Imagine clean air all year round in currently pollution-racked New Delhi, with sensors monitoring its air quality 24x7. Think of parched Chennai receiving 24x7 water supply through a smart metering system that conserves water. Or Bengaluru’s traffic chaos disciplined via digital devices.

These scenarios sound almost impossible in India’s metros that have been struggling for years with urban issues such as pollution, water shortage, traffic congestion and waste management crisis. However, had the government plan for smart cities mooted in 2016 been anywhere close to meeting its first deadline, these could have been a reality today. A smart city, as per the government, is one that is “liveable”, “sustainable” and “thriving” with opportunities for people to pursue diverse interests.

India’s Smart Cities Mission identified 100 cities, covering 21% of India’s urban population, for a makeover in four rounds starting January 2016 (see table below). Each smart city is expected to complete its projects within five years from the date of selection. These projects are meant to improve core infrastructure and services to make cities more liveable, economically vibrant and environmentally sustainable.

However, 49% of 5,196 projects for which work orders were issued across 100 smart cities in India remain unfinished, as per government data. Among 33 cities that completed their five-year duration this year, 42% of projects are incomplete, our analysis shows.

Why is the mission lagging? Institutional and structural issues with the special purpose vehicles –public-private partnerships supposed to implement the mission – funding roadblocks, understaffed and unskilled manpower, and the lack of citizen participation are some intrinsic flaws, urban planners and analysts told IndiaSpend. They also criticised the mission for not incorporating “sustainable” and “inclusive” factors into its development plans, as we explain later.

In 2019, around 470 million people lived in Indian cities, about a third of the country’s total population. India’s urban population is expected to rise to 38.6% by 2026. Rapid urbanisation will then pose even bigger challenges related to waste management, air pollution, traffic congestion, scarce resources and more. Smart cities were envisioned to be a solution to these concerns.

‘Overambitious plans’

The mission has often been criticised for being too ambitious. “Many studies show that the majority of the cities have actually sent proposals that are beyond their own capacity – [in terms of] both finance and human resources,” said Gaurav Dwivedi, associate director at the Centre for Financial Accountability, an organisation that monitors finance to bring in transparency and accountability in development projects.

“The budget allocated from the central and state government for each city for five years is around Rs 1,000 crore [approximately Rs 196 crore annually]. On the other hand, proposals have been planned and designed by the city-level municipal corporation,” Dwivedi explained. “For example, a second-tier city with a government grant of around Rs 1,000 crore has sent a proposal of Rs 2,500- Rs 3,000 crore. The Rs 1,000 crore is like seed funding given by the government, and then based on this seed funding, the special purpose vehicle and municipal corporation have to raise more funds to implement the smart city projects.”

These funds, he explained, can come from various sources – raising taxes on entertainment, water and sanitation/solid waste management, increasing parking charges and advertising fees, and from loans from banks or international institutions like the World Bank.

On average, the Centre is supposed to release Rs 100 crore annually to every smart city. However, this is subject to the submission of a “City Score Card” that will be used to analyse the city’s financial and physical progress, milestones crossed and the functioning of its special purpose vehicles, as per the mission guidelines.

Special purpose vehicles were created as public-private partnerships to implement the mission and operate as limited companies under the Companies Act, 2013, with the concerned State/UT and urban local body having a 50:50 equity shareholding. Their boards consist of nominees of Central and state governments as well as urban local bodies and the private companies or financial institutions who procure an equity stake in the special purpose vehicles.

Between the financial years 2015-’16 and 2020-’21, of the 33 cities selected in the first round (including fast-track), the Centre released no funds to two cities for four years, 13 cities for three years, 12 cities for two years and five cities for one year, showed government data.

The Centre and state governments had proposed to spend Rs 48,000 crore each over five years. By June 23, 2021, Rs 40,622 crore (42%) of the Rs 96,000 crore was released. Of this, Rs 27,862 crore (69%) was utilised, according to utilisation certificates submitted by the cities, our analysis shows.

Budget constraints

A 2018 study by the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think-tank, across 99 smart cities showed that about 70% of funds were sourced from public sources, some 25% from public-private partnerships initiatives and corporate social responsibility funds, 5% from loans and 1% from user charges.

Apart from the current global economic downturn, certain flaws in the mission’s model have made it difficult for the municipal corporation to raise and utilise funds, said Dwivedi. “Municipal Corporation-owned public assets are being transferred to the special purpose vehicles and then the special purpose vehicles are selling that property at market rates,” he said. “There are also profit margins involved and that might be creating distortion in the market. This appears to be taking prices to a substantially higher level.”

In interviews with 13 government officers and seven industrial professionals/consultants for a 2019 case study conducted by Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University on two smart cities, Kakinada in Andhra Pradesh and Kanpur in Uttar Pradesh, “budget constraints” and “designing financially infeasible projects” were the most frequent complaints.

