Empowerment will be the key

The race for 100 smart cities has begun. Winners will be decided on the basis of their willingness to fix urban governance by strengthening local bodies and finances while building capacities

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Thanks to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s announcement in last year’s Union Budget and now the formal launch of the Smart Cities Mission, 100 cities would be developed as satellite towns and by modernising existing mid-sized cities. India is witnessing tremendous enthusiasm, and it is no exag­geration to say that people have great expectations, with many thinking that all the present problems of our crowded, infrastructure-deficit towns will magically dis­appear overnight. The Union urban development min­ister himself says that every Member of Parliament asks him for only one thing: a smart city. For all the discus­sion, one can only hope people will enthusiastically par­ticipate in the process of building these cities. Global experience shows that smart cities can mean many things. They could be Greenfield or Brownfield. They could have some or all of the ‘smart’ versions of the following: water; waste management; buildings; urban planning; mobility; public transport; energy; safety & security; governance; housing; environment; health; and education. The key to achieving efficiency in these would be the appropriate application of technology and finding the required resources. Smart governance with smart people behind it is where the real challenge lies. There is much speculation about the selection of these 100 cities. The government is also smart, if I may say so because – contrary to expectations that recommenda­tions and political considerations would work – the Prime Minister had reportedly shared very early on guidelines that cities with urban-governance-reform-oriented authorities and local government should be considered. Selection is to be based on a city’s performance and initiatives taken for good governance and cleanliness, for example, like progress under the Swachh Bharat Mis­sion and urban reforms. A City Challenge process would be the basis for selecting cities wherein it is likely that criteria such as credit worthiness, municipal employee-revenue ratio, online systems directly benefiting city residents, status of cadre restructuring and willingness to reform, among others, would form the core of judg­ing the readiness of cities on a state-wise basis. The question then is: who will be in charge of prepar­ing these cities to meet the readiness criteria – the mayor or chairperson or the commissioner? This is where gov­ernance becomes the key to the entire agenda, whether it is at this initial stage or at subsequent stages of imple­mentation. The challenge is huge because the central government is not going to be in a position to provide all the funding required. States and local bodies have to chip in and private sector resources will have to be brought in, along with other, not-ordinarily-relied-upon sources like municipal bonds and Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs). How, then, can the required confidence level about an urban local body’s function­ing be generated for all these path-breaking initiatives? It is a fact that unlike New York or Greater London where mayors are also city leaders, we do not have directly-elected or full-term mayors or even empowered mayors. De­spite the 74th Constitutional Amendment, our states are yet to take a call on the extent to which local bodies are to be truly made the third tier of governance and the extent to which they must be empowered, at least with regard to functions entrusted to them. Hence, our cities continue to look up to state governments for ad­ditional resources beyond nominal tax collections and for the exercise of their powers. We have cities where, even though water supply is a basic function, state water boards undertake the task while they wait for the state government to find the funds needed for bulk water augmentation. Despite the potential of well-structured, transparent PPPs in areas like waste management, cities mostly look up to the state governments for clearances and problem solving. No city is in a position to take up the much-required size of investments needed as they just do not have the money. Housing shortages, continuing slum expan­sion, improvements in public transport are all left to the will and whims of state governments. Even collec­tion of user charges and recovery of property tax are areas where urban bodies have mostly failed to deliver. There is hardly any stock taking at the city level with regard to key service-level benchmarks. If the smart city agenda has to bear fruit, we need strength­ening of city govern­ance. States that are likely to fare better in the city challenge pro­cess and gain ground in the smart city race are the ones that will start taking the first, gradual steps to reorient the powers, functions and responsibilities of the elected apex of local bodies; provide fixed tenure for the chief executive; incentivise reform implementa­tion and revenue generation; focus on capacity build­ing and provide transparent and electronic systems that are most citizen friendly. The writing on the wall is clear. If cities have to bene­fit, states themselves have to be fully alive to the require­ments for change so that a good number of their cities succeed in meeting the city challenge criteria.