The announcement of the 100 Smart Cities concept is one of the visionary moves of the new NDA Government in India. While there is no definition of a smart city (articulated more to support increased urbanization), one may assume that a typical smart city would have high level social and industrial infrastructure with a robust digital backbone. A smart city may have metro rail and highway connectivity with international airports to boot. It would have certain pre-existing core industrial and commercial activity that can be leveraged for expansion and diversification. It is not, therefore, surprising that Tier 2 and 3 cities like Visakhapatnam, Madurai, Kurnool, Nagpur and Cuttack, to quote a few examples, would be qualifying as smart cities.
Clearly, development of smart cities requires not only a more precise definition of the concept but also a more clear pathway for execution. It is for this reason that the Union Budget envisages an allocation of Rs 7600 crores in the Union Budget 2014-15 to develop a clearer grasp over the concept and make a start. With only 6 months to go before the next budget, it looks as if the States are yet to make specific smart city strategies. It is hoped that the development planning exercise will be specific to each city selected as a qualifying city (rather than as a generic concept for all the cities). Specific studies will recognize the peculiar needs of each city in terms of geo-economic and demographic profiles and develop plans that would be ready to execute. This blog post suggests a few ways to lead the smart city concept to execution but more importantly touches upon the need to develop a smart village concept as well.
It is well-known that nearly 70 percent of India's population still lives in India's 600,000 villages. There can, therefore, be no equitable development unless the villages are also brought into the smart paradigm. If 100 smart cities are seen as the magnets to spur overall urban development, probably the country would need about 20,000 smart villages in the first phase. Smartness is the ability to be contextually efficient and effective. Given that villages are dependent on natural resources for day to day living smart villages must aim at leveraging technology for more efficient and effective use of technologies and generating surpluses that can be sold in the urban centres to generate rural wealth.
The smart villages must aim at being the nodal hubs for the balance 580,000 villages. While each of the 600,000 villages must be covered by total sanitation, drinking water and housing for every family, the smart villages must have certain additional capabilities. Typically, each smart village must be strategically selected to support a cluster of villages in an accessible distance; it should be the centre of a cluster of villages in a 5 kilometre radius. It should have a 3 tier school structure to support universal education, a multi-utility agricultural resource complex to support smart agriculture and a healthcare infrastructure to provide life support systems. The agricultural resource centre would be the core of a smart village.
India has fairly long monsoon season, extending between 4 and 5 months in different regions. What is unpredictable, however, are the start and end dates as well as the curves of ramp-up extension and ramp-down withdrawal, impacting the seeding, sowing and reaping phases. In addition, unseasonal rains and floods caused by the low pressure areas in the long coast line cause damage to standing crops and produce. As all the villages are solely and wholly dependent on agriculture, the smart villages must emerge as the protective umbrella for the larger village clusters as agricultural resource centres. In addition, they must lead a smart agriculture revolution across the villages.
Each smart village must have a multi-utility Agriculture Resource Complex (ARC) comprising a meteorological centre, fertiliser centre, a pesticide centre, a seeds centre, a threshing centre, a drying centre, a testing centre, a grain warehouse, a crop planning centre, a logistics centre, a leasing centre (for tractors, trailers, vehicles and implements), a grameen bank, a telecommunications centre, and a crisis management centre. The ARC in each smart village would be the key to develop and implement smart agriculture strategies in the villages covered by each smart village. All the ARCs would be digitally connected not only among themselves but with leading agricultural universities.
Just as smart agriculture is the core to wealth generation for sustainable rural development (all towns and cities), smart industry is the core to wealth generation to sustainable urban development. The development of smart cities must be accompanied by a smart industry strategy as well. Smart industry policy must incorporate strategies to develop custom-built industrial parks that can can cater to the entire value chain of each industry. Typically, the parks should have equal share reserved for end-products and component makers. Even if a component supplier is centrally located and well-established elsewhere there is no reason why a finishing operation cannot be decentralized locally. Bharat Forge may produce and rough machine all of its forgings for India in Pune but can set up the fine machining facilities wherever major automobile firms are.
Smart industry policy also involves creation of the entire commercial and governmental infrastructure that is required to serve the industrial park through single window clearances and commercialisation. Smart industry policy should aim at crating product-specific logistics and transportation hubs and parking terminals (for both cargo and people) and container terminals for mulltimodal transportation (of incoming and outgoing goods). Most parks are developed only for bare factory requirements and not for the whole series of support centres and hubs that are mentioned herein. New industrial parks in smart cities should, therefore, be conceptualised with foresight and industry collaboration.
As much as industry is important, civic life is equally important. Indian residential market has been progressively moving out of the reach of the lower and middle income groups, essentially due to escalation of land prices and construction costs. The efforts by the governments to develop low income houses in far flung areas has increased the distance between the workplace and homespace for vast tracts of workforce. The affordable homes conceived by certain reputed builders, such as Mahindra and Tata, are too few and isolated to make an impact. As the Governments set about building smart cities and smart villages it is time to do away with the concepts of economic isolation that have taken root over the years.
Indian cities as they historically evolved had little planning for integrated residential habitats. From Mumbai to New Delhi and from Chandigarh to New Raipur, one can see multiple models, none of them fully thought through for a sustainable high quality living with socio-economic integration. Alternative models do exist; the campus of the Indian Institute of Technology Madras is a good example of harmonious housing colonies with multiple templates co-existing. As the smart cities get built, integrated planning of residential and commercial spaces would be required. There is no reason for abandoning the weaker sections to isolated existence and tardy development in the fringes. On the other hand, there is every need to use the smart city and smart village as well as new capital developments to integrate all sections of the population, socially and economically.
