NIUA: Leveraging Urbanization Policies through Technology Data Solutions

The government recognizes that managing the process of urbanization is increasingly important for the ongoing urban transformation. In this regard, NIUA has been set up with a mission to develop new research and expertise for supporting innovations in the urban sector and their dissemination through action research and advocacy, capacity building. Elaborates Hitesh Vaidya, Director, National Institute of Urban Affairs (NIUA) in conversation with Poulami Chakraborty of BW SmartCities World.

Would you elaborate to share with us the mandate of NIUA for Urban Development in India?

India’s growth story is unfolding in cities of all sizes, from mega city regions to small towns spread across the country. There are more than 4,400 cities and towns with a long trail of smaller and medium towns. It is projected that by the year 2030 half of the India’s population will be living in urban areas. The scale and speed of urbanization calls for a comprehensive approach that can leverage the existing opportunities in cities and overcome the challenges effectively. 

The government recognizes that managing the process of urbanization is increasingly important for the ongoing urban transformation. In this regard, NIUA has been set up with a mission to develop new research and expertise for supporting innovations in the urban sector and their dissemination through action research and advocacy, capacity building. For the last 46 years, NIUA has been contributing to policy and planning in India, using technology and data solutions, and building partnerships with national and international organizations.

NIUA has adopted a ‘center-driven approach’ of supporting states and cities with standards, tools, best practices and evidence-based capacity assistance. The overall objective is to constantly evolve and emerge as the key institution that facilitates sustainable growth in India’s cities by becoming an incubator of ideas and a guide for effective policymaking.  

After the five years of implementation of the 100 Smart Cities Mission, what are your thoughts about the programme?

The 100 Smart Cities Mission has been a strategic programme for integrated planning, design, and implementation of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs’ schemes. The mission is woven around six guiding principles: citizens at the core; more from less; cooperative and competitive federalism; convergence; technology as a means and not the goal; and inclusiveness. The mission is a new paradigm in urban programmes of India that understands that ‘cities are for people’ and India can manage urbanization well for cities to achieve their full potential by translating its people’s aspirations into three important fronts – livability, economic-ability and sustainability.

Smart Cities Mission is based on a multi-sectoral program approach where program implementation has been decentralized to States and City Governments. The mission has made significant progress with Rs. 172,382 crore worth of projects completed or under implementation as on 5 March, 2021.

There are some characteristics which make the Mission unique which aims to drive economic growth and improve quality of life and sustainability. Smart Cities engage with citizens actively right from ideation, project preparation, and implementation and monitoring. Cities compete to be selected as Smart City, ushering in the spirit of cooperative and competitive federalism. The area-based development approach looks at the development of compact areas as replicable models which will act as lighthouses to other areas and other aspiring cities. The Integrated Command and Control Centers being created in smart cities under the Mission act as the brain and nervous system of cities. The Mission has planned to extend these centers to all 100 cities.

Smart Cities Mission has brought about several path-breaking initiatives such as the recently launched National Urban Digital Mission (NUDM) conceived by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs and Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology. The NUDM aims to create a digital infrastructure for cities to solve urban problems at speed and scale. 

As a Think-Tank of the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, what prime challenges did you face while building the Smart cities in India? How have they been mitigated?

We overcame several—financial, administrative, legislative, and environmental—challenges while implementing the Smart Cities Mission. The devolution of finances to the urban local bodies of the elected local government began in India with the enactment of 74th Constitutional Amendment in 1992. However, over the years the actual devolution of key powers and resources, commonly referred to as the funds, functions, and functionaries, has been limited, leaving local municipalities with very little authority and financial resources to fulfill their duties.

Urban local bodies face challenges in the delivery of basic services which are difficult and time-consuming to resolve. Urban local bodies lack revenue sources and are mainly dependent upon transfer of funds from Central and State governments which often only partially fulfills their requirements for basic infrastructure in cities. There are overlaps in the jurisdictional, administrative, functional and operational mandates. The systems and procedures of urban governance in India are diverse and need strengthening to respond to the growing requirements of urbanization.  

