By Samir Nair
During India’s historic election campaign last year, then candidate Narendra Modi pledged to build 100 smart cities across India. Since taking office, Modi’s government has allocated $1.2 billion to this initiative. Last June, Modi said that, “cities in the past were built on riverbanks,” but that “they are now built along highways and that “in the future, they will be built based on availability of optical fiber networks and next-generation infrastructure.” During Prime Minister Modi’s visit to Washington, D.C. in September 2014, the United States agreed to partner in developing three smart cities: Ajmer in Rajasthan, Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, and Vishakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh. But without a single concise definition of what constitutes a “smart city,” it is not entirely clear what the United States is obliged to undertake.
For Modi, cities that integrate technology, efficiency, and sustainability are a solution to rapid urbanization. Smart cities are also an engine for job creation and economic growth – countries like China and the UAE are betting big on smart cities and have already dedicated billions of dollars to smart city projects. China, in fact, announced an $8 billion investment fund in smart cities last year. Modi is convinced that India needs to undertake similar measures to augment development and optimize public service delivery.
Deloitte defines a smart city as a city in which “investments in human and social capital and traditional (transport) and modern (ICT) communication infrastructure fuel sustainable economic development and a high quality of life.” Cisco defines smart cities similarly as those that adopt “scalable solutions that take advantage of information and communications technology (ICT) to increase efficiencies, reduce costs, and enhance quality of life.” The European Union has what is perhaps the most comprehensive definition, referring to smart cities as those that “provide public services to their citizens in a more convenient way, that are more responsive and citizens-centered, that provide the right information in real-time to allow for better everyday and business decision-making, and that achieve all this in an economically viable way so as to improve environmental sustainability.” Solving urban problems and improving living standards through deploying technology and high quality physical infrastructure is what makes a city ‘smart’. Using ICT to monitor things such as water levels and energy consumption can help city planners and administrators avoid or better anticipate the issues that arise from overcrowding and pollution. More important is “soft” infrastructure in the form of institutions, policies, and regulations that enable the system to perform well.
To understand how smart cities are being conceptualized in the Indian context, we can refer to certain benchmarks laid out by India’s Ministry of Urban Development across several categories in a recent concept note:
|Transportation||· Maximum travel time of 30 minutes in small & medium size cities & 45 minutes in metro areas
· Footpaths and bicycle tracks in each direction on all streets
· High quality & high frequency mass transport within 800 meters of all residences in areas with a density of 175 people per hectare
|Spatial Planning||· 95 percent of residences should have access to retail, parks, primary schools, and recreational areas within 400 meters walking distance.|
|Water Supply||· 24/7 supply of water and 100 percent of households with direct water supply connections
· 100 percent efficiency in collection of water related charges
|Sanitation & Waste Management||· All households to have access to toilets and to be connected to waste water network
· All schools to have separate toilets for girls
· All households to be covered by daily door-step collection system
|Telecom & Electricity||· 24/7 supply of electricity for every household
· Telephone and mobile connection for every household
· 100 percent Wi-Fi coverage throughout the city
Several flagship smart city projects situated along the Delhi Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC), such as Dholera and Gujarat Financial International Finance Tec-City, are getting underway through private investment with developers using these benchmarks as a guide. Japan already holds a 26 percent equity stake in the DMIC. The United States and Singapore have welcomed offers to help build some of India’s smart cities, and the United States has begun to encourage its companies to “design and implement novel infrastructure platforms for new Indian smart cities.” The United Kingdom recently unveiled a $1.5 billion credit line for British investors in Indian infrastructure. Clearly, governments and industry alike have accorded greater importance to participating in India’s infrastructure build-out and helping India realize its economic aspirations.
With India’s urban population set to increase to almost 600 million by 2030, the Modi government hopes smart cities will help absorb this population increase and become future drivers of economic growth, opportunity, and innovation. What remains to be seen is whether the current government has the political space it needs at both the state and national levels to deliver on project implementation and execution, and what role the United States will play.