Now, a competition to choose 100 smart cities

After celebrity nominations akin to the famous ALS ice-bucket challenge for its Swachh Bharat campaign, and a nationwide contest for an e-governance mobile app for the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), the government is going to choose 100 urban centres for its ‘smart city’ project through a competition.

State governments, according to a source, will participate in a ‘city challenge’. That means states will compete among themselves to have their cities among the 100 to be developed as smart cities. The smart city project, announced in July last year, is being coordinated by the Union urban development ministry. According to an official in the know, after states have nominated their cities, a Central expert panel will make the final selection on the basis of certain criteria, such as the cities’ size, population, infrastructure level and upgrade potential. The first round of selection, perhaps of 20 cities, will be completed by the end of this year, it is learnt. The remaining 80 will be subsequently selected in phases.

Though many countries have expressed interest in the project and entered into partnership pacts, agreements are to be signed only after selection of the cities to be developed. Government officials, however, indicate some target smart cities like Ajmer, Allahabad, Visakhapatnam and Varanasi are expected to make the final list.

The smart city project’s take-off has been slow – even the concept note is still in the draft stage – but the international attention it has received so far has been significant. The US, Japan, China, Germany, Spain, France, the Netherlands and Singapore have already expressed interest in the project. While these countries are to bring technical knowhow and expertise to the table, the project’s financial model and types of smart cities are still in the works.

At a recent conference showcasing Amsterdam’s experience in smart cities, Karuna Gopal, president of the Foundation for Futuristic Cities (FFC), said the government was currently working on the concession agreements and standards for the project. FFC is a knowledge partner for the project. A government official confirmed the public-private partnership (PPP) structure, earlier recommended for smart cities, was now being tweaked to make funding more flexible.

The annual project cost, initially estimated at Rs 35,000 crore, is also being reworked. The annual Budget for 2014-15 had allocated Rs 7,016 crore for the project but only Rs 924 crore has been spent so far. The allocation for 2015-16 has been brought down to Rs 143 crore. The new funding format is believed to have a higher share of states and industry in the smart city project’s overall investment.

Also, the nature of the project will determine the cost. For instance, a greenfield (new) project will be much more expensive than a city that needs redevelopment or retrofitting. A large part of the 100 smart city project will be on the retrofitting model, an official says. But there will be some greenfield ventures as well.

Jayesh Ranjan, commissioner of industries, Telangana, had recently told Business Standard that chances of smart cities being inclusive were greater they were under brownfield projects (redevelopment of existing cities). But experts point out that retrofitting projects are time-consuming and problematic. The project format is being visualised in the midst of a debate on whether smart cities should be elitist or inclusive.

There also is a proposal to link many signature projects like smart cities, Swachh Bharat and Digital India. Smart cities are broadly defined as urban spaces that are technologically integrated, well-planned and environment-friendly.