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Vol. XXVIII No. 9, August 16-31, 2018

Problems ahead of Smart City

(by A Special Correspondent)

Two years after it was launched, the Chennai Smart City Project has come alive. According to the AMCHAM-PwC Smart Cities Report, of the 44 projects in Chennai, as of December 2017, five were under implementation, 32 had not started and the rest were in pre-tender stages. There is no clear indication of the target completion dates for different projects either in the Report or in the illustrated project details extensively publicised in the newspapers. It is known, however, that the Smart City Project has a five-year time frame ending 2022.

The Smart City Project (SCP) has many interesting features – parks and waste water management systems, pedestrian plaza, cycle sharing system, footpath development, restoration of 56 water bodies, bicycle lanes, multi-level car parking, smart classrooms, conversion of SVL (sodium lamps) to LED (light emitting diodes) lights, parking management, pedestrianised streets and solid waste management. The investment is estimated at about Rs. 1,366 crore through Centre-State partnership and raising funds from other sources including international multi-lateral funding agencies. If Rs. 500 crore each have been given by the Centre and the State, the inference is that only the Rs. 366 crore will have to be raised from external agencies or Rs. 866 crore, if the State’s own contribution is from borrowings. The latter is likely, considering the flimsy state of the government’s finances. Still Rs. 866 crore is too small a sum, considering Chennai’s needs. The city needs major revamping of the sewerage and storm water drain systems besides infrastructure for the collection, treatment, recycling and disposal of solid wastes and de-congestion and pedestrianisation of the hundreds of km of city roads. All this cannot be accomplished with Rs. 1,366 crore. Therefore, the Smart City by itself is not and cannot be about making Singapore out of Chennai in five years.

The Smart City Project would smarten the City and not by itself make a new smart city of Chennai. This clarification of its scope is not to diminish the Project’s importance. Many component projects confine the smartening to one sub-project segment or geographical area but serve as models for easy replication at other locations without having to re-invent the wheel. Examples of such models are the roof-top solar panels in specific buildings, footpath development of 23 roads in Kodambakkam and T’ Nagar, cycle sharing system in Teynampet and Kodambakkam zones, pedestrian plaza in T’ Nagar and Kodambakkam area, multi-level parking in Kodambakkam and Teynampet, and parks and waste water management again in Kodambakkam and T’ Nagar.

The term “Smart” is meant to convey that “smart cities” are made capable of collecting and analysing vast quantities of data to automate monitoring resource usages, improving service quality, and making real time decisions on many aspects of city management. This purpose of the Project is served by the inclusion of an integrated command and control centre that can monitor traffic signals, city surveillance and manage the smart transport system. This is indeed an important facility of immense value.

The expectation from a Smart project is different for each city according to its prevailing level of civic development. As an example, it is different for, say, Singapore and Chennai. The installation of information technology constitutes one part, but for most Indian cities smartness implies “basic modernisation and quality of life improvements, such as ensuring cities have reliable electricity, water supply, and waste management, and promoting walkability. As such, India’s Smart Cities Mission is not truly about smart cities in the commonly understood sense of the term.”

The concentration of several innovative components in the T’ Nagar and Kodambakkam zones has, expectedly, evoked criticism from residents in other areas. Even spread of component projects would thin the demonstration impact as opposed to a comprehensive facility in a single location. The select location should be taken as a model to be replicated in other zones. The successful and timely completion of the Smart City Project would enrich the government’s expertise to replicate the modules in other parts of the City towards making a Singapore.

The web-site of Chennai Smart City Limited (CSCL) does not give, on line, periodic information on stages of execution of the components. Citizen involvement is recognised in the Project strategy but should be reflected in practice – conveying continuously up-dated information on progress.

Solid waste collection and disposal, enlarging and modernising the ancient stormwater drains, traffic decongestion and a comprehensive plan for safe and pleasant pedestrian paths and cross-overs for the whole City and retrieving and protecting public spaces from unauthorised and intrusive use are of utmost urgency as the City is already bursting at the seams. Bare necessities before smartness.

The sums allocated to these essentials in the Smart City project are not large and comprehensive enough to resolve the City’s basic problems. It must be said to the credit of the Tamil Nadu Government that they did request the Centre in May 2017 “to tweak the Smart City project guidelines to allow for pan-city implementation of all proposals initially considered only for T’ Nagar”. Not to be put off, the Government can still take advantage of the present opportunity to raise funds through bonds and/or from multilateral funding agencies and utilise the expertise of Chennai Smart City Limited (CSCL) for major reconstruction of infrastructure, systems and processes that once for all fulfil basic needs.

The Smart City movement is meant to be continued by the State Government emulating its models and enlarging its scope to cover the entire Metropolitan area. Smart governance and smart citizens make a Smart City, after all.

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