03 June 2020

Cover Story

Building Smart India


WITH human population bursting at the seams in the cities and spilling out across their urban satellites like piranhas in a feeding frenzy, there is a new found urgency in India’s portals of power. Managing India has never been a cakewalk, but smart politicians are prone to pronouncements which make grandiose schemes sound so easy. Towards the end of 2012 the UPA government in its infinite wisdom, announced the setting up of 70 Smart Cities across the country, two each in each state. While this was heralded by many as an intention to build a smarter version of India Inc, which the world celebrated before the global economic slowdown – and which many saw as a challenger to China – there have been cynics galore who would be wont to scoff at the lack of priorities and sheer economic waste.



Notwithstanding the naysayers the idea of the Smart City is here to stay.  The Congress led UPA government’s proposal to develop ‘smart’ cities with a host of modern features like intelligent transport and carbon neutral status in each of the states in the second phase of the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission ( JNNURM ), has been smartly voiced by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the main contender for the prime minister’s seat in the next government to be formed after the Parliamentary elections. Modi has upped the ante with a promise of more smart cities and bullet trains to link them.



Not much headway has been made though on the Smart City front since that early announcement. Since India’s megapolises groaning under the weight of lack of planning and sheer administrative neglect cannot become ground for smart experiments, it has been decided that medium sized cities - like say  a Jabalpur or a Ujjain - with  half a million to one million population will be developed as smart cities. The government has sought the help of the Austrian Institute of Technology for the purpose. While New Delhi’s version of ‘Smart Cities’ cannot be seen as mini challengers by any stretch of imagination to the South Korean Songdo – dubbed the Smartest City in the World, completely wired and also the most expensive at $35 billion – they hold the promise of features such as ‘broadband, intelligent transport to carbon neutral status.” The zillion dollar question crying for an answer is: Does India has the wherewithal to construct Smart Cities? Are we about to witness an urban technological sunrise as seen at Songdo CBD near Incheon on the Yellow Sea in South Korea? It is easy to get impressed by the Smart City dots – there are about 2000 ‘intelligent’ urban blips - that can be seen across much of the developed world. Masdar in the United Arab Emirates, King Abdullah Economic City in Saudi Arabia, Lusail in Qatar, the Planit Valley in Portugal, Nanjing Eco City in China come to mind…



India may just have early bird precedents of smart cities. Like with Lavasa for instance, which the Washington Post described thus: If India is going to climb up the economic ladder, expanding old cities, and creating new ones like this (Lavasa) is crucial”



Sanjay Dutt, Executive Managing Director, Cushman & Wakefield, South Asia feels that India may have enough precedents of urban smartness to create multiple smart cities in the future. “If you look at some of the hill projects like Amby Valley and Lavasa you could say they are early examples of Smart Cities. There are cities like Gurgaon near Delhi and Panvel outside Mumbai that hold great possibilities.”



Adds  Karuna Gopal, President, Foundation for Futuristic Cities, “If we strip off the surrealistic aspects that accompany the concept of a smart city we notice that it is nothing but a city which is efficient, livable and sustainable. Only that technology has made it all possible. All tier 2, tier 3 cities can be shaped into smart cities.”



Gopal’s confidence can only be admired. Setting up Smart Cities in India will test even the most hardened of international players in the smart cities space. These include EPC giants like Bechtel Corporation, Samsung Engineering, Mitsubishi, Hitachi; technology firms like Siemens, Smart Grid solutions providers like Schneider Electric, Alstom, Accenture, Landis + Gyr – not to mention telecommunication giants and  major Smart City players like CISCO and IBM.



Smart Cities are nevertheless a big opportunity both for the players in the smart city development space – there is a lot of interest in international companies to work with India’s Smart City Agenda – as also for the country looking to address its growing urban imbalance.



Alakesh Roy, Managing Director, Zamil Steel Buildings India Pvt Ltd, says, “Companies that can integrate their engineering and manufacturing capabilities can enter in to more construction segments as the market demands.   Steel buildings solutions would always be the economically smart solution for any faster development, especially when the construction timelines are too tight.It is the architect’s imagination how to make use of steel structures in to his projects." But assuredly despite the opportunities all will not be easy. Raising Smart Cities is hardly expected to be a cake walk. Elements like Smart grids and Smart meters, Smart Transportation, Smart design and architecture, not to mention energy efficient buildings and construction materials will require large scale funding. Also among the major challenges in the construction of Smart cities will be the availability of skilled labour and government regulations and clearances which will need to be sorted out. Corporate governance and transparency will be very important requirements for such cities. There is also the question of economics. A developer will see how much money can be made from a Smart City, says Arshdeep Sethi, Managing Director, RMZ Corp, a Bengaluru based real estate firm.



Rubi Arya,   Director &  Vice  Chairperson, Milestone Capital Advisors, feels that Smart Finance will evolve with time which could be targeted at Smart City developments. “There is a lot of patient capital that is waiting to be put by investors. I believe from a long term growth perspective there will be money available for these smart cities.”


That should  be great news for India's  Smart City hopefuls. Who knows Punjab's Sangrur could well be the next Smart Indian


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