Originally Published 2015-03-21 00:00:00 Published on Mar 21, 2015
Building one hundred smart cities, towns or townships will not change India's urban landscape much. India needs an overall smart, well-discussed, thought-out, and lastly effective and efficiently implemented urban development strategy in a holistic urban policy framework. Now is the time to shape it.
Smart Cities: How serious is the Modi Govt?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi may be very keen on Smart Cities and wants to begin building 100 such cities this year itself. But how serious is his government in implementing such an ambitious scheme? A glance at this year's Union Budget will disappoint those who will be dreaming of living in Smart Cities.

The Prime Minister's pet scheme of building 100 Smart Cities did not find even a single specific entry into the long Budget speech of Finance Minister Arun Jaitly. Worse than that, even the term 'urban' appeared only once in the transcript of the Minister's hour-long speech. This too in the form of announcing the allocation of more than rupees 22 thousand crores for housing and urban development.

For a foreigner, working in the domain of urban development as an Urban Geographer looking extensively at and analysing the process of urbanisation and urban development in India, the budget speech was surprising. Being the first full budget of the Modi government, one expected much much more, especially because of the hype regarding building of 100 odd smart cities from this year.

Given that India is in the middle of a huge urban transformation, and that much of the success of visions like "Make in India" and the overall progress and development of the country will, to an ever greater extent, depend on the sustainable development of the urban sector, this 'stepmotherly' treatment of the "urban" in one of the most eagerly awaited budget speeches is really disappointing. Yes, India's urban population of 380 million currently makes up only one third of the total population. But the future projected developments underscore the urgency to specifically focus on the urban sector now.

According to UN estimates, the share of urbanites in India's total population will reach around 50 percent in 2050. This means an addition of roughly 450 million new urban dwellers, of which more than two hundred million will be added by 2030. Given the current living conditions and backlog in basic infrastructure, services, housing and amenities in India's thousands of cities and towns, the urgency becomes ever more pressing.

It is now that India can, or has to, start and set the course for an overall urban transformation and development that is environmentally sustainable, economically productive and efficient, and socio-economically and spatially inclusive. Though cities and towns are already India's engines of growth and their share in overall GDP is set to increase further, their role goes beyond the simple growth arithmetic. India's huge set of large and small urban settlements will play the core role in its social transformation, in its economic transformation from an agriculture to a services and industry-based society, in its sustainable use of natural resources and the overall state of the environment, and last but not least in India's efforts to cope with, adapt to and mitigate the effects of global climate change.

This importance of the urban sector cannot be stressed enough. Visions like "Make in India" and providing gainful employment to India's "demographic dividend" as well as managing the above listed transformations will not happen without the necessary, sustainable, efficient and well-functioning urban sector and its well-planned development and well-managed governance.

Given the current backlog in especially housing and infrastructure and likely future trajectories, the absolute numbers of required investments in the urban sector are staggering. The McKinsey Global Institute estimated an additional capital investment requirement of nearly 1.2 trillion USD by 2030, and the High Powered Expert Committee (HPEC) calculated necessary investments in urban infrastructure to be around 39.2 lakh crore rupees by 2031. Of course, a large part of the funding will (have to) come from the private sector, either in the form of a reformed and rebalanced PPP-model or in the shape of the already ongoing process of so-called private-sector urbanisation, e.g. gated communities and industrial and educational campuses. However, increases in public spending for the urban sector and "rurban" or future-urban settlements (e.g. current Census Towns) are inevitable.

So what do we know about the Modi government's approach and vision for India's urban landscape? As of now, very little seems to have changed. We hear about the rather herculean task of providing "Housing for all by 2022" with the envisaged construction of 20 million housing units in urban areas. And as what can be seen as a continuation of the major urban development programme of the previous government (JNURM), it is planned to rejuvenate around 500 cities through infrastructure provision and urban renewal projects, in addition to the more than necessary improvement of the infrastructure situation in the "rurban" areas.

However, even though not much is as yet known about the location, form, shape, role, governance and financing of the proposed "100 Smart Cities"-project, the corporate excitement and public discourse about its open questions have certainly put India's urban sector and its importance and problems back into the public limelight. Yet much of these programmes and projects seem like a more-of-the-same approach, and a comprehensive policy framework and strategy of how India's urbanisation process should unfold is still lacking.

It is now nearly 30 years since the National Commission on Urbanisation submitted a large volume of analysis and policy recommendations. Given India's current state of urbanisation, characterised by disparities between states, within states, between different size classes of cities and towns as well as intra-urban inequalities, and the fact that India's positive economic prospects might make more necessary funding available (apart from a well-developed urban sector certainly being a supportive factor for these positive prospects), now might be the time to think of a holistic, inter-ministerial and inter-departmental "National Urbanisation Policy".

Apart from all the known issues of urban governance and financing, the following broad points and questions - though not new - would seem necessary to be elaborated upon in a fresh public discourse on India's Urban Future:

  •  Develop an overall holistic vision of how India's Urban System should look like, encompassing economic, environmental and social components in a well-known single sustainable urban development framework.

  •  Develop a vision for India's developing spatial economy between economies of scale and agglomeration diseconomies, considering the ongoing top-heavy metropolitan dynamics driven mainly by market-forces and efforts for a more balanced urban system which recognize the important role of small and medium urban centres for e.g. non-agricultural employment growth esp. in the manufacturing sector, the overall social transformation, their role as possible migration buffers and lastly as incubators of developmental change in more remote areas.

  •  This would require a renewed focus on prospective inter-state planning, regional planning, mega-urban and metropolitan planning and governance, integrating national and regional transportation policy, land use policy and economic policy, cutting across state-boundaries, ministerial and departmental lines as well as administrative-institutional levels.

  •  Many of the solutions are well-researched and discussed. These range from, among others, the known issue of truly strengthening Urban Local Bodies through effective implementation of governance reforms, skill development and capacity building at the local level with required handholding-efforts for esp. small and medium towns, to the strengthening of the institutional and administrative capacity of ULBs to increase the collection power and spending efficiency of their own financial resources.

To sum it up, how can we steer India's process of urbanisation in such a way as to create a truly enabling framework, both for market forces or the economy as well as the growing urban population in a sustainable environment?

Given India's thousands of urban settlements - with thousands more expected to be converted into urban centres - the "Building of 100 Smart Cities" might serve as an example of a technology-driven sustainable urban development. However, one hundred smart cities, towns or townships will not change India's urban landscape much. India needs an overall smart, well-discussed, thought-out, and lastly effective and efficiently implemented urban development strategy in a holistic urban policy framework. India's future will be urban, now is the time to shape it.

(The writer is a Senior Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)

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