explain delays in implementation.

Dunu Roy, a political ecologist who runs research outfit Hazards Centre, said the SCM was a sequel to the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM), which was also a massive city-modernization scheme with several "smart" reforms at its core. The original project was launched in 2005.

"But the performance of JNNURM was dismal, with private investment of only 11% and target achievement below 35%," Roy told DW.

"The private sector will not step in until there is significant state investment in infrastructure. And the state refuses to invest in public needs. That is why India's cities are stuck between a rock and a hard place, " he added.

"The SCM merely promotes another 'smart' vision. The new vision is linked to the speed of technology in managing large data and is ideologically promoted by private firms, property developers, free-marketeers, and governments. Yet, the SCM performance has been equally dismal," he added.

Local officials stuggle to handle projects

Another issue for the project is the gap between the intended purpose of the SCM and the understanding of it by the implementing agencies, including local government departments, said renowned landscape architect Frederick Ribeiro.

"Officials, particularly of the smaller municipal authorities were out of their depth when it came to managing large budgets with tight deadlines and no support from central government," Riberio told DW.

"They also did not have the capacity to undertake and execute big ticket projects. To show progress a lot of arbitrary projects were taken up and then abandoned," he added.

Others also say that, with modern technology playing a major part in the initiative, officials were put in a position of overdependence on tech service companies.

Urban population in India set to double in 25 years

Some critics of the SCM say it was ignoring cultural specificity and not responding to local needs and aspirations.

"A lot of tenders and appointments of architects, planners, urban designers, and consultants are centrally managed as major funding is disbursed and monitored by New Delhi. This leads to resentment and lack of co-operation by local municipalities as they prefer local talent due to linguistic and cultural familiarity," said Ribeiro.

But Partha Mukhopadhyay of the Centre for Policy Research agrees this was an issue, but says it was not true in all involved states.

"For example, Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu invested in lake rejuvenation, Aizawl in playgrounds, Chennai in flood warning systems, Indore in biogas powered buses, and Chandigarh in cycling tracks," Mukhopadhyay told DW.

"If anything, its smartness lies not in technology but in its ability to respond to local demands of resident groups," he added.

Also, the SCM and its $22 billion are just the first step in a series of massive reforms India needs to support its growing cities. With a population of 1.4 billion, India is now the world's most populous country. Current urban population numbers around 460 million, and officials believe this will double in the next 25 years.

The country's Housing and Urban Affairs Ministry believes some $6 trillion of investment would be needed to tackle this wave of urbanization.

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