Exclusive: Inside India’s $7.5bn Smart City Challenge

By GovInsider

Interview with Jagan Shah, Director, National Institute of Urban Affairs.

India is on Mission Not-So-Impossible. The Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs wants to help 100 cities to kickstart their smart city transformation.

As part of the Smart Cities Mission, launched in 2015, the country has set aside US$7.5 billion for an innovative challenge programme.

Cities have been invited to bid for funding for their ideas as part of a national competition. “We want to see a complete facelift and transformation of an area of the city,” says Jagan Shah, who is advising the government on this project.

Shah, who is the Director of the National Institute of Urban Affairs, told GovInsider about the schemes that have been selected so far.

100 smart cities

The Smart City Challenge takes a unique approach to tech funding. Most governments prescribe areas where money should be allocated, but this has a broader definition of any project using tech to “improve the quality of life and delivery of government services”, Shah says.

“Every city was required to come up with a vision of their city becoming smart,” he adds, allowing cities to play to their strengths. “Some might be religious towns where there’s a lot of pilgrimage, while others might be tourist or industrial towns, or administrative capitals,” he explains.

The competition received over 11,000 proposals from hundreds of cities that took part. 90 cities have been selected so far, and ten more will be selected in an ongoing complimentary round, Shah adds.

The transformation

Around 2,300 proposals are now full-fledged projects, on course to be implemented on the ground, according to Shah. The total cost of the projects is 189,256 Cr (~US$29.1 million), and will impact the lives of almost 96 million citizens.

There is a broad set of problems which are “almost generic to all the smart cities”, says Shah. A low level of service delivery is at the top of the list, with many cities lacking water supply and sanitation, parking and traffic management, streetlights, surveillance systems, and the like.

“If there is a disaster or fire, there are no alert systems,” he notes. For instance, the city of Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu is exploring how it can manage its dozen lakes so that “the water is cleaned up and is also maintained”.

The city of Bhubaneswar in Odisha wants to develop a “child-friendly city”, and a trust is working on building public spaces that are more responsive to children’s needs.

Pune in Maharashtra is redeveloping its slums as part of its smart city efforts, but is going one step further by educating and training youths from those slums, so that they may get jobs and become part of the economy.

Integrated solutions

One major requirement, Shah points out, is that cities develop integrated solutions, and “bundle” their projects. Ideally, smart lighting and parking management on a particular street could be implemented together and announced as one project.

“If you need to upgrade a street, then you do everything that is required on that street in one go, and not have separate projects for different parts of it.”

Cities could integrate their public transport systems by introducing a common fare card, Shah suggests. They could also set up command and control centres that would be a boon for city managers. Cities could integrate public transport systems by introducing a common fare card.

A few years down the road, India’s cities could look very different, Shah believes. There will be proper lighting, pedestrian spaces, and parking meters on the streets.

Historical buildings will be spruced up and given new life. Solar panels and other types of renewables will feed backup power supply into the grid. And citizens will be safe under the watchful eyes of surveillance cameras, he hopes.

Citizen engagement is the key, Shah adds. In the early days of the smart city challenge, estimates show that up to seven million people participated in online polls and meetings to contribute to their city’s proposal. This needs to be an ongoing conversation, Shah says.

“We’ve got to keep them informed and involved, so that they participate through the whole process. We haven’t done enough of that,” he admits.

The Smart City Mission is just one part of India’s broader vision for the next few years. It wants to boost basic infrastructure such as water supply and sanitation, provide housing for all by 2022 - the 75th anniversary of India’s independence - and end open defecation in all cities.

That vision begins with a competition, and everyone’s a winner. To learn more about the India's Smart City Mission, watch this video.

Image by José Morcillo ValencianoCC BY 2.0