Wednesday, February 8, 2023

Smart India by neglecting Bharat


By Abhijit Roy

Finally the ‘Smart” list is out and the government should start working in right earnest.

Over two decades since Parliament enacted the 74th Amendment to the Constitution, the Ministry of Urban Development ultimately accepted it as a “revolutionary” piece of legislation, which seeks to redefine the role, power, function and finances of urban local bodies.

Usually the long drawn, ambitious plans tend to suffer due to improper planning, insufficient funds and ineffective execution. Therefore a ‘Smart City’ project may follow the same route if the successive Central and State governments show less interest in implementing all the provisions envisaged in this amendment.

If this would not be a cause then most of the urban India would have been well on its way to “smartness”.

Portable roads, potable water, non-fluctuating electricity, decent dwellings, schools with facilities and basic security all look simple to give but reality may prove to be overwhelming.

The government may have to plan differently for different cities because the growth potential may vary. The plan if executed the way it should be, the concept might act as a catalyst for growth.

Since the mission envisages active public-private-people participation, all the stakeholders need to be smart too. The 2011 census says that India has an urban population of 40 per cent, a figure likely to touch 60 per cent by 2030 so the schemes like integrated rural development must be put in place simultaneously not only to prevent excessive rural migration to these cities but also to safeguard agriculture and allied activities back in the villages. This will eventually turn out to be what is really smart.

Not many may dispute the thrust areas of the 100 smart cities project: clean water, sanitation, affordable housing, solid waste management, environment-friendly mobility and public transport and e-governance.

For providing the basic services user charges will be levied. A thrust on the labour-intensive construction sector may boost economic activity and revive industries engaged in infrastructure, housing, steel, cement and electronic items.

Cleaner cities not only cut pollution and public health expenditure but also improve the over-all quality of life.

The idea of having a few smart cities may, however, draw criticism from people in left-out cities, towns and villages. The urban-centric BJP is trying to make “India Shining” but is neglecting Bharat. Villagers migrate to cities and towns in search of better opportunities.

City planning and basic services often go haywire due to the migration. This will not stop unless villages and towns are developed simultaneously. To ensure that a good idea does not get killed by a backlash, it may be prudent to follow an integrated development approach.

Challenges to making cities smart are huge. Funds are a constraint. High hopes are being pinned on private sector participation. But without having management control of the special purpose vehicle tasked with executing the project, will private parties chip in? The municipal corporations’ financial health is anything but rosy.

Real estate is in trouble and huge amounts of banks are locked in realty and industrial projects which are not taking off due to litigation, delay in clearances or/and lack of demand.

However, there is hope. Unlike other grandiose schemes such as Swachh Bharat, the Modi government has earmarked some money — Rs 48,000 crore — for the project. It may not be much but the seed money can kick off the project. The smart cities are supposed to be self-sustainable.

A great responsibility rests on state governments to make it work. The Centre will need to work with in tandem with states. It will help if the Central Government can curb its itch for overlordism.

After all, it is the states that will have to ensure that persons with vision are deputed and money is not misused or diverted.

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