Are the urban centres selected by the Union government to be upgraded into “smart cities” actually becoming smarter? How does the government define a smart city under its much-publicised Smart City Mission? This may never be known. An exercise to set clear benchmarks to assess when exactly a city is delivering a high enough quality of life to its inhabitants to be declared a smart city was shut down by the urban development ministry late last year.

The initiative had been started by the Bureau of Indian Standards in 2015. Though its work was in the final stage, bureau was asked to halt its work to set up benchmark standards for smart cities. Instead, the urban development ministry has now devised a “Liveability Index”, which will enable a city to carry the “smart city” label merely because it has been selected by the government for the mission. The index will assess the cities only on relative improvements over time in delivering services to residents and not in absolute terms. The index will merely rank the cities already earmarked as “smart” by the government.

To piece together how and why the government aborted the attempt to define smart cities, reviewed the draft standards the Bureau of Indian Standards had prepared and other documents from the bureau and the urban development ministry.

The ministry did not respond to detailed queries sent by

Smart City Mission

Establishing smart cities was one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first flagship initiatives after coming to power. Launched in 2015, the Smart City Mission aims to develop 109 cities that will “provide core infrastructure, a decent quality of life to its citizens, clean and sustainable environment and application of Smart Solutions”.

Initially, only broad principles were set out about the mission and the idea of smart cities. No definition or hard criteria were laid down.

Cities bid to be selected for the plan. Municipalities were encouraged to hire consultants to prepare their bids. Candidates were expected to submit a plan listing the array of activities and ideas they would implement. After several rounds of screening, 90 cities were chosen. These cities then appointed empanelled consultants to carry out a portfolio of projects that would turn them smart cities.

Under the scheme, the Union government will pay the selected cities Rs 100 crore every year for five years. The state government in which the city is located will match that amount. Cities are expected to generate the rest of the funds from the market through bonds or public-private partnerships. Their municipalities are required to set up private companies known as “special purpose vehicles” to manage the project.

Setting the standards

After the government announced the Smart City Mission, the Bureau of Indian Standards, an independent body under the department of consumer affairs, decided to create standards to define what services and infrastructure a city should provide to be called a smart city in the Indian context. The bureau, which is in charge of defining national standards for goods and processes, noted that the idea of smart cities varied from country to country. In 2015, it formed a committee under former urban development secretary Sudhir Krishna to establish national standards for smart cities.

The committee comprised nine multidisciplinary working groups, which, after a year of deliberations until September 2016, came up with 46 core and 47 supportive indicators to assess city services and quality of life across sectors.

These included indicators on economics, education, energy, environment, health, governance, transport, shelter and safety. Other indicators related to particulate matter pollution, renewable energy consumption, the unemployment rate, the ratio of police personnel to population, and the infant mortality rate. The draft prescribed methodologies to measure data on each of the indicators. “Sustainability as a general principle” was at the heart of the standards, the committee said.

The standards were expected to raise the bar for Indian cities to be described as “smart” since many of these measurable indicators were not part of the existing assessment process.

Ministry not interested

But the idea of having strict criteria for smart cities did not find takers at the urban development ministry, which oversees the Smart City Mission.

In fact, it should have been evident from the beginning that the government was not keen on defining clear, sharp qualifications. In its initial guidelines for the Smart City Mission, the ministry had stated, “There is no universally accepted definition of a smart city. It means different things to different people…Even in India, there is no one way of defining a smart city.”

Records shows the ministry was wary of the bureau’s proposed standards from the outset. “Are we ready to fix standards for smart cities even before a single one has [been] set up?” the urban development secretary wrote in an internal file noting on the bureau’s request to the ministry to participate in consultations on the standards in July 2015.

Justifying the absence of strict standards, another official in the urban development ministry wrote in March 2016:

“The smart city mission is one-of-its-kind and does not start with a definition of a Smart City or sets a-priori Standards for Smart Cities to achieve. In fact, the Mission document only sets some definitional boundaries within which the competing cities have to develop their Smart City proposals. The Smart City Components, Indicators, Data sources etc. will have to be culled out from the smart City proposals of at least 50 Smart cities. As such the ministry is of the view that preparation of any standards…in BIS is premature.”

