Views of Kunal Kumar: “Cities need to leverage technology to make a bigger impact”

“Cities need to leverage technology to make a bigger impact”

The central government has introduced several programmes aimed at improving the quality of life of citizens. The launch of the Smart Cities Mission (SCM) is one such step to make cities more liveable and citizen friendly. Cities selected under the mission are expected to exhibit improvements in provisioning of basic infrastructure as well as service delivery. At a recent conference organised by India Infrastructure, Kunal Kumar, joint secretary and mission director, Smart Cities, Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs (MoHUA), shares his perspective on the progress of the mission, key building blocks, challenges in execution, and the next steps to ensure sound implementation on the ground. Excerpts…

Over the next decade, 600 million people will move to urban areas and by 2050, this number will increase even further. Given the projected extent of urbanisation, shaping cities into smart and sustainable ones is going to be the government’s priority.

Earlier, the term smart cities did not even exist in the country. Lack of access to basic amenities and inadequate civic infrastructure highlighted the need for creating next-level cities. After deliberations, the government decided the configuration of smart cities and launched the SCM. Under the mission, 100 cities have been selected with Shillong being the last one to be added to the list. The focus of the mission revolves around three pillars – ensuring good quality of life, a robust economy and a sustainable future. To meet the mission objectives, key issues faced by citizens with regard to safety, mobility and solid waste management (SWM), among others, have been identified and smart information and communications technology (ICT)-based solutions have been provided for.

Leveraging technology

In order to make a deeper impact, cities need to leverage technology. This implies that ICT-based solutions have to be embedded in practices such as traffic management and SWM to enhance outcomes and improve process efficiencies. Through integration, an interoperable system will be created that can be monitored through a centralised control centre. Further, the deployment of ICT-based solutions such as interactive online platforms and digital governance will help create connected communities and improve governance. Moreover, technology can be used to enhance social development through digital healthcare facilities. Several cities such as Bhopal, Ahmedabad and Nagpur have already adopted such solutions, thereby creating connected communities. However, the key point to note is that the technology has to be carefully used as it has its own drawbacks in terms of data security.

Meanwhile, there are concerns around budgetary allocations for ICT-based projects since they account for only 3 per cent of the overall mission budget of $30 billion. Though this indicates a fund shortfall, a comparison with global counterparts such as Shanghai and Amsterdam indicates that ratios are not divergent and sound project implementation is essential.


A good public transportation system is the backbone of any economy and the absence of a reliable system hampers quality of life. Therefore, the government is focused on creating solutions that will improve transportation systems in cities. For instance, NITI Aayog, in association with the Rocky Mountain Institute, has selected Pune for the development of an urban mobility lab. The lab will act as a platform for identifying, integrating, implementing and scaling innovative mobility solutions across Pune city. Eight solution providers have been identified to develop innovative mobility solutions through the lab. The proposed solutions will range from data analytics for public transport service providers to electric mobility services. The lab will also highlight the areas of opportunity in Pune’s mobility system, including traffic and parking management, non-motorised transport, public transport, and bookings and payment systems. The successful solutions will then be replicated across other Indian cities.

Other issues

Other challenges faced by cities relate to lack of efficient SWM systems, affordable housing, sustainable energy, erratic water supply, and poor safety and security. These need to be dealt with using innovative solutions to make cities connected, liveable, environmentally sustainable, adaptive and future-proof. Under the SCM, projects worth $30 billion (around Rs 2 trillion) have been identified for execution across cities, and of these projects, about 80 per cent address the aforementioned issues.

Key challenges and recommendations

The progress of projects under the mission has been sluggish since its launch in 2015. So far, projects worth Rs 100 billion have been completed. This translates into 5 per cent project completion in a span of three years. Further, bids for projects worth around Rs 840 billion have been invited and implementation of projects worth close to Rs 498 billion has started. With regard to public-private partnership (PPP), projects worth about Rs 60 billion have been completed which translates to progress of only about 16 per cent. Further, PPP projects worth another Rs 400 billion have been envisaged for execution. The slow pace of work is attributable to the long project planning process, which on average takes about 18 months. Conducting surveys, inviting requests for proposal, forming special purpose vehicles (SPVs) and preparing detailed project reports takes a lot of time as well.

Projects under area-based development and pan-city development are sometimes included under other ongoing programmes of the government such as the Atal Mission for Rural and Urban Transformation. As projects converge with other programmes, collaboration with different entities and agencies, urban local bodies (ULBs), and government departments (such as those of roads and railways) is required. Further, cooperation of citizens is also necessary for smooth project implementation. All this consumes a lot of time which can otherwise be devoted to project execution.

Most of the cities in the country lack even a basic water supply service and adequate sewer connections due to a backlog in the provision of facilities. These gaps have to first be bridged to meet the ambitious targets set under the SCM. Meanwhile, the benchmarks for initiating development works in cities are lacking. For instance, water supply charges are not defined by ULBs, which keep charging year-old prices. They lack a proper tariff policy and in such a situation, executing a water project is not sustainable. Also, framing of policies faces political challenges, which further impedes progress. Another major concern is asymmetrical information with regard to best available solutions. Cities are sometimes not even aware of the innovative solutions available in the market and therefore gaps persist in service levels. At the same time, industries are struggling to engage with SPVs to suggest solutions to bridge the gaps in urban service delivery.

Taking into account these factors, adequate measures must be taken. For instance, participatory governance has to be ensured through which ownership of the work is determined. Further, a co-creation relationship needs to be fostered wherein there is no customer and both the citizens and the government work towards making cities liveable. Investments in human resources to hire highly skilled smart city experts has to be made as they can provide ready solutions to implement projects on the ground. The creation of standards to measure performance would be a key enabler. Another solution is to create an online platform for industries and city representatives to disseminate information about the solutions available and the ones that have been the most successful. Similar measures are being taken by the government under which a national urban innovation hub and a urban data exchange platform are being developed to share best practices.

Next steps

To conclude, unfettered development cannot be sustained in the future without proper planning. Therefore, a dynamic equilibrium has to be attained wherein decisions are taken considering the other factors in the ecosystem. The SCM follows a similar path as only those decisions are taken which are in line with what the citizens want. At present, cities such as Surat, Vijayawada, Bhopal and Ahmedabad are at the forefront in terms of successful execution of smart city projects taking into account the future impact. With this, these cities have not only been transformed into connected, liveable, environmentally sustainable ones but have become adaptive cities which are future ready against any economic or communal shock. By 2020, several other cities are expected to follow suit by effectively overcoming the challenges of project execution.