The Union Cabinet has given its assent to the 100 smart cities project and a new urban renewal mission. It is an important first step toward dealing with age old problem of urban livability. The problem of living in the cities has only got progressively worse over the years. There has been a steadily growth in the population of the cities. As of now, around one third population of India is living in urban areas, overcrowded cities and towns with infrastructure bursting at the seams. Although various efforts have been made earlier also to solve this persistent problem, there has been little gain. This problem will only worsen with little or no intervention happening. The proportion of the urban population can only go in one direction — upward — as more and more people are migrating to the cities and towns in search of jobs.

Why do people migrate?

Cities are engines of growth, and as a result attract a lot of people. Except agriculture, there are hardly any opportunities to make living in the rural India. In the lack of employment in the villages people are migrating from villages to cities at an unprecedented rate. The country’s urban population contributes over 60 per cent of India’s GDP; in 15 years this will be 70 per cent. On the other hand, there is little incentive for people to migrate out of cities. Earlier attempts at providing better urban infrastructure or at creating new townships have not been able to deal with the issue of livability satisfactorily. By 2050 India will need about 500 new cities to accommodate the influx.

What are smart cities?

With the change of the government at the center, there has been a lot of buzz about smart cities. In fact, the 100 smart cities initiative is the dream project of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Now the basic question is that what makes cities really smart?

smart cities images
smart cities images

A ‘smart city’ is an urban region that is highly advanced in terms of overall infrastructure, sustainable real estate, communications and market viability. It is a city where information technology is the principal infrastructure and the basis for providing essential services to residents. There are many technological platforms involved, including but not limited to automated sensor networks and data centers. Though this may sound futuristic, it is now likely to become a reality as the ‘smart cities’ movement unfolds in India.

In a smart city, economic development and activity is sustainable and rationally incremental by virtue of being based on success-oriented market drivers such as supply and demand. They benefit everybody, including citizens, businesses, the government and the environment.

Challenges in developing Smart Cities and Urban Planning

The concept of smart cities is not without challenges. As the cabinet approval marks the first of many steps that will be required for the project, the real challenges start now. Of course there is no doubt that this has created tremendous enthusiasm amongst many possible stakeholders, including service providers who have been part of smart city projects elsewhere in the world. Countries such as Japan, Singapore and Germany, among many others, have evinced interest to be a part of this. Yet, in its scale and complexity the project will be second to none.

Creating a smart city isn’t just about creating the physical infrastructure — roads, clean water, power, transport and so on, things India finds difficult to deliver to its citizens nearly seven decades after Independence. It is hoped that public private partnerships (PPP) will deliver but the mechanism seems to need a lot of tweaking in order for it to work, a fact acknowledged in the recent Budget. The big challenge will be to create self-sustaining cities, which create jobs, use resources wisely and also train people.

The success of such cities depends on residents, entrepreneurs and visitors becoming actively involved in energy saving and implementation of new technologies. There are many ways to make residential, commercial and public spaces sustainable by ways of technology, but a high percentage of the total energy use is still in the hands of end users and their behavior. Also, there is the time factor — such cities can potentially take anything between 20 and 30 years to build.

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