June 25: While standing outside Vigyan Bhawan this morning and talking to a few people in the serpentine queue inching its way to the gate on a rainy New Delhi morning, you could sense the unprecedented interest in Smart Cities by comments from "regulars" that they had never seen such long lines so early before the start of an event.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi formally launched the much-awaited AMRUT, Smart Cities, and Housing for All missions in New Delhi today. Sharing the dais with the PM were the Urban Development, Housing & Urban Poverty Alleviation and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Venkaiah Naidu and the Minister of State (MoS) Babul Supriyo, Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadnavis, Haryana CM Manohar Lal Khattar, Deputy CM of J&K Nirmal Kumar Singh, Cabinet Secretary PK Sinha, Secretaries of the MoUD and HUPA Ministries Madhusudan Prasad and Nandita Chatterjee, respectively.
The Prime Minister, after launching the logos and taglines for the Smart Cities and AMRUT missions, focused on the importance of ensuring that urban neglect is stemmed right away, to enable all those who live in Indian cities to contribute the very best toward nation building. A home for all, in an India 'where no one sleeps on the pavement', was a key feature of his speech while announcing Housing for All under the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana (PM's Housing Scheme). Citizen engagement is a key feature of all three missions, as listed in the guidelines, and the PM stressed the importance of citizen engagement and participation for their success.
He asked everyone gathered to move on from the mistakes of the past (while hinting liberally at the glaring urban gaps left behind by the previous regime), and even reserved praise for the media for becoming constructive partners in the Swachh Bharat Mission - by highlighting, rather than criticising, the urban mess; and for exhorting citizens to play an active role in cleaning it up.
But the highlight of his speech, according to me, was the stab he took at defining a Smart City, to roaring applause, saying "A smart city is one that keeps at least two steps ahead of citizens' expectations." Amen to that, I say.
Cut to post - lunch. The PM had long left, handbags and mobile phones had increased in number and the hall was still packed, as Mr. Naidu played the role of a moderator. He kept the mood light and interactive, while showing his impatience for those still milling about and whispering to each other, even as he marked time like a strict drill sergeant. What was greater was the atmosphere of a shared sense of camaraderie as familiar faces from the smart cities universe took the stage or mingled with the crowd that included 500 mayoral and municipal representatives from different states - a number stressed as unprecedented throughout the day by the Minister. He reiterated the fact that "all of India" had come together exactly one year after the first meeting of all state governments was called by him on the two missions.
Presentations included a short film on smart cities with views from India and the globe, a presentation on PPPs by the Economic Advisor at the MoUD and on the Smart Cities and AMRUT Missions by the respective Mission Directors, as well as one on Smart Solutions by NASSCOM President R. Chandrasekhar. Mr. Naidu talked at length about reforms under AMRUT that include focus areas like water recycling and rainwater harvesting, solar lighting and use of LEDs, resource optimisation via audits and strengthening municipal finance, among others.
More presentations followed the tea break, showcasing the retrofitting at Ahmedabad; the redevelopment at Bhendi Bazaar in Mumbai (that focuses on converting a dilapidated and haphazard horizontal spread by redeveloping and relocating the same vertically); and innovative citizen-driven solutions in Hyderabad, followed by a presentation on the Swachh Bharat Mission.
Post-tea, Chemicals and Fertilisers Minister Ananth Kumar wrapped up the day's proceedings by talking about waste to compost.
What was sorely missed were the promised "interactive sessions", as Mr. Naidu ran a tight ship of a show that got off to a marginally late start. And that's what it was - his show. He joked, scolded and cajoled in equal measure to underscore the idea of an Urban India moving forward toward a common, smarter goal.
All in all, a lot of what was said has been doing the rounds for a while, and what's new is that it is finally formal. But it was a rare treat to see a Minister and his deputy sit on the dais through an entire day's worth of discussions, with Mr. Naidu moderating panel after panel and intervening intermittently to make or clarify a point, even teasing his MoS about his beard. The energy was definitely infectious, and bearing testimony to that fact was a nearly full Vigyan Bhawan till the end of the day.
Tomorrow should be enlightening, as a handful of states and countries take centre stage to showcase best practices, proofs of concept and case studies on ideas for change.
Amen to that. Again.
Till tomorrow then.