Key Infrastructure Challenges for India’s Smart Cities

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The best way to assess the growth of a city is to pursue a holistic approach that evaluates multiple factors, including its urbanisation level, social fabric, environmental health, and economic growth including the scope and breadth of its community welfare efforts. So naturally, future growth opportunities depend on the ability of decision-makers to optimally harness all these elements.

Smart Cities in India are being developed by the Smart Cities Mission under the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, Government of India. As there is no universal definition of a “Smart City”, each city and country comes up with their own definition, meaning and goals. However, what is universally accepted is that a Smart City is a holistic ecosystem of various communities.

India’s Smart Cities and the City Challenge

India has identified 100 cities that have the potential to be transformed into Smart cities, under the umbrella of a contest called “City Challenge”. Each contesting city submits its proposal – called a “Smart City Proposal” – in a Ministry-approved format. The two focus areas of this effort are Area Based Development and Pan City. A huge Internet of Things (IoT) network is to be developed under Pan City, while Area Based Development is to be done with infrastructure solutions.

The guidelines for all sub-sectors in Smart City, such as pedestrian facilities, solar rooftop panelling, public spaces, urban smart street design, intelligent and multimodal transportation system etc., have been formulated in the Smart City proposal, and the City Challenge is the reference document for all cities. Among the factors mentioned above, transport infrastructure system is one of the most critical components that drives the development of a city, especially in urban areas. Appropriate techniques of transport define the quality of life in a Smart City. With the help of Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), consumers can access a smarter, safer, and faster way of travel that can have a huge impact on their professional and personal lives.

Every city will be assigned a rank which could affect its final selection and eventual win in the City Challenge. States have suggested the parameters and respective weightage that will drive the ranking effort. These parameters include:

  • Self-financing ability (25% weightage)
  • Institutional systems and capacities (25%)
  • Existing service levels and committed plan of action for three years (25%)
  • Past track record in implementing reforms (15%)
  • Quality of vision document (10%)

The states have also suggested two sets of reforms separately for small and metropolitan cities, land monetization, increased FAR norms with transparent policies, quick progress towards e-governance, and online service delivery. Integrated GIS-based Master Plans for sanitation, mobility, land use, digital connectivity, disaster risk management and climate change, policy reforms, fixed tenures for mayors and municipal officials etc., have been proposed as potentially effective pathways to fast-track progress.

Running a Smart City project like a Business

A Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) has been formed for every future Smart City, with the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of a city appointed the Chairman, and all the representatives of the nodal departments appointed as members. The SPV meets regularly to discuss, and to record and sort out all contentious issues.

Every Smart City has also appointed a consulting firm, which includes multiple sector experts. The firm reports to the CEO and SPV and has both a consultative and an advisory role. One of its key responsibilities is to form e-procurement guidelines for executing agencies such as contractors, suppliers etc.

Components of Area Based Development

The strategic components of Area Based Development in the Smart Cities Mission are:

  • City improvement (retrofitting)
  • City renewal (redevelopment)
  • City extension (greenfield development)

In addition, a pan-city initiative (of Smart Solutions based on Internet of Things and ICT) covering larger parts of the city is also proposed.

These components, and their direct and indirect benefits to the local community, floating population and city life will form the basis of the Smart City learning questionnaires that Urban Living Lab will share. The questionnaire will have a common set of parameters for all cities, and a second list shall be as focusing on being city specific.

Key Infrastructure Solution Roadblocks to Smart Cities

Despite great plans and a wonderful vision, there are plenty of roadblocks to realising the dream of Smart Cities in India. These can be summarised as below:

i. The utilisation and disbursement of funds

These will be given in equal proportion by the Government of India to the state, and by the State Government to the city. The delay in releasing the State Government‘s share of funds is a contentious issue, and a direct result of the federal structure of the Indian Democracy. This leads to project delays and non-utilisation of funds, which ultimately results in a failure to meet the physical and financial targets of the Smart City project.

ii. SPVs “dilute” Smartness

The major drawback of an SPVs is that there is neither a representative of the city consulting firm, nor a representative of the mission monitoring firm. The lack of IoT and ICT experts is another major hindrance for decision-making. Often, decisions are outsourced, that too to those institutions and firms who are not part of the framework, and therefore not in the best position to take good decisions.

iii. Poor procurement practices

The methods for procurement and bid invitation are done on the basis of an e-procurement model. However, the QCBS model or Engineering and Procurement model does not strictly adhere to the Central Vigilance Commission’s guidelines or global best practices. The General Condition of Contract are also not as per FIDIC (International Federation of Consulting Engineers) guidelines, Golden and other standard books.