The capacity of the urban planning agencies and personnel to implement a dynamic, data-driven planning is often limited. Interdepartmental coordination essential for converging various sectoral strategies towards common goals and outcomes, needs to be bolstered as well. In the area of environmental degradation, climate change and resilience, cities lack capacity and funding to implement of mitigation and adaptation plans. Stakeholders need to demonstrate greater will to prioritize climate actions, and not let short-term economic priorities supersede long-term environmental ones.

Cities also have a range of potential and existing opportunities which we tried to leverage to mitigate the challenges and provide a good start in building Smart Cities. We encourage the notion of seamless integration of all the departments and organizations leading to unified governance. Unified governance can encourage, facilitate, and govern urban local bodies efficiently. It can help urban local bodies by providing regular and periodic assessments and update of planning activities including finance, governance and management. 

Smart Cities Mission has initiated a process of transformation that supports cities to think beyond traditional land use planning. There are opportunities to look into national projects like industrial corridors, freight corridors, trans-regional links which can provide an excellent opportunity to create specialized clusters and linkages. It is vital to develop strategies to manage urban energy and water demand, which can improve mobility and air quality, improve green and blue infrastructure, and strengthen cities institutional capacities.  

At a time when in India most Smart Cities are competing to achieve Sustainability status over world-class amenities ensured, how according to you is sustainability secured in smart cities in our country?

Climate Change is the biggest threat to the sustainability of the planet. While, social, economic and ecological changes contribute to climate change, climate change also affects all three. To address this threat, NIUA has set up the Climate Center for Cities (C-CUBE) in June 2020 to act as a cutting-edge support institution for urban India’s climate response and is also managing the conduct of Climate Smart Cities Assessment Framework (CSCAF) as part of its mandate. It has spearheaded the formation of the Climate Smart Cities Alliance comprising international, national and city stakeholders to work in unison towards mainstreaming climate resilience actions.

Within the center, the Climate Smart Cities Assessment Framework is the first-of-its-kind public assessment framework for cities on climate relevant parameters. The framework serves as a tool for assessment, benchmarking and guides adoption of practices, and implementation of interventions to remedy problems as seen from the climate lens. This assessment is conducted annually in all smart cities, all capital cities of states and UTs, and all cities with a population of more than 500,000 people. The assessment framework addresses issues related to both climate change mitigation and adaptation and the cities can assess where they stand currently and plan actions that will improve their situation in the future.

Smart Cities are also promoting sustainable development through several other initiatives such as the Ease of Living Assessment Framework and the Municipal Performance Assessment Framework, the results of the latest edition which were announced yesterday (4 March 2021). The mission is to enable the cities to understand the aspects of improving livability and quality of life, and hence their sustainability.

In a recent initiative, NIUA joined hands with IIT Kharagpur to build accessible safe and inclusive Indian cities. Please elaborate further on this.

We have signed an MoU with IIT Kharagpur for collaboration on the project Building Accessible Safe and Inclusive Indian Cities (BASIIC). It is aimed towards developing a framework for universal city planning which would be more accessible and inclusive for various sections of the community with age-friendly disabled-friendly measures. The partnership will leverage institutional strengths in research and development, formulation of innovative urban solutions, knowledge management, training and capacity building. A key activity under the partnership is a thorough review of the Urban & Regional Development Plan Formulation and Implementation Guidelines, to compare and contrast the current guidelines against the emerging aspects like regional development, inclusive planning, sustainable habitat, land use, and transport integration at the planning stage, Service Level Benchmarks, disaster management concepts, and governance reforms. It is envisaged that such an effort will help formulate a robust framework that will be instrumental for sector-wise assessment of the existing cities in terms of safety, accessibility, and inclusivity as well as planning of Greenfield cities. The framework will include sections on (i) Infrastructure, amenities and services including water, electricity, sanitation, and solid waste (ii) Outdoor environment, (iii) Livelihood, (iv) Urban mobility and public transport, (v) IT connectivity, digitalization and citizen’s participation (vi) Tourism and recreation.

