Minister of State (Independent Charge) for Housing and Urban Affairs, Hardeep Singh Puri, is a former top diplomat who retired as India's Permanent Representative at the United Nations. In his new political avatar, as an important minister in the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Puri told INDIA REVIEW & ANALYSIS that the Smart Cities Mission would help the urban transformation of India.
Q. What are the ways in which the Smart Cities Mission can help India's urban transformation?
A. The Smart Cities Mission is fundamentally an innovative intervention into the long-neglected urban sector of our country. It is targeted at some of the most chronic problems in the management, planning and finance of cities and seeks to address those problems through a few key aspects:
a) A competition between cities to receive recognition as a ‘smart city’ and funding of the projects;
b) Participation of citizens in identifying projects for the improvement of their cities;
c) Upgrading of specific areas within the city, selected through base-lining of needs, such that the success in one area can be scaled up into other areas in the future;
d) Integrated planning, where all the departments concerned with the city work together to prepare an integrated vision and propose holistic solutions that converge all the plans and investments that would otherwise be executed by different agencies and departments in the area
e) Application of smart ICT-based solutions for the improved delivery of services across the entire city;
f) City-level Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) registered under the Companies Act, 2013, and mandated to implement and manage the life cycle of projects.
The urban transformation of our country will benefit from the Smart Cities Mission as it will create ‘lighthouse’ cities which are like the innovation labs for the urban sector and will create the proofs-of-concept, the models and best practices that other cities around the country will learn from. It is important to note that the smart cities represent the full spectrum of the urban sector in our country; there are cities of all sizes, with all kinds of economic activities and a diverse range of social and cultural contexts.
Q. Indian cities are increasingly becoming uninhabitable. How can Smart Cities reverse this trend?
A. The key reason why Indian cities are in such a poor condition is the lack of foresight, the lack of spatial, physical and economic planning and the absence of citizen engagement and participation.
The trust deficit between citizens and their municipal bodies can only be restored if there is proper delivery of infrastructure and services. The Mission seeks to assist the cities in ensuring that projects get delivered within a predictable timeframe and within budget. The use of ICT will further enhance the city’s ability to deliver improved services, which will create better living conditions for all citizens.
Q. There is an urgent need to reassess urban migration. Has the government taken any concrete steps to address this issue?
A. The ministry is cognizant of this aspect of urbanization. We constituted a group of experts and officials to deliberate on the subject of migration and its impact on housing, infrastructure and livelihoods in our cities. The recommendation was to integrate migrants into the urban economy, especially by addressing their housing needs, which have a direct impact on their access to livelihood and their ability to access other services like healthcare and education for their families.
In terms of housing, for those who migrate to our cities and can’t immediately purchase houses, a rental housing policy is also being drafted.
Lastly, the migrant becomes a subject of the National Urban Livelihoods Mission as well, which aims to integrate various kinds of workers into the urban economy through skill-building and other initiatives. Contrary to the dogma that has prevailed for many decades, the migrant is the person who brings new ideas and energy into urban societies. Most importantly, as our Prime Minister once said, a poor migrant gets accommodated and assimilated into the urban economy –thus, cities are able to ‘digest’ poverty.
Q. There is a concern that designating an area as smart city would increase the inequality gap. What are your views on this?
A. This is a common misconception. Firstly, we must understand that transforming entire existing cities has never been done in the history of the world. You can build new cities over time, but fixing old cities requires a strategic vision and a carefully planned outlay of resources. Starting with one area does not mean we will limit ourselves to that area only. In fact, that is only the starting point.
One should also become aware about which specific areas have been selected by the 99 smart cities. These are not elite areas; in fact, in most cases, the cities are developing parts of their central business district or parts of the city where the economy is flourishing. A temple town in the south is focusing on the areas around the temple so that they can service the needs of tourists as well as the residents of the area. A port town is providing services in the neglected areas where nobody invested earlier. A town that has a ‘mandi’ (market) for trading agricultural produce is investing in clearing up the messy traffic and street management around the market area. There is no elitism because there has been a transparent and consultative process through which local citizens have selected their areas for smart development.
Q. A project like Smart Cities Mission cannot succeed without the involvement of local bodies that are inept and corrupt. What are the areas where the local bodies can collaborate most effectively to expedite the mission?
A. There are several challenges that prevent local bodies from functioning to their potential. The chronic problem is the multiplicity of agencies with overlapping jurisdictions and fragmented roles and responsibilities.
Such fragmentation leads to delay in implementation of projects and inefficient service delivery. Added to the dispersed accountability is the monopolistic nature of public services - what could be described as ‘turf wars’ between agencies - which adds to poor provisioning of services and compounds the inefficiency.
If power and responsibility is unarticulated and ambiguous, then different power centres have different interests and the ability to delay- if not outright veto - projects that are for the common good.
Creating e-governance platforms and protocols, and improving management skills and quality of service delivery through capacity building is likely to present the solutions in urban management. Lastly, regulation and oversight must be carefully and transparently worked out.
Q. What are the challenges that need to be overcome to implement the Smart Cities Mission?
A. A big challenge is to design integrated projects and procure reputed companies to implement these transformative projects. For this, competent professionals are required to man the SPVs and cities tell me that this is proving to be a big challenge. Another challenge is to strengthen municipal revenues and financing capacity, such that cities can leverage the grant being provided by the governments to raise finance from the market.
Innovative financing models like issue of municipal bonds, developing PPP projects and formulating value capture policies are required.
In addition to human resources, this also requires the commitment and ‘buy-in’ of diverse stakeholders, requiring the kind of leadership and management skills that are very scarce in this sector.
Q. What is your government’s vision for regeneration of urban India, an area that past governments have neglected?
A. Colonialism shaped the economies, roles and distribution of cities in India. Before 1800, India had a well-developed urban system. During colonialism, cities were occupied and developed to serve the economic and political interests of the colonizers. The benign neglect of urban areas continued after independence and it was only in the 1970s that we realized that we have to develop small and medium towns. Later, in the 1990s, attention shifted towards development of infrastructure in mega cities (1990s) and later expanded to other cities (2004 onwards). What was missing was a clear vision of the role of cities in the nation’s economy. In fact, there was an assumption that cities and urbanization in general were undesirable for our country.
After 2014, one of the key transformative initiatives has been the concept of Team India, which helps us to converge the interests of all players in the interests of serving the public. Further, we have promoted and supported integrated approaches, with the use of digital technology and transformative visioning.
The Government will leverage such new approaches to improve ease of living for all, particularly women, citizens with disabilities, and the elderly. The principle of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ will be manifest in all aspects of our work in the urban sector.