Renewing the core
An important component of developing the smart cities and villages is the renewal of the core. Any observation of historical development indicates that civilisations developed on river banks, sea coasts or hill valleys for good socio-economic reasons. While developing smart cities and villages, efforts must be made to renew the core to retain traditional advantages while injecting contemporary land use planning. Just as land pooling is being planned for construction of a new capital in the Vijayawada region, building pooling can be considered for renewal of old urban centres. This must focus on unplanned, impoverished, dilapidated and bottleneck parts of the urban centres to convert them into more vibrant zones which can meet the needs of the coming decades.
An aerial view of any of the cities identified as smart cities would reveal congested building clusters which are not only partially constructed but are also unsafe. Yet they constitute valuable property and the only means of security to the owners. A major people's initiative would be required to achieve productive renewal of the core. It is likely that a well conceived and apolitical plan in public-private participation would help achieve the objectives. The renewal can be an opportunity to create large horizontal free spaces for movement and parking while going vertical for creating commercial and residential space. In the urban renewal, care needs to be taken to avoid wall to wall packing of buildings, a legacy or temptation to which even the world's greatest cities have succumbed.
Waves and ripples
Along with the identification and renewal of a core, new zones must be created for expansion of smart city areas from the available basic stages. There are two ways the development can be effected; one as waves and the other as ripples. A wave form of development starts from a developed core and moves towards an unexplored horizon. The development of Hyderabad which proceeded from the core Ameerpet area to Banjara Hills, Jubilee Hills, Hitex City and now Gachi Bowli is an example of wave development. The advantage of wave development is that the existing connectivity options can be progressively extended while new enclaves get developed. The disadvantage of wave development is that the constraints of a previous development tend to impact the newer developments as the core is what provides the basic development backbone.
The ripple development is based on choosing new nodes far away from the core, and developing them towards one another. The development of Bengaluru with new distant clusters like Sarjapur, Whitefield, Peenya and Davanahalli serving as the four new clusters expanding and rippling outwards from each of the new cores is an example. The advantage of ripple development is that it enables a much larger canvas and a much faster pace of development. The disadvantage is that it tends to be a connectivity nightmare if people need to commute across work areas of one location and residential areas of another location. Bengaluru is an example of both. As the governments embark upon converting the existing cities into smart cities, the need for orderliness and convenience cannot be ignored.
It appears that development of smart cities and smart villages could be at high land costs. The (already costly) experience with the new capital of AP suggests the need for tempered visions and calibrated communications. Farmers who have inherited the lands in and around Vijayawada, and have been living in abject poverty thus far should feel happy with the smart developments that fetch huge land values. On the other hand, if they have already sold their land parcels months earlier for small incremental appreciation to 'smart' people, then they may have unknowingly skirted the once in a lifetime development opportunity. Media reports suggest that this indeed could be the emerging story. Reports suggest unprecedented spikes in the land prices in and around Vijayawada, expected as the new capital city of Andhra Pradesh ever since the bifurcation of the AP State a few months ago (and announced accordingly on September 4, 2014 in the AP Legislative Assembly).
Other reports suggest that the Governments would go in for joint development for the new capital with land pooling with 40 percent share to the land owners and the skyscrapers getting built free on the land on the basis that half the number of floors would go to the Government with the balance half being retained by the developers for their sale. This has a hidden high cost element while being low on visible expenditure. The other alternative, possibly less speculative and more cost-effective, is to limit new capital development to only clusters that have government land and avoid private acquisition of land. Even if such clusters are separated, top class road and metro rail connectivity can be ensured to keep them networked. This could be a better model with each cluster focusing on one specific part of governance.
An avowed objective of the NDA government is digital integration. Smart cities as well as smart villages must lead in this. Digital connectivity is more than wifi enablement or iPad deployment. An ability to access information through a private device in any public spot is only a battle half won. Digital connectivity must provide access to information for all people at all places without having to resort to private devices. Announcing arrival and departure times through mobile applications may be an improvement over telephonic enquiry service but does not represent real and total digital connectivity. Digital connectivity needs time to speak and time to listen. The new Government has asked for people's suggestions on the body to replace the Planning Commission. However, only few suggestions have flown digitally while fewer have been analyzed. When digital universe is opened up, time needs to be allotted to make use of the information highways by all stakeholders.
Digital connectivity must facilitate instantaneous access to desired information by public. This is enabled largely by major upgrades in digitization of all activities starting from one digital card for each individual to total digitization of all transactions. The Income Tax department has demonstrated how several economic transactions can be interlinked with one PAN card number. The experience can be more profound if, for example, the labour market and employment market are fully digitised with access of real time information on vacancies and candidates. A national information exchange could be a national repository of public information with a dedicated search engine. Even in today's times, ministers cannot be reached by general public. In a true digitised state, digital outreach (as organized for the Prime Minister on the Teachers' Day) would be a daily feasibility. There should be digital highways that carry the citizens' pains and pleasures to the administrators and ministers anytime.
Smart India Authority
The plans that are being laid out are so great with development aspirations all across India and with investment needs so huge that the development paradigms need to be created carefully. Centre could enable a centralised model based on central and global institutional funding or allow the States pursue their own models of smart development. Whichever route is taken, the development paradigms must be empathetic to the needs of the poor and downtrodden as the smart city and village concepts are the one last chance to bring people onto the developmental mainstream. Whether a new body to replace the Planning Commission takes shape or not, a new Smart India Authority seems to be definitely required so that the smart visions and raised expectations are aligned with empathetic strategies and invigorated execution.
Posted by Dr CB Rao on September 8, 2014