It seems the ministry wanted to put the cart before the horse. It wanted to see what projects and ideas urban bodies would propose in their bids and then tailor-make the standards to suit those projects.

“This is illogical,” said a senior official involved in the drafting of the standards at the bureau. “You set the standards for the output first and then design the products and the processes to ensure a certain quality of output. You don’t design the product first and then decide the standards based on what you have.”

The ministry refused to endorse the standards or participate in the bureau’s meetings. Instead, it wrote to the consumer affairs ministry, under which the bureau operates, asking it to “defer” the formulation of standards. Despite this, the bureau went ahead and published the draft standards for public comments in September 2016.

The urban development ministry reflected on these developments in November 2016 file noting:

“Only a broad framework is given to cities in which they have to conceptualise their idea of of a Smart City and plan their pathway to ‘Smartness’. The broad framework can be called a ‘light touch, loose fit’ approach and is different from the cookie-cutter model followed largely in other programmes. As part of the light touch approach, only a guiding framework is given to the cities to prepare their ‘Smart City Proposal’ for competition. As a result following the approach, all standards for Indian Smart Cities will have to be called out from the Smart City Proposals of Smart Cities.”

The ministry raised the stakes. The same file noting shows that its senior officials decided to take up “the matter strongly with PMO [Prime Minister’s Office]…to keep in abeyance the process of specifications of standards of Smart Cities”. The officials said:

“The BIS [Bureau of Indian Standards] is following a conventional process largely relying on only one set of Smart City standards developed overseas leading to a very narrow way of looking at a Smart City. The diversity and plurality found in Indian cities will be completely missed out.”

The bureau, however, said its standards were derived from International Organisation for Standardisation benchmarks on “Sustainable Development of Communities: Indicators for City Services and Quality of Life” and were “modulated” by the standards notified by various Indian agencies. The International Organisation for Standardisation is an independent, non-governmental international organisation with 163 national standards bodies as members. The bureau’s draft also prescribed that while adopting its standards, aspirations of the cities – “for instance, if the city chooses to remain a heritage city, a tourism city, a business city, or an industrial city” – should be retained and nurtured.

The ministry won the argument. The bureau was asked to prematurely shut down its exercise. The draft standards, which had been opened to public comments, were pulled off from the agency’s website and the expert committee wound up.

Promoting chosen projects

In reaction to what may be seen as a turf battle between the ministry and the bureau, the ministry decided it would draft its own standards. In November 2016, it released the draft for public comments, and asked the states to give their views on it. The standards were released in June 2017. Only, there were no actual standards to define a smart city. Instead, the ministry had devised the complex Liveability Index to rate and rank cities. The introduction to the index read:

“The Ministry of Urban Development has developed a set of ‘Liveability Standards in Cities’ to generate a Liveability Index and rate cities. The source of the Liveability Standards are the 24 features contained in the Smart City Proposals, which have been grouped into 15 categories. These categories are part of the four pillars of comprehensive development of cities.”

The index is designed to simultaneously promote projects, events and technologies the government has already approved under various Smart City Plans and not just measure outcomes of these projects, technologies and efforts.

The bureau’s standards, by contrast, relied purely on assessing the end result of the mission, and its various projects and components. These standards were agnostic to how the targets were achieved, what technologies were used or projects implemented.

For example, when the bureau intended to measure if the city had become safer, it asked for data on the number of police personnel, number of homicides, rate of crime against women, response time of the police to crime scenes, and rate of violent crimes.

In contrast, the urban development ministry’s index asks whether the city has put up surveillance cameras all over. Most cities have already committed to installing surveillance cameras. There is little research in India to suggest installing cameras makes a city safer. Yet, the index will only encourage cities to put cameras to rank better.

There are other ways in which the ministry’s index will provide a more rosy picture than the metrics the bureau wanted to use. For example, when assessing air pollution, the ministry does not even ask for data on the most harmful pollutant – particulate matter. On water quality, it only wants to know the percentage of samples that tested safe; the actual quality of water is not considered.

Read without the fine print, the Liveability Index would only provide a plain rating of cities, say on a scale of one to 100, and nothing more. Users would have to pore over records, which may not be available publicly, to know what the index really measured and how. In contrast, the bureau had suggested an open data platform, where information on all the parameters is released for the public to freely review, assess and comment.