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India's ambitious smart cities push suffers from slow pace

An initiative by India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi to develop 100 smart cities within five years has failed to take off with the speed needed as analysis showed that the majority of projects are yet to be completed in any of the 100 planned smart cities.

Multiple problems have affected the mission’s progress, according to Rumi Aijaz, a senior fellow at the Observer Research Foundation for the conduct of the Urban Policy Research Initiative.

Narendra Modi had launched the Smart City Mission on June 25, 2015, in a bid to energize the country’s push towards digitization. The primary objective of the project was to develop 100 smart cities within five years to drive economic growth and improve quality of life.

By enabling local area development and harnessing technology, especially technology that leads to smart outcomes and solutions, like 24-hour electricity supply, clean drinking water, better public transportation, mobile technology like GPS, the project seeks to address urban problems.

Speaking to Anadolu Agency on the occasion of World Urbanism Day on Monday, Aijaz said the initiative may face obstacles due to the “backlog” widespread across many urban centers in the country.

“Indian cities are quite different from cities that are advanced and developed. There’s a lot of backlog that remains to be done and unless certain basic things are taken care of, progress of the mission will be slow,” said Aijaz, adding that this was one of the reasons for the mission’s slow progress.

Aijaz said that Indian cities exhibited a low level of development in comparison to other urban centers across the world and that progress in this field would help streamline the project’s implementation.

Half of the project’s financing was to be provided by the federal government, while the other half would be funded by state administrations and local bodies.

“This makes it important for local bodies to explore alternative sources of funding and exploring and entering into partnerships with the private sector. The government might have funds at its disposal but it might not be prioritizing the work needed under the mission,” said Aijaz.

According to him, finance remains the second-most important factor in the delay in the mission’s progress.

“Third and related is the establishment of public-private partnerships because if one thinks about what a smart city mission is, it involves a lot of use of technology,” said Aijaz, adding that if funds do not come from the government, then the private sector must also be involved in order to benefit many more people.

Aijaz added that despite these points, the mission is not a failure but should be implemented under a long-term program to understand where Indian cities stand in the world.

“It’s a mission. It’s good work and it will benefit a large section of the societies living in the 100 cities,” he added.

Recent government data has revealed that under the smart city mission, tenders have been issued for 6,418 projects, out of which 5,796 projects are at the work order stage.

According to the Centre for Financial Accountability (CFA), an independent platform aiming to strengthen and improve financial accountability in India, 42% of the projects in 33 cities are unfinished and are slated for completion in the next five years.

Though the mission has often been criticized for being too ambitious, many of its projects would only benefit a small percentage of the population of the city in question. Many studies show that most of the cities have sent plans that are beyond their own financial and human resources capacity, according to the CFA.

According to the Delhi-based Centre for Policy Research think tank, many of the smart city projects promote disparities, as several cities chose already well-serviced pockets for development under the initiative.

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