The interviewees also highlighted “delay in payments” to contractors and “distrust among private players towards city agencies” in explaining why the Smart Cities Mission falls short of the envisaged private investment.

Similarly, smart city Indore faced a scarcity of funds as private companies refrained from investing in projects whose high revenue demands (recovery costs) were to be met by user charges – citizens had to pay for the high maintenance and operation costs but were unable to do so. Chennai and Ludhiana also faced issues of limited funding that hindered their progress, as per a 2018 report by Housing and Land Rights Network India, a charitable trust.

Administrative clutter remains

As we said earlier, special purpose vehicles have been created in every city in a purchasing power parity model to implement the mission. Operating as limited companies under the Companies Act, 2013, these bodies were meant to corporatise the process of setting up a smart city and cut through the political clutter, said Ranjit Gadgil, programme director at Parisar, a Pune-based NGO that works in the field of environment and education.

But studies found that instead of streamlining processes, special purpose vehicles ended up bypassing the democratic process. “Earlier when there were issues, the local representatives, cooperatives, counselors and other members of the Municipal Corporation would discuss and debate the issues in the municipal assembly. But with the powers shifting to the special purpose vehicles, no such mechanism exists,” said Dwivedi. “There is a double whammy – decision-making has been shifted to the special purpose vehicles but the financing is still on the shoulders of the municipal corporation.”

This goes against the 74th Amendment Act, 1992 that gives autonomy to local bodies and encourages decentralisation. Mumbai even opted out of the mission as it disagreed with the philosophy of special purpose vehicles on the grounds that it would weaken the powers of the Municipal Corporation.

This structure has also led to delays in project implementation through the private sector with projects getting stuck in the tendering stage where a project analysis has to be jointly done by the special purpose vehicles, the State Planning Board, and the state government, as per the Indore case study.

Furthermore, employees of the special purpose vehicles also work for the municipality and this creates friction between the private partners and government officials, said an industry professional interviewed for the Kakinada and Kanpur case study. For instance, Chennai special purpose vehicle comprises 11 officials from the Tamil Nadu government as board of directors, and of the five non-official members (including the CEO) only two are independent directors, as per the Housing and Land Rights Network report.

Pune smart city has not really done anything innovative that is not already being applied in the rest of the city, Gadgil said. “This is because, first, the smart city does not operate independently of the normal city, as a lot of city commissioners are also smart city CEOs in some cities,” he said. “Second, the smart city does not have as much control over the ground-level staff as it would have liked, they rely entirely on consultants who develop project ideas or produce reports and they do not have any of the city engineers, junior engineers and sanitation inspectors who can ultimately run the city.”

There were also complaints that officers in the special purpose vehicles were being transferred frequently or were holding multiple positions. “Let us say hypothetically, an urban development secretary or a commissioner is assigned to Ahmedabad municipal corporation, then tomorrow he might shift to the department of housing or finance,” said Mihir Bholey, senior faculty of interdisciplinary design studies at the National Institute of Design. “This breaks the continuity.”

Not enough planners

India is expected to fall short of 11 lakh urban planners by 2020, IndiaSpend reported in April 2018. “On the issue of shortage of town planners, the Committee feel that the 5,500, town planners who are working under the mission with urban local bodies are too less..,” said a March 2018 Parliamentary Standing Committee report.

The Kakinada and Kanpur case studies found the special purpose vehicles to be understaffed. Kochi saw a slow start in its initial stages due to the non-availability of project consultants among other reasons; Gwalior also saw a shortage of experts.

“There is no course on urban management as such, and municipal corporations do not have the dedicated skilled manpower who know the ins and outs of urban management,” said Bholey. “Therefore, we need to develop that skill pool of manpower who know how urban governance is used from the economic, financial, administrative and technological perspective.”

Of the 99 smart cities, 28 do not mention any steps towards the marginalised and low-income groups in their proposals. Photo credit: Danish Siddiqui/Reuters

Increasing disparities

Lutyens Delhi, an already developed area of the capital city, has been selected for the area-based development under the mission. Several other cities have chosen well-serviced pockets for development, which will increase urban disparities, said the Centre for Policy Research analysis.

“Under Pune’s area-based development, the Balewadi region where the mission is being implemented is a fairly well-developed region with not many slums and is not that deficient, to begin with,” said Gadgil. “And this has been the criticism for many smart cities.”

As we said earlier, the mission has limited benefits for India’s urban dwellers. Of the total cost (Rs 2.05 lakh crore or $27.6 billion) the Smart Cities Mission will incur, only about 20% will be dedicated to pan-city development and 80% to area-based development.

