“We rank much higher in ‘Time taken in according to a Decision’ a new kind of benchmark”

Sikkim being a fortunate state having beautiful tourist destinations and a part of 100 smart cities of India is situated at a strategic location for defence. “We see the existing conditions as an opportunity where we can strengthen the value proposition of the city and provide more economic opportunities to the young entrepreneurs”, said Navin Rai, Joint Chief Town Planner and Nodal Officer, Smart Cities Mission, Sikkim in an exclusive conversation with Chahat Jain of BW SmartCities.

Navin Rai, Joint Chief Town Planner and Nodal Officer, Smart Cities Mission, Sikkim

Two cities from Sikkim were able to make it to the list of 100 smart cities, what will be your focus and priority in these two cities?

First and foremost, let us correct the narratives of “able to make it” as it will not be an appropriate word rather, it should have been that two cities from such a small state of Sikkim where less than thirty percent population living in urban areas still managed to bag the spot on the list of sixty winning cities in all India City Challenge competition so far. Albeit, such composition of the rural and urban population ratio in my state, we have one of the fastest urbanizing spatial dynamics in the country. Therefore, taking this national flagship mission “100 Smart Cities Mission” of incumbent federal Government as a call, it is a lifetime opportunity for my state to invest in smart core infrastructures of the cities ensuring the better quality of life, enabling more employment opportunities for the coming generation, create the revenue generating opportunities and expanding the revenue earning base for existing urban lo-cal bodies.

Sikkim has some beautiful tourist destinations, but they are not promoted like other commercial hill stations. What are your plans to develop tourism in these two cities?

Even though we are fortunate to have been bestowed with huge natural tourism resources, the primary ethos of the Government is not to prioritize tourism on such a scale where it becomes unsustainable and does more harm than the good to the social and natural environment. However, it is pertinent for every entity to realize and understand the value of such resources and plan carefully as to how the opportunities of having such pristine and unique tourist destinations could be capitalized in a manner where it will provide sustainable socio-economic platforms to all the stakeholders. Therefore, these Smart City Proposals of the two selected cities from Sikkim entails a strategic spatial and non-spatial plan where the tourism resources will be diversified, create more tourism supporting infrastructures, expand the portfolio of tourism resource base from natural to man-made as well, which will have a bigger GVA (Gross Value addition). Taking it further, the Smart City Proposal of these two cities envisage to strengthen the value proposition of the city and provide more economic opportunities to the young entrepreneurs.

How challenging is it to develop infrastructure in the hill cities?

This could be answered in either way. If we succumb to the irrational thinking process and carried away with general notion, the challenges are very extreme. This could be substantiated by the fact that most of the standards which are required to be followed while designing and proposing an infrastructural project are to be based out of the existing uniform standard code and manuals which are basically designed and framed considering the larger cities of the mainland India. Even the economics of scale is challenging for us. However, albeit such challenges, I see the existing conditions as an opportunity where cost could be marginally higher relative to the other places but, securing the public opinion to initiate any kind of infrastructural projects is much easier than the other places. Perhaps, Sikkim could be way below in the Ease of Doing Business (EoDB) parameters but with conviction, I submit that we rank much higher in “Time taken in according to a Decision” a new kind of benchmark I would ascertain and also, enabling scenarios for investors as well. Considering the size and scale of the infrastructures pro-posed in our SCP, the implementation is much faster and impact could be easily quantifiable.

Apart from the list announced by the central Government, states are picking cities on their own to develop them on the smart city model, have you shortlisted any other city to be developed as a smart city?

Well, Sikkim has a very strong and well-documented history as to how the earlier urban centers were managed and development controls were enforced prior to becoming an integral part of the union of Indian states. Followed by this ethos and trends, we were already investing in our urban centers focusing on alleviating the quality of life, safety and security of the inhabitants. For the state of Sikkim, the word Smart has a slightly different connotation with its real prevailing intent. Our focus on developing rather I would say augmenting other urban centers revolves around the philosophy of Well Being economics. This very enabling intent has brought the state of Sikkim synonymous with the word- Organic. Therefore, the state Government through the Urban Development and Housing Department (UDHD) has been working way before the existing flagship mission to develop these urban centers as smart and livable in its own context.

The central Government has time and again said that cities need to generate their own resources to finance these projects. Do you feel this model is viable and what are the challenges that cities face in attracting investments?

Yes, I do believe that if we showcase our honest intent in providing better qualities of life to the citizens, efficient service delivery mechanism, and conducive environment to the investors, the cities will have enough investors willing to contribute to our endeavors. With such interventions, the cities would be expanding their revenue generating base, secure willingness from the citizens to pay more for the service they would avail, translating into the viability of the model. However, the challenges for the cities would be to secure enough confidence of the investors, intention of being progressive and providing an enabling and conducive environment to the interested investors for whom the urban infra-structural investment is the most lucrative business avenue so far.