iv. Selection criteria

Processes related to awarding contracts, monitoring progress, and ranking cities are done on a regular basis, and qualitative norms and parameters are being followed. However, any deviation of projects from Smart City Proposal nullifies the City Challenge criteria of selection. The parameters for deviation should be included in the ranking procedure.

v. Feasibility of Area Based Development of Infrastructure Policy

The Area Based Development of a Smart City is usually the most congested and highest in terms of population density. Area Based Development of Infrastructure Policy may be not the most feasible method of exposing the smart level of a city. Moreover, infrastructure development should be city-specific.

vi. Procurement challenges

The practice of awarding a fewer number of contracts is a good method to follow, so that small contracting firms are exposed and their capacity is built up. However, this may result in compromises with regards to best practices. Large firms may not participate in the procurement method, lowering competitiveness and output quality.

vii. Specifications and sub-standard work

The specifications of infrastructure solutions are being followed in line with what is available with the various concerned departments. The updated and latest specifications to be followed are not those as of the municipal standards, which often results in substandard work.

viii. Construction procedures not followed

The general practice of following a specific construction procedure is not being followed. A handbook of each sector should be developed for overseeing the construction phase.

ix. Confusing revenue models

The revenue model for the Urban Local Body (ULB) should be based on Financial Internal Rate of Return (FIRR), and not on CAPEX (Capital Expenditures) and OPEX (Operating Expenses). FIRR is an international practice and gives a clearer idea of when will the project start to yield revenue, as many benefits are not quantified but are indirect in terms of social and community impact.

x. Assessment of knowledge and capacity building

Smart cities should be clubbed as sister cities in related and relevant international forums so that knowledge and capacity building is assessed.

xi. Lack of international standards in Command Control Centres

Centralised Integrated Command and Control Centres are situated in PAN-city areas. However, international standards in these centres is lacking, particularly in terms of the building being carbon- neutral and green-specified.

xii. Third-party verifications

The reliance on nearby technical educational institutes for third-party verification is a conflict and hindrance in terms of knowledge and best practice. The Smart City Mission should empanel educational institutes basis their competence so that SPV can refer to such shortlisted third party verifiers.

xiii. Possible impact of liveability index

The ease of living in the Smart City is being accessed, and a liveability index is being developed. However, the parameters are still to be accessed for their full impact.

xiv. ULB governance

The governance of the ULB should be a sector under capacity building.

xv. Municipal Performance Index and deviation from the SCP

The Municipal Performance Index helps track project implementation and execution. It is monitored in a e-Tool format by the Ministry. The scoring of the top ten cities is based on this index. The deviation from the SCP has not been followed as rigorously.

xvi. Sub-optimal use of ICT and IoT

Information and Communication Technology and Internet of Things should be better utilised in the form of mobile applications, and in Intelligent Transportation systems, e-Toilets, and city-based payment cards (e.g. for public transport).

xvii. Lack of a proper grievance redressal mechanism

A grievance redressal mechanism for a Smart City should be given top priority. Smart city websites should have chat boxes for general queries, and the city itself should have a mapping application where heritage buildings, emergency service centres, and other important public spots are clearly marked.

xviii. Lack of other ranking parameters

Some additional parameters for ranking smart cities are recommended, but they are currently missing.

The Eden Strategy Institute and OXD (ONG&ONG Experience Design) have come up with the top 50 smart cities of 2018-19. This is a one-of-its-kind independent ranking conducted for the first time that takes into consideration the roles that city governments play in leading a Smart City strategy.

The outcome of research studies of 140 Smart Cities across 10 parameters have brought out and ranked the top 50 Smart Cities in the world. These parameters include: clarity of vision, leadership, budget, provision of financial incentives, support programmes, talent-readiness, people-driven approach, development of an innovative ecosystem, implementation of Smart City policies, and track record of past initiatives and projects. These additional parameters should be included for ranking existing Smart Cities.

xix. Information flows

Multidirectional information flows are essential for Smart City development. Moreover, all data, from demographics to details of public usage, must have a management system and cyber security oversight.

Some points in this article need elaboration, but we have deliberately left them as-is to encourage readers to think about them further. Smart Cities is a highly relevant topic today, and with this article, we want to challenge the best minds and encourage them to engage with us with their observations and comments. Thank you! 

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