For Cities to be ‘Smart,’ They First Need to Work: Notes from the Aurangabad Model

The term “smart city” in India has come to have a life of its own, and even though it is just another government scheme, the idea of a smart city has come to mean much more. The author draws on their experience of working on the Aurangabad Smart City Project.

The growing definition of a smart city has been reflected in numerous writings published on the programme. While, on the one hand, it is seen as dystopic for focusing only on a small area of a city and for continuing with centralising shifts in policies on cities, especially with regards to urban local bodies (ULBs), it is also valued in techno-managerial circuits for its focus on information and communication technologies (ICT)-enabled solutions, and for city planning through area-based development. However, most of the available literature has primarily relied upon the readings of the mission guidelines and smart city proposals (SCPs), and therefore have a certain disconnect with the realities of administrative spaces where the implementation of such programmes unfold (for example: Datta and Odendaal 2019; Khan et al 2018; Taraporevala 2018; Housing & Land Rights Network 2017; Ravi and Bhatia 2016; Mahaprashasta 2016; Datta 2015; Srivathsan 2015; Nayar 2015; Srivastava 2015; Ravindran 2015; Datta 2014).

In this paper, my objective is to reflect on spaces of local governance, particularly their confluence with centrally sponsored schemes, such as the Smart City Mission (SCM), from a position within the administrative spaces. Here, I present my experience with the implementation of the  Aurangabad Smart City Project.

The Smart City Project in India

The SCM is a centrally sponsored scheme by the Government of India that focuses on the concept of area-based development, which involves choosing an area of the selected city for either improvement (retrofitting), renewal (redevelopment), or new development (greenfield) to “create a replicable model which will act like a lighthouse to other aspiring cities” (Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs 2015). The SCM has an additional feature of “pan-city” development, which includes projects not bound within the specified area in the city and which has a  preference for ICT-driven “smart solutions” (Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs 2015). Launched in 2015, the SCM scheme covers 100 cities, which were selected across multiple rounds as a part of the “City Challenge,” wherein cities had to, with the assistance of a consulting firm, prepare a Smart City Proposal (SCP) that outlined the projects to be considered under the scheme (Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs 2015). Following their selection, the chosen cities had to set up a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) in the form of a limited company under the Companies Act, 2013, which is jointly owned by the state and the respective ULB, for the implementation of SCP projects.  

Turning Aurangabad into a Smart City 

Aurangabad was selected in 2016 as a part of round 2 of the SCM. The Aurangabad SCP, under the area-based development component, included plans for a  greenfield township at an uninhabited location (farmlands) in the eastern fringe of the municipal corporation area, to be spread over 576 acres, which is 1.37% of the total municipal corporation area (Aurangabad Municipal Corporation 2016). The pan-city component included mobility and ICT-related projects. A total of Rs 1,292 crore was proposed to be spent on the greenfield township as opposed to only Rs 364 crore on the pan-city projects (Aurangabad Municipal Corporation 2016). These estimates were against the total available mission grants of Rs 1,000 crore, to be given over a period of five years—Rs 500 crores from the central government and Rs 250 crore each from the state government and the ULB. The remaining funds were proposed to be raised through the monetisation of the greenfield township land. However, the estimated revenues seemed highly speculative and, quite likely, bloated beyond what may be realistically achievable (Ghadyalpatil 2015).

The proposed greenfield township, therefore, was not only iniquitous in addressing the priorities of the city but may have also ended up serving as a Trojan horse to divert scarce public funds towards private real estate interests. Moreover, the project required procurement of land through eminent domain instruments, or land pooling schemes, along with a required change in land-use classification from “no development zone" to “mixed use.” Thus, it was decided to restructure the project and orient it towards basic infrastructure and services in the critical areas of public transportation, water supply, conservation of heritage structures, and e-governance, among others (ASCDC 2018). The Aurangabad Smart City project, therefore, was converted into a pan city-led initiative.

Despite being a city with over 1.5 million residents, Aurangabad lacked a formal public transportation system. The city bus service took on the onus of being the city’s flagship smart city project (ASCDC 2018: 2-3). Within six months of Aurangabad’s SCP being restructured by the Aurangabad Smart City Development Corporation (ASCDC) board, the SPV set up for implementation of the project, the bus service was operationalised in a joint venture with the Maharashtra State Road Transport Development Corporation (MSRTC). Operational since January 2019, and with a fleet size that has expanded  from 23 Midi buses, initially, to 80 at present, the bus service reaches out to over 20,000 people each day. With the number of commuters continuing to grow, the fleet will be increased to 100 buses in the first phase, and another 50 buses will be added in the subsequent phase (ASCDCL 2019).

