Smart city projectIt is said that when you start something new with the potential to become really great there will always be people willing to pull you down with them, to make sure that the work never gets off in the first place. The common notion nowadays is to deride such people and say that their opinion counts for zilch. When you come to think of a mega project like Smart Cities it is very hard to wish such a project failure – after all it is supposed to take India to the next level – give it the position it deserves by virtue of being a superpower. It is supposed to make everyone’s lives a lot better. So the question that comes to one’s mind is, is there anything wrong at all with the project? Before one tries to look for a definitive answer, it might be worthwhile to take a look at some of the issues with the project.

Selection of cities

The project is aiming to modernize 100 cities in the next 20 years. As of now Faridabad, Dehradun, Gurgaon, Delhi, Haridwar, Jodhpur, Jaipur, Kanpur, Lucknow, Ajmer, Gwalior, Varanasi, Bhopal, Indore, Bodh Gaya and Allahabad have been chosen for the initial stage of the project. As one can see almost all the cities chosen for the initial stage are concentrated in northern and central India. The first question is why is such a bias being shown to cities to a certain couple of zones and why are the rest being not attended to. Could this be related to the fact that the BJP has done well in these areas during the last parliamentary elections held across the country?

The possible explanation for such a selection could be that the Government is looking to do it one zone at a time but even then such an approach is a faulty one considering the fact that in case the project ever stopped then some cities in the country would be in a better position compared to others and the basic aim of the project would never be accomplished. A far better approach would have been to focus on different cities in each zone. That would have ensured all-round development and also apprised the Government of the challenges that lay in front of them. This would have improved the planning for the next stage.

Expenses

The project is supposed to cost the Indian Government INR 7 lakh crore over a 20-year period. Now, the Indian Government is one that runs regularly on a deficit budget and one wonders for such a project how would it be possible to generate such an amount. The most obvious option would be to involve the private sector.

Now, that could be done in two ways – one is through the public-private partnership model and the other one is relying entirely on the private sector. With the involvement of the private sector there shall be no paucity of funds but it also needs to be understood that as opposed to the Government the private sector will not be involved in the project for ensuring public welfare. This is not a corporate social responsibility project or some other form of charity being undertaken by the private entities. They will be in it only if they see some return, some profit – probably a long-term one – for themselves and they will make sure that they extract the last bit out of it.

The smart cities are supposed to provide the very best facilities to the inhabitants. Now once the private sector is involved one wonders what the costs of these facilities would be – would the common people be able to avail them? This question is important considering the fact that the cities being developed are not really the economic hubs of India – with the exception of Delhi – with an even distribution of income across various classes. In that case, would only the rich be able to afford these? If such a thing were to happen, then the entire exercise will have to be considered an eyewash. The Government needs to give serious consideration to this factor and ensure that the benefits do not accrue only to ones regarded to be the fittest by the financiers – the greater good needs to be served.

Period of completion

This is perhaps even more vexing a problem than the costs for anyone interested in the project. The project is going to take 20 years to be completed – one thinks that in the days ahead when more factors come into play the period will only be extended. Now as anyone would know, in Indian politics nowadays it is hard for a party to be in power for such a long period. No one knows what will happen after 10 years, let alone double that time.

So, how is the BJP so sure that it will be able to finish the project in two decades time? Is it counting on popular support by dint of this project? Moreover, does it not know that whenever a new party comes to power the first thing it does is bring to an end every single plan of the predecessor and start from a clean slate. It has done the same thing with the JNNURM project as well. Perhaps this is what can happen to the Smart Cities project as well as and when the NDA is toppled.

What could have been done

In spite of its pretensions to superpowerdom India is a Third World country where human rights are violated on a regular basis and where the income inequality is higher than the Everest itself. This is a country where 90% of the people do not get proper food, water and electricity, where education and employment is not available to all, where the divide between the rural and urban is more of a chasm rather than a gap and where there are areas such as the Northeast and Kashmir where some people consider themselves to be aliens because of the general neglect meted out to them. Perhaps the need of the hour is to address these problems first so that the base of the country is really strong. There is no use advancing 100 cities to international level when the rest of the country is lying in perpetual darkness.

Perhaps scrapping the JNNURM project was not such a decent idea after all. The project could have been completed and then an assessment could have been made from thereon. However, in a country where politics is more about power rather than popular good such an approach could be fraught with risks. Also as a national policymaker it is really hard to resist the temptation of leaving one’s impression on the proceedings and thereby on history. After all, there is every chance that the Opposition, which has been recently deposed, could say that the new Government is only taking ahead what they had started. Why give them even that much chance – that could affect the vote bank in a negative way for the ones in power.

One only wishes the project success in the long run but given the way things are done in India one wonders if that ever will materialize in reality.

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