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Smart cities: Proceed with caution, says Planet 3 Studios’ Kalhan Mattoo

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a mission to make our cities ‘smart’. The jury is still out on what makes smart, but speed, efficiency and optimisation enabled through superior governance and technology, and financed through monetisation of assets and public-private partnership are suggested by the Smart Cities Mission. As an inspirational call for citizens to take pride in and participate in community building, it has been marketed well and has ensured enthusiastic participation of competing cities in the Smart City Challenge.

Indian cities have problems of a magnitude and complexity that defy conventional solutions. The experience with the models of urban development we have implemented in the past is that they have failed us spectacularly. This is an out-of-the-box idea that attempts to break the logjam created by antiquated systems, low capital and skills available with the government. As an angel investor, the government only seeds the initial capital and allows for what are essentially competing business plans with the best socio-economic sustainability to take over the mandate of city building. It’s a hands-off model with low resource investment and potentially high rewards to accrue in a limited time.

The competitive nature of the challenge can spark innovative thinking in urban design and adoption of best practices can grow through the network of individual test bed cities. Designing from first principles and stitching new scalable models of development that can be emulated is the promise implicit in the process. The focus on technology creates an opportunity to leapfrog to better means without going through the whole developmental curve.

However, special purpose vehicles (SPVs) will frame rules to govern the entities without dealing with the messiness of the ordinary democratic process. This is legislation without representation that undermines democratic principles and effectively marginalises the role of the state. It was the intent of the 74th amendment to empower citizens for long-term urban development and the Act put a constitutional obligation on revitalising and strengthening urban local bodies, but this effectively dilutes that intent with political bypass. SPVs are presented as an instrument created to ensure the cooperation of the state and local governments under the supervision of the Centre, but that undermines federalism in a fundamental way. The long-term intent is not clear, and questions about the tenure of SPVs and whether urban governance and assets revert to the elected bodies when the SPVs cease to exist are relevant. The bigger question of the government outsourcing the mandate for development must be debated.

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