On January 28, as Union Urban Development Minister Venkaiah Naidu announced the top 20 scorers in the nationwide Smart Cities challenge, it was the omissions that interested people more than the inclusions. Prime Minister Narendra Modi's constituency, Varanasi, was way down at number 96. In fact, no city from Uttar Pradesh made it to the first selection. Neither did cities from other non-NDA ruled big states such as West Bengal and Bihar. And, even more surprisingly, none of the three cities that France “adopted”—Chandigarh, Pondicherry and Nagpur—made the cut. The US had handpicked Visakhapatnam, Ajmer and Allahabad to partner with, of which only Visakhapatnam made it, at number eight.
Irate political parties were quick to blame political bias. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar called the NDA ungrateful. He said his state, along with UP, had given more than 100 MPs to the ruling coalition, but got nothing in return.
Observers, however, said there was just too much money, credibility and ambition riding on the Centre's flagship mission for the NDA to risk it all with petty politics. “The selection procedure was tougher than a UPSC exam,” said Naidu, noting that there were three evaluation teams which studied each proposal. Each team consisted of foreign and Indian experts who rated the proposals based on 43 criteria. The average scores of the three teams were used to rate the cities. The competition was monitored by an internationally reputed body, Bloomberg Philanthropies. “Objectivity and transparency were the hallmark of the process,” said Naidu.
“The list is a clear reflection of the development agenda of various states,” said Pratap Padode, director, Smart Cities Council India, an aggregator of service providers and consultants for smart urban development. “Madhya Pradesh got three of its seven cities and Rajasthan two of its six. There is an energy in these states regarding development. We noticed the way they went about with their proposals. Their direction and vision were clear. Andhra Pradesh has evolved as a startup state; two of its three cities got selected. Do you see the focus of development anywhere in Bihar, UP or West Bengal?” Padode pointed out that these states were ahead of the race even in the first round, getting more cities than others into the top 100 list.
The results might have been on expected lines but, with a few states crowding the top 20, as many as 23 Union territories and states were missing, a figure too overwhelming and regional balances too lopsided to ignore. So, the government has given another chance to these states and UTs to brush up their existing proposals by April 15. Those, which on re-test, score more than 55.47 per cent (which Bhopal, number 20, scored), will also make it to the first cut. Experts expect at least five cities to pass the re-test.
So what did the top 20 do to win? Jagan Shah, director of National Institute of Urban Affairs, a research institute, explained Bhubaneswar's proposal. “It includes developing 985 acres around the railway station and retrofitting it as a central business district. Also, the plan included revival of a stream that weaves through the entire city. The pan city 'smart' initiative is to create an intelligent city operations and management centre, a digital platform to integrate city sub-systems like traffic management, emergency response, bus transit and incident management.” The plan is also clear on how the money will be utilised.
Pune, ranked two, aspires to be the top liveable city in India as well as a leading city in the ease of doing business. Its proposals have been in line with the vision. Pune also scored in involving citizens in the drafting of its proposal, reaching out to more than four lakh households. There was a 16 per cent weightage for citizen involvement in the plans.
Jaipur, at number three, aims to leverage its existing tourism and heritage potential and to smarten up its walled city.
Money for these cities should come in by the end of the year. The centre will give 0200 crore this year, with a matching amount from the state. Another 0300 crore will be disbursed by the Centre over the next three years.
So, it's time now for the top 20 to go back to the drawing boards, and draw up the process of procurements and tenders. “This will be a great challenge. Unless budgets, plans and tenders are on time, there could be delays. Those who come up with smart e-procurement plans can leapfrog to the next stage,” said Padode, adding that under-utilisation of funds was a disappointing facet of India's development. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation, for instance, spent only 25 per of its planned budget in the last fiscal.
So what happens to all the foreign investment and partnerships riding on the programme? French ambassador Francois Richier had earlier said that if their cities didn't make to the top 20, they would wait for the second round of selections, then the third. “Our engagement with the three cities will continue,” he said. Apart from the US and France, which formalised their association with three cities each, 14 other governments and multinationals from those countries are involved at various levels. Japan signed a memorandum of understanding to develop Varanasi on the lines of Kyoto. At the planning stage itself, 42 cities had foreign help. Ecorys Nederland of the Netherlands prepared the plan for Bhagalpur in Bihar, Tractebel Engineering of Belgium helped Dharamshala. The Jaipur plan was aided by UK-based Mott MacDonald. Another Netherlands firm, Haskoning Consulting, was associated with Dahod, Gujarat, while Data World of South Africa partnered with Namchi, Sikkim. Much foreign investment has already come; the Smart Cities mission was a way to channel the investment.
Naidu said dreaming big wasn't enough, there needed to be a plan to concretise the dream. This brings us to the other question critics are raising. How sustainable will the mission be, and how resistant will it be to change at the Centre? Observers say that, from the investments in place, it would be foolhardy for any government to drop the plan. By the end of three years, the government would have spent 70 per cent of its Rs.2 lakh crore budget, a whopping amount, given that the UPA government spent Rs.50,000 crore on the Jawaharlal Nehru Urban Renewal Mission over 10 years.
Pouting local leaders are saying that, smart cities aside, they have other development plans to focus on. The Bihar government is talking about smart villages while UP Chief Minister Akhilesh Yadav is mooting the Model City project for smaller towns in his state. “Whichever way you look at it, there is an injection of energy into urban development. Private builders and local governments will use the Smart Cities Mission as a template, and even try to better it. Which can only be good for the country,” said an optimistic Padode. Time will tell soon enough.
* From evolving the smart vision to preparing the final draft, about 1.52 crore citizens participated in the Smart Cities challenge * This is 12 per cent of the total population of the cities involved
* The proposals were vetted by three teams who checked for 43 criteria
* Of the selected 20, five are capital cities
* Only one, Chennai, has a population of over 50 lakh; five cities have a population of below five lakh
* The Centre has proposed Rs.50,802 crore for these cities over the next five years
* Bhubaneswar topped with a score of 73.83 per cent
* The second round of the competition, to choose the next 40 cities, will be held in 2017