Pratap Padode, Founder & Director, Smart Cities Council India, talks about the Council´s capacity building programmes and issues ranging from technology to finance.
Now that the smart cities list is out, the talking point is the drafting of the plans and the on ground execution thereafter. What is the way forward?
The Union Minister Venkaiah Naidu has already announced the list of the smart cities. In the next few days, he will announce a Rs 2 crore offering to each of the 98 cities so that they can start working on the development plans. So, the first round is over. However, the chosen cities are not the finally selected ones. There are going to be drop-outs and fresh inclusions. Cities like Kolkata, Bengaluru, Thiruvananthapuram, and Simla have not been included because those state leaders found them short on certain conditions. Thirteen parameters are taken into account while qualifying for this application, namely the cities´ past performance in terms of the reforms that they have carried out, the implementation of the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission- a scheme of the past government, the service levels of administration in the cities, their self-financing capability and so on. These states can apply in round II.
What are the challenges involved in ensuring inclusiveness while executing this Smart Cities project?
Integration is missing among sectors and therefore the planning has gone for a toss. Unless and until you can coordinate a seamless mobility for the citizens, no plans can be effective. The city development plan has to take into account the integration process.
The government has mandated that the SPV which is going to be created as part of the guideline, there have to be members, apart from the state administration and local city administration, even from citizen groups.
A CEO has to be appointed. So, there is an attempt to ensure an integration of minds at all levels in order to create a plan which takes into account the comforts and conveniences of all segments of society. You can´t create a city plan without engaging with citizen groups. CIDCO and others are already talking that language.
What are the initiatives you are taking as a council to help stakeholders understand more about this mission?
Already in our multi city tours, we are creating an opening for the administrative officers to have a window into what lies ahead. They should know how to conceptualise such projects, how to balance expenditures, how much can come from user charges, etc. We have with us over 5,000 case studies, success stories worldwide, not necessarily in the western world but in similar economies in South America and Asia and what are the solutions they have adopted. We can definitely take lessons from them. We have also created a repository of successful smart city practices in India. We can also learn from within India and we´re laying great emphasis on that. The other initiative we are taking is the launching of the India Readiness Guide which is going to serve as a manual for all the urban and local bodies. We are also creating a deck of companies that have the capabilities of offering various solutions for problems that the urban local bodies face such as waste management. Who do they go to? What are the types of solutions on offer? These are a few things we are working on.
While the government is funding about half the cost of the project, what is the interest you find among the private sector for plugging the gap?
There are 35 cities within the 5 lakh and 10 lakh population and 21 cities is between one and five lakh. These 56 cities will get the maximum impact of the annual Rs 100 crore grant from the Centre. For a larger metropolis, of course, this will be a drop in the ocean and they may be able to create pockets of excellence which could create a wave for more investments for gated communities or townships. However, in those 56 cities, trunk infrastructure can be laid down by the government, which is anyway their responsibility, and which they would be laying as part of their Digital India campaign. This part is already from a different fund, and similarly, there are other funds to create the trunk infrastructure. For a city with less than one million population, the funds allotted specifically for redevelopment will help immensely. Here, the returns from a public private partnership (PPP) model will be much better. In a metropolis, these opportunities will be restricted.
Are smart cities necessarily expensive? How do we keep a check on costs?
That will depend on where each city is placed in the development curve. The question is if the technology is economical enough for the builder to incorporate in the rate per square feet. If you analyse it from this perspective, the per square feet rate differential is too minor as compared to the cost of land. In a big city, the biggest cost is for land. However, if you ask, will a builder get a premium because he has some smart technologies? The answer right now is no. Of course, this is also because of the real estate market being down. Therefore, the government is taking up these initiatives. No private city or township is implementing a very high-cost technology. They are all using the low-hanging fruits. So you want to use Wifi, or street lights with sensors, which are not too expensive and doesn´t make a huge difference in the overall scheme of things. They have greater marketability. Smartness is not in using technology for the sake of highlighting your marketability but can you course-correct? For instance, while a pneumatic waste disposal system may be more expensive, there are also bins that can send out text messages when they are overfull. Now, that´s very simple to do. So, keep the labour force employed, but add technology that tells them when to collect and when to empty the bins. For instance, in Hyderabad, water comes only for four hours and people keep their taps open. Once the water comes and the buckets are full, it starts overflowing. This is huge wastage. Now, they want a technology that as soon as water comes in, a text message goes out to the owner. This is just simple technology applied to common sense. While there is a fascination for technology that caters to luxury projects for the uber rich, there exists a huge market for simple technology that Indian start-ups are doing today. At our recently concluded event in Hyderabad, there were eight companies who presented really innovative things.
Therein actually lies the smartness that we can display in India; that we take and use these applications rather than get besotted by technologies that are just expensive. We need to look at what gives us better return on our investments.
What is the road map now and what can we expect in terms of implementation in the coming years?
Till March next year, Rs 2 crore for 98 cities that has been given is the only money that is going to be available. Post that, when the final list is announced, only in the next financial year will we see this money coming down for projects. Once the city development plans are ready, the request for proposals will be done and tenders will be issued. The last quarter of the next financial year is when we will hit the ground for execution. A lot of the smaller projects will be implemented by the middle of the next year. The roll-out of the Digital India plan will aid the process.