Smart Cities: Centre passes the baton to states

Imagine a relay race that is also a marathon. That’s how it is going to be with Smart Cities, it seems. With the launch of the Smart Cities and AMRUT missions, the onus is firmly on the states now to make a dash for the finish line

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The launch of the Smart Cities, the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) and Housing for All missions by the Prime Minister last week lived up to some of the hype and anticipation that had led up to the announcements. All eyes, at least those firmly on the plans for India’s urban regeneration, were fixed on the Prime Minister and the foot soldiers of the Urban Development ministry, led by their commander – Urban Development (UD), Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation (HUPA) and Parliamentary Affairs Minister M. Venkaiah Naidu. He rallied the troops, with an unprecedented resilience, where the Minister and his entire Ministry spent two whole days answering questions, offering clarifications and fielding queries on the nuances of all that was announced. One thing was clear – right from the nature and persistence of the gathered audience, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech and the ones that followed. With the release of the mission guidelines, the Centre has passed the baton on to the state governments. The exhaustion of the past few months was clearly visible on the faces of the bureaucracy that mans HUPA and the MoUD, matched by the enthusiasm of representatives from state governments and cities – the attendance boasted of over 500 mayors and municipal commissioners, many of whom were bubbling over with questions about how it will all go down in the weeks and months to come. The best way I can think of describing it is: Imagine a relay race that is also a marathon. That’s how it is going to be with Smart Cities, it seems. With a major part of the Centre’s work being over, it is now up to the states to go back and choose the cities from among their ranks that will be a part of a nation-wide City Challenge being run by Bloomberg Philanthropies, to choose the first batch of 20 Smart Cities. The guidelines have gone into great detail to articulate every step along the way, with a number of documents being circulated that delve deeper into issues like the creation of a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) for chosen smart cities to guidelines for writing proposals. With the Smart City Proposal format strictly capped at ten pages, the reiteration of this upper limit led to pockets of bureaucratic horror, amid much mirth. Sameer Sharma, Joint Secretary (Smart Cities), MoUD, spent well near three hours answering a host of questions from a roomful of state and city administrators, consultants and others, highlighting specific bits from the guidelines while answering (often tough and persistent) questions that bode well for the interest that the programme generated among attendees. Now that the Centre has run its mile, the baton passes to the states to begin their run till they can pass it on to the cities and then the urban local bodies of the chosen few who must finally be the harbingers of real change. The Centre will disburse funds, handhold (if asked to) in the choosing of personnel to lead the SPVs as it sticks around to assess and evaluate proposals. It is important, here, to remember that AMRUT runs automatically across cities with a population of over 1 lakh, with the first tranche of funds, Rs. 25 lakhs for planning, already being disbursed at the time of launch. All Smart Cities will also be AMRUT cities, so the marathon has well and truly begun, while we await for the first of our smart cities to cross the finish line. Please note: We will be giving you a lot of analysis in our upcoming print issue, breaking down the guidelines and what they mean for different stakeholders, as well as a summary of the questions raised and ideas shared at the unveiling of the mission. Do watch out for it, later this month!