After four rounds of competitive bidding, 99 cities, with an aggregate population of nearly 99.4 million, were selected to implement the Smart Cities programme, which was launched in 2015.

Today, these are in various stages of implementation.

The project cost for all cities put together is 2.02 trillion, split into area-based development projects costing 1.63 trillion, and pan-city solutions projects costing 38,841 crore.

India’s urban population is projected to double in four decades starting 2011. Keeping this shift in focus, the central government’s support to urban development has been on the rise.

Based on the 14th Finance Commission’s recommendations, 87,000 crore is budgeted to be devolved to cities over five years (2015-20). Of this, a sizeable outlay comprises grant-based funding by way of programmes such as the Smart Cities Mission, AMRUT (Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation), Swachh Bharat Mission and Housing for All.

The objective of the Smart Cities Mission is to “promote cities that provide core infrastructure and give a decent quality of life to its citizens, a clean and sustainable environment and application of ‘smart’ solutions".

The key smart solutions it focuses on include urban mobility, energy management, waste management, water management, e-governance and citizen services, and use of digital tools for social and economic development. In many ways, the mission aims to cast a fresh perspective to India’s urban challenges and deliberate on innovative and catalytic city solutions.

While the pace of implementation is far behind the anticipated rate, there have been noteworthy transformational projects which have been developed and have helped redefine the city space and services.

These projects span a broad range—from urban design and streetscape improvements to creation of integrated command and control centres for performance monitoring, to use of solar energy, bicycle sharing programmes, public sanitation schemes and renewal of water supply networks.

But one of the key wins of this mission has been the change in the mindset and approach towards urban solutions. Cities are now experimenting in a big way in the use of technology to bring about social, economic and environmental improvements. Smarter and newer products are now finding large applications and cities are now working towards integrated frameworks to improve service efficiency and delivery.

Given the scale and complexity of urbanization in India, setting the right agenda rolling is also a big win. In many ways, the mission has brought city governments into the fray by enabling them to deliberate upon specific challenges, contexts, solutions and implementation strategies.

This is a move in the right direction, where cities and the citizenry are now collectively debating on how to make their cities smart. Newer institutional arrangements in the form of special purpose vehicles are also gaining ground to fast-track implementation.

Today, both the knowledge base and awareness are being augmented through research and debates. There is greater conceptual clarity on the essential components of a smart city and the implementation mechanism for rolling out projects.

The mission emphasizes bottom-up planning based on citizen participation and allowing autonomy to urban local bodies to prepare and develop the projects. That’s the right start where a climate of inclusivity, transparency and accountability among stakeholders is being created.

This capacity augmentation will, in due course, bear fruit and help implementation gain momentum.

However, as the mission moves forward into its next cycle, it will have to also adopt an approach to building “smart institutions". One cannot disagree with the premise that a programme will only be as successful as the capacity of the implementing institution.

One of the key challenges facing the mission today is the limited capacity of urban local bodies to move quickly towards implementation. Such shortfalls are in several areas including intra-departmental coordination, institutional coordination with other public and private agencies, skilled staff, adequate resources and technical know-how, ability for citizens’ engagements, and real-time monitoring of progress. This will require a much more defined and concerted effort from the central and state agencies. An effort that moves beyond monitoring and towards facilitating.

While the Smart Cities Mission is not a replacement for traditional functions and services of an urban local body, it is envisaged to bring about strategic and catalytic transformational changes to the city’s conditions. However, such transformations need to also happen in the governance and implementation set-up. Only then can the intended agenda of the programme’s sustainability and replicability succeed.

Abhay Kantak is director and Hrydhal Damani is associate director at Crisil Infrastructure Advisory.

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