In many cases, only a small percentage of a city’s population will benefit from the mission. Under area-based urban development projects, only 0.8% of Pune’s population will benefit. Ahmedabad (1.5%), Bhopal (1.7%), Ludhiana (2.2%), Patna (2.3%), Aurangabad (2.4%) and Lucknow (2.5%) will also see small sections benefit, the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs told Rajya Sabha on July 27, 2017. Cities where a high percentage of population benefits include Port Blair (77%), Namchi (74%), Vellore and Pasighat (63%), Thane (57%) and Dharamshala (51%),

Furthermore, about 17,700 people were evicted from their homes due to the Smart Cities Mission in 2018 alone, according to Forced Evictions in India in 2018: An Unabating National Crisis, a report by NHLR. The report documented evictions in 34 of the 100 smart cities including Coimbatore, Nagpur, Bhopal and Varanasi.

There are no comprehensive data on whether all these people were rehabilitated. However, the report mentions that of the 218 known cases of eviction (which include Smart Cities Mission and other reasons), rehabilitation data are available for 173 cases, and only 53 sites from those were given resettlement/alternative housing. There was no monetary compensation provided in 98% of the forced eviction cases.

Also, 28 of 99 smart cities do not mention any steps towards the marginalised and low-income groups in their proposals, says the Housing and Land Rights Network 2018 report.

Digital divide

Smart city proposals lay emphasis on digital outreach and feedback through MyGov websites, Facebook, Twitter and applications, but India’s digital divide could further exclude the marginalised from the process. Only 40 of the top 60 cities had provided information on the exact number of people consulted through a non-digital medium, and only 24 mentioned inputs received – but mostly from limited public consultations – said the Centre for Policy Research analysis.

For instance, residents from 24 low-income settlements in New Delhi Municipal Council and five settlements in Bhubaneswar were not consulted about the proposals affecting them, as per a survey by Housing and Land Rights Network.

The Smart City Advisory Forum that is to be set up in every city allows NGOs and local youths to be members, but lacks any platform for civil society and local community representation, said the Housing and Land Rights Network report. This raises concerns about citizens’ issues not being heard in the project implementation.

The absence of a “smart citizen” in the equation further stifles the mission’s progress, experts say. For instance, in waste management, along with using smart technologies such as GPS tracking devices for city sweepers, the relationship between the waste collector and waste generator is fundamental.

“Smart cities are focused more on creating accomplished infrastructure such as large-scale plants but not on the relationship between the waste collector and generator,” said Suraj Nandakumar, co-founder of Recity Network Pvt Ltd, an urban development organisation. “This relationship needs to be mended to validate the costly infrastructure and bring in sustainability.”

Sustainability not prioritised

No city has prioritised smart environments over other dimensions, according to a policy analysis by Telematics and Informatics, an interdisciplinary journal. A break-down of the smart environment dimension showed that 17 smart cities have strategised to focus on cleanliness and clean energy. The second-most prioritised sub-dimensions in 16 cities are improvement in air quality and establishing sustainable infrastructure that includes solid-waste treatment, renewable sources of energy, public toilets and green cover.

While Bhubaneshwar and Kochi have an all-embracing focus on the environment, New Delhi and Kakinada only have a “marginal reference” to a smart environment.

“The absence of the smart environment dimension at the smart city policy-making level in India is concerning – considering the increasing rate of environmental issues around the world as climate changes unfold,” said the report.

The Smart Cities Mission guidelines mandate at least 10% of energy to come from solar energy. However, this is not enough considering India is the fourth largest carbon emitter in the world, said the Housing and Land Rights Network 2018 report.

Four Indian cities – Hyderabad, New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru – saw a drop in their positions in the Global Smart City Index 2020, wherein citizens from 109 cities were surveyed on technological provisions in five key sectors: health and safety, mobility, activities, opportunities and governance. Survey respondents cited air pollution as the most urgent issue out of the list of 15 indicators.

Almost 40% of the transportation projects focus on roads and parking lots and 20% on public transportation with only 2% of the transportation budget dedicated to buses, says the Centre for Policy Research report.

Way ahead

IndiaSpend collated some suggestions from experts and reports on how the mission can be administered more effectively:

  • Aim for a holistic and equitable approach across cities because problems of housing, services, water supply, health access and unemployment are ubiquitous across the country – HCLR Report 2018
  • Smart cities need to revisit their core idea of using smart technologies to stay one step ahead: How can applications and monitoring devices be used to extract the most from limited resources? They need to be innovative to ensure that citizens are at the centre of all decision-making, that there is feedback. – Ranjit Gadgil
  • Models of a city should be small, manageable, and self-sustaining. Small cities are better for creating good urban governance where people skilled in technology, management and finance come together. – Mihir Bholey
  • There is a need for a transparent platform where demand and supply interact. Complicated, big-ticket projects will not bring in collective benefits – special purpose vehicles have to be created on a smaller scale and more byte-sized projects should be launched to offer targeted solutions in a small time frame. – Suraj Nandakumar

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.