In 2014, a few days before the Lok Sabha elections, the smart city project in India was nothing more than an item on the BJP's election manifesto. The party promised to build 100 such cities by 2022.
A month and a half later, after the party stormed into power under the leadership of Narendra Modi, it was catapulted into one of India's most ambitious infrastructure schemes with a proposed outlay of Rs 1,00,000 crore.
The government ended up creating a list of 99 cities to transform them into smart cities. Despite the pomp, the project has struggled to make progress.
Two months ago, I visited four smart cities in Maharashtra — Thane, Kalyan, Pune and Pimpri-Chinchwad. Apart from Pune, none of these cities showed visible signs of transformation.
In the four years that the Modi government has been in power, it allotted Rs 10,000 crore to jump-start the smart cities project, but a damning parliamentary committee report released in March this year said only about 1.8% of these funds have been utilised.
What is a Smart City?
Perhaps, the sluggish progress was inevitable.Loosely defined, smart cities are meticulously planned metropolises that boast infrastructure that is more than just brick and mortar. They are envisioned as places that are people-centric, and connected by digital with facilities such as a robust power supply, automated waste collection and drinking water on tap.
But after the ‘smart city’ project was announced, few could make sense of the meaning of the concept.
Multinational consultancies were roped in to provide insight on what global smart cities look like and how they could be replicated in India.
Residents of some Indian cities were asked to share their vision of what a smart city is supposed to be.
The accursed red tape too didn’t help. Though there were concrete, elaborate plans on what had to be done and how much was to be spent, much time was spent in drawing up these plans and forming special purpose vehicles to help with the implementation.
The snail-like progress of the smart cities project buttresses the argument that five-year terms are too short for governments in power to implement big-ticket projects.
Housing and urban affairs minister Hardeep Singh Puri has, however, since contested that the parliamentary panel’s numbers are not up to date because of the accounting practices followed by the government and SPVs.He said 900-odd projects worth Rs 30,000 crore are in the implementation stage, and this number could hit as high as Rs 80,000 crore by December. That said, the minister has been reluctant to share how many of these 900 projects have been fully completed.
What's interesting to note, however, is that when it comes to implementation, fastest finger first may not be the most efficient way forward.
Pune was among the first cities to establish an integrated command and control centre to monitor traffic. But the project has hardly been efficient. Bhopal, in striking contrast, has not only completed this command and control centre a few months ago, but has also worked with the other smart cities in Madhya Pradesh to make this a shared resource, saving hundreds of crores of rupees.
If one were an optimist, one can take heart that the deadline to complete the smart city project is 2022.
As it happens often in India, elections can prove a catalyst. Two municipal commissioners told me that with the 2019 Lok Sabha elections round the corner, there was added pressure from the state government to ensure speedy implementation of projects. This is in line with Puri's declaration that a large-scale physical manifestation of the smart cities project will only begin in June.
But even with elections approaching, the Modi government may do well to remember that smart and fast do not necessarily mean the same thing. At the risk of stretching a gameshow analogy too thin, remember that the most successful contestants have often played the game across multiple episodes.
I wonder if the electorate will have the same amount of patience.