India's $20B Smart Cities Mission isn't, and has hardly scratched the surface after eight years

Many projects really about basic services, or don't integrate well. Charge ahead and extend it anyway, think tank recommends

In an assessment of India's eight-year-long Smart Cities Mission, think tank the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) has opined that the project can be considered "at best a drop in the ocean" and should be viewed as a "pilot project."

The Mission to make identifiable improvements to India’s urban areas cost $20.5 billion (INR 1.709 trillion), has involved 7,939 projects across 100 cities and is and is 78 percent complete. Some efforts under the Mission have more to do with traditional civic works than high tech, with improvement of water supply services in Agra, creation of a hawker food market zones in Srinagar, and parking facilities for a weekly market in Indore among projects funded under the mission .

Others touch on digitalization and connectivity, such as GPS installed on garbage collection vehicles, CCTV in public areas and transport corridors, environmental sensors on streets, rooftop solar photovoltaic power plants, robots being used to handle sanitary waste, and geographic information systems being used to model sewer systems.

According to ORF, India has 4,000-plus urban settlements and a significant backlog of projects that make impact of the Mission difficult to assess.

The think tank recognizes that collectively these efforts have improved citizen wellbeing and lives.

But the Foundation worries the Mission isn’t well governed.

For instance, the organizations managing the Missions operate at the individual city level – a joint responsibility between the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs and a special purpose vehicle (SPV) made up of municipal functionaries and what ORF describes as "other stakeholders."

The SPV is responsible for formulating and implementing the projects, as identified through demand assessment surveys, but this arrangement creates a snag as only elected individuals are authorized to make decisions.

"According to critics, granting the rights of decision-making, planning, and implementation to SPVs and assigning the work of preparing smart city plans to consultants has led to biased decision-making and increased social inequalities," explained the think tank.

Furthermore, projects conducted under the Mission sometimes fail to operate city-wide. For example, across Delhi's 1,483 square kilometres, only 2.2km2 was selected for area-based development. The Mission’s activities were conducted in similarly small patches of Agra, Bhopal, Chennai, and Udaipur.

"This also implies that only some people within a city have benefitted from the Mission activities," concluded ORF.

Even in areas where the projects were completed, other systems and services may not be upgraded enough for the improvements to be integrated and useful. For example, sensors can measure air and water quality, but if there is no means for taking action on the sources of pollution, how much good did taking a measurement do in the first place?

Despite the Mission being so costly and the projects eclipsed by the number of needed upgrades, ORF takes the position that India should charge ahead. "An appraisal of the Mission activities reveals that, to some extent, the Mission has been successful,” the org opined. “Basic facilities and services have been provided, though some problems remain overlooked.”

ORF said it would be "useful" to extend the duration of the Mission, which is expected to end in 2024, while reforming traditional governance strategies and practices. ®

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