Not 100 smart cities: India will need half a million smart towns

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The rollout of 5G technology has helped Indian economy weather global headwinds, heralding a new era of growth, says RBI's State of the Economy report.

By NK Mathur

Smart cities: The idea of smart and sustainable cities was born in the early part of the current century. The concept seeks to provide answers to various challenges faced by different cities, combining new technologies with humanist ideals. Some of the critical challenges include water security, sanitation, urban violence, inequality, discrimination, pollution, and unemployment. Through innovative urban systems, smart cities would promote socio-economic development while enhancing the quality of life.

Several countries are creating smart cities, many akin to tier-1 cities of India. The Indian government has spelt out a hundred tier 1 and tier 2 cities – almost all with a population of one lakh or more. It is time to look at semi-urban and rural areas of our country which constitute almost 75% of the geographical area and to consider if they too can be smartened up. They deserve better attention than what has been bestowed on them so far. After all, there is no reason why residents of only 100 odd cities should receive facilities that are being extended to just about 30% of the country’s population.

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Let us look at what all this involves. International Telecommunication Union, a United Nations arm dealing primarily with this matter, expresses thus: A smart sustainable city is an innovative city that uses information communication technologies and other means to enhance quality of life and improve competitiveness. Such centres will ensure that they meet the needs of present and future generations. In India, this subject falls in the concurrent list of the Constitution and therefore should be considered from that angle too.

Smart cities: The fundamental concept

The habitations that could be brought up to such standards may be taken as district headquarters which do not already fall in the list of identified smart cities, plus zilla parishad (or equivalent) villages. This would total to nearly half a million, taking note of the fact that India has over 6.64 lakh villages. Here, it would be better to term these half a million (5 lakh) habitations as towns instead of the various nomenclatures presently in use. If we put a timeline of two years which is usually the citizen patience level to reap benefits of such initiatives. Adopting the international definition, the smart town project would comprise seven or eight main components, the first being clean and pollution free air.

For connectivity, state highways and roadways are already under construction. This process can be expedited to fall within the timeline of two years with contributions from businessmen or philanthropists. Such contribution may be construed as a small part of a government/ PPP project and may be termed as a micro component of a large project. Since this would not have to go through the formality of a regular PPP requirement, it may be termed an “mPPP” scheme.

Agriculture is already being supported by several government schemes that offer subsidies on fertiliser, seed, soil testing, crop insurance, water, telecommunication and electricity. Electricity has reached all these areas. In respect of water for agri-needs, better emphasis on mini and micro dams may prove highly beneficial and need almost negligible cost. In respect of telecom and electricity, solar power and nano telecom technology can provide independence from grid outages or grid connectivity over hostile terrain at minimal expense. Artificial Intelligence will help in several of the agri-related areas including afforestation, even in challenging terrain where drones can be used for seeding and other jobs.

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Industry can easily be established (or relocated from large cities) in such urban areas. Land, other infrastructure, and labour would be easily available, assisted to a large extent by telecom and road connectivity. Employment generation and sustainability are taken care to considerable extent through schemes such as MNREGA, recently announced Aatmanirbhar Bharat Rozgar Yojana (ABRY) and schemes of various states. Employment benefits are adjuvant to these schemes. Besides capital costs the operational costs shall also be considerably low. CSR funds can also be deployed in these areas in several sustainable and resilient fields like education, health, sanitation, power, building and construction.

Education sector shall be greatly facilitated with the availability of smart facilities within hailing distance. Students can participate, online in the times of COVID-19 pandemic, in courses anywhere in India and even abroad while remaining in their own town. Some classes / lab work at regular intervals can be held at nodal education centres for face-to-face classes and other such needs.

Wireless connectivity shall undergo further enhancement in view of government’s recent announcement of nationwide Wi-Fi. This would also be a boon for the teaching community. Today many schools and colleges are without teachers. These teachers hesitate to go to the institutions. No doubt, health and banking needs are now taken care of through Jan-Dhan, Ayush, Swachh Bharat, and improved sanitation, waste management and related schemes.

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In the medical field, telemedicine and remote diagnostics (e-doctor) have reduced time and distance problems. Besides road connectivity, let us also look at the role telecom sector has been playing, especially the wireless mobile facilities. Telecom and AI would assist rural inhabitants to be in touch with the rest of the country and the world with mobile connectivity reaching nearly all villages in India. Tele-connectivity is being further enhanced through the recently announced PM-WANI.

The Union and state government have already floated several schemes. These just need to be expedited to be completed within two years by utilising the micro-PPP route proposed earlier in this Note. Thus, through minimal investment and public partnership, India can flourish with half a million smart towns. Taking a holistic view, such effort will bring in economic benefits to the Nation. There shall be no need for people to migrate to already crowded cities. Areas would not have to contend with ghost villages and small habitations.

As a matter of fact, many city-dwellers would like to live in places with clean air and without crowds – a distinct health benefit to the nation. Moreover, small and medium industries, hospitals, educational institutions with easy access to living facilities would find cost-effective abode outside the so-called smart cities. Not to forget the fact that the cost of living shall be much less – thereby leaving more disposable income that can be gainfully employed towards children’s education and improving quality of life. This mission could be achieved at minimal cost to the exchequer. India shall thus be a nation that provides leadership to other countries, while reaping the adjuvant benefits of the scheme.

(NK Mathur is a former Civil Servant. The views expressed in this article are personal.)