What are some of the crucial projects in pipeline for NIUA?

There is always a wide spectrum of projects under progress in NIUA covering diverse aspects of urban development. Some of the projects that we will start working on in very near future include:

a. National Urban Innovation Stack (Phase 2) – The National Urban Innovation Stack launched a framework on Digital Blueprint (Principles, Approach, Reference Architecture & Key Building Blocks) in January 2021. In phase 2, the NUIS will achieve its ambitious goal of implementing the framework of digital services in 4400 plus ULBs by 2024.

b. Participatory and Inclusive Water Sensitive Urban - The overall objective of the project is to build a case for water-sensitive development in Indian cities by leveraging on the Australian technical know-how on the principles of water-sensitive urban design.

c. Design for Sustainability Resilience – NIUA, in collaboration with Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) under the German International Climate Initiative (IKI) will start a regional program to develop integrated Climate Action strategies.

d. Livable Cities in India: Demonstrating Sustainable Urban Planning and Development through Integrated Approaches – NIUA will be the co-executing agency and house the Project Management Unit for the project. The project will be implemented in Pune, Surat and Chennai as Pilot Cities. 

e. Center of Excellence on Urban Analytics - The center aims to enable 4000+ Urban Local Bodies and other Government of India missions in the use of spatial data to promote evidence-based decision-making in planning, policy, and management of urban areas.

With the pandemic set in 2020, what visions Indian cities must-have for ensuring livability, sustainability for future cities?

The COVID-19 pandemic along with the India-China border conflict highlighted the urgency and significance of what I believe is the most important ingredient of the vision for Indian cities—SELF RELIANCE. After more than half a century of nurturing the idea, self-reliance is key to making Indian cities livable and sustainable. The Prime Minister of India lays focus on five pillars towards achieving self-reliance: economy, infrastructure, system, vibrant demography and demand. His call for Vocal for Local and vision of a five trillion-dollar economy has given the cities and local governments a tangible target to achieve as a matter of urgency. There is an increasing belief that our cities can and need to contribute immensely to the nation becoming self-reliant.

In order to achieve this the cities, need to focus on People, Processes, Physical frameworks, and Technology and Data. ‘People’ are essential for the functioning of a healthy society. The focus must be on inclusive and pro-poor growth. ‘Processes’ such as strategic planning, local economic development, and unified governance are essential to increase the well-being of citizens. ‘Physical Frameworks’ such as transport networks, housing, green cover, waste management systems are essential for the operation and management of the built environment with increasing urban growth. ‘Technology and Data’ are essential to transform human life in an unprecedented way. There is a growing awareness, indeed capacity in the use of emerging technologies, such as the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, remote sensing with space technology and drones, 5G robotics, blockchain, virtual and augmented reality, to create more livable, sustainable and efficient cities. The vision of self-reliance can only be achieved if cities are capacitated to work with technology to capture, manage and utilize data for decision making and planning. The integration of technology to understand and improve our urban environment, create jobs, deliver basic services, and address societal issues is significant in realizing a self-reliant India.

What new mandate must set in from the government for building future smart cities going forward? How may NIUA help the government in securing them?

I see a need to bring in data and technology-intensive projects, and mandates on Sustainable Development Goals. We need to focus on SDG 11 on making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient, and sustainable, and SDG 6 to ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all. The urban local bodies in India have not been fully capacitated in terms of emerging technologies and importance of Sustainable Development Goals. 

NIUA can empower the urban local bodies by guiding them on collecting accurate data and information, capacity building and training activities, and support to develop city-specific policy frameworks by virtue of the institute’s five instruments—Policy & Planning, Action Research & Advocacy, Knowledge Management & Capacity Building, Technology, Data Solution & Innovation, and Partnerships.