This flagship initiative was combined with interventions, not necessarily heavy on spending, but which focused on processes and institutions. In the realm of education, for example, this amounted to emphasising pedagogy as “smart education” over the procurement of e-learning equipment and digital classrooms. Although initially thought of only as an “additional” feature, pan-city development has become the driving force of the Aurangabad project. Interestingly, the mission guidelines even provide the possibility of conducting area-based development in a “pan-city” manner—it need not be restricted to just one part of the city (Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs 2015).

Lessons from the Aurangabad Project

It is important not to look at these shifts in policy orientation as ad hocism or as the contamination of some “pure” form of policy, but rather as a part of procedures that may open up spaces for the city to retrofit programmes to address its priorities, make the city more relevant and, in the process, define its own “policy.” A Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs’ (MoHUA) advisory, for instance, allows for changes in the SCP, with some riders, and states that “in proposing the SCP changes and reporting the same in the MIS, the Board of the SPV are required to reflect application of mind [author's emphasis] and show due care in maintaining the spirit and objective of the mission” [emphasis added] (Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs 2018). In a context where the institutional and infrastructural landscape varies drastically across cities, it is critical for city leadership to be empowered to shape such schemes to achieve the desired outcomes for their cities.

Moreover, cities have had to negotiate the tension arising from two institutional forms in the same politico-administrative set-up. In Aurangabad, the ASCDC is a public limited company under Section 8 of the Companies Act, 2013 (Aurangabad Municipal Corporation 2015). The Aurangabad Municipal Corporation (AMC) and the Government of Maharashtra (GoM) have majority shareholding and control of the ASCDC. The board of directors of the ASCDC comprises of the municipal commissioner (who functions as the CEO), the police commissioner, the district collector, mayor, deputy mayor, standing committee chairperson, house leader, leader of opposition, and various representatives of national parties. Most of the projects sought to be taken up by the ASCDC, or by any other smart city SPV for that matter, are intertwined with the functions of a ULB under the 74th Constitutional Amendment (Twelfth Schedule, Article 243W). Further, the assets or the “right of way” required for the project to be taken up by the SPV may be owned by the ULB. This may be even more complicated in contexts where the ULB functions are performed by parastatals, as is the  case in most metro cities.  

It is perhaps in recognition of the complexities generated by the layers of institutions in city administration that MoHUA has allowed SPVs to tie up with the respective line departments to execute projects (MoHUA 2019). To illustrate, for work related to water supply, the SPV may tie up with the water supply department of the ULB to execute the project, ensuring that the latter takes the lead in implementation, while the former reviews various compliances and funds the project. It may also not necessarily be the case that SPVs enjoy more flexibility as compared to other institutions that deliver urban infrastructure and services. For example, the smart city SPVs in Maharashtra are subject to the same procurement-related rules and procedures applicable to any other government department (GoM 2016). Various government resolutions issued from time to time also shape the procedures of the SPV.

Why ‘Efficiency’ Does Not Always Work

It has also become a norm to appoint big consulting firms as project management consultants (PMCs) as it ostensibly brings capacity, experience, and technical expertise to the implementing department. However, Aurangabad’s experience with such large firms has been entirely contrary to the stated claims of efficiency and capacity associated with such PMCs. It is often a practice to present one set of professionals during the bidding process for a higher score under the quality cum cost based system (QCBS), and then deploy a different set of professionals, or not deploy any at all (GoI 2017). Moreover, representatives of such firms often tend to abide by the “let us not stick our neck out” approach. There is little accountability for the solutions offered, an uncritical reproduction of the same set of documents/solutions across different cities, and even the inclination to use technically niche projects to arm-twist the authority into releasing payments.  In such a scenario, time-based contracts with consulting firms, with the number of hours spent on the project as the basis for payments, may be prone to disputes. In comparison, a smaller consulting firm and/or independent experts may be much more effective and useful. However, it is extremely critical to have a good in-house team on the payroll of the SPV that leads the project, and critically draws from the inputs of specialised agencies to address the infrastructure and service needs of the city. More importantly, for those working in the spaces of urban governance, it is critical to have a sensibility that can engage with existing institutions, grasp the dynamics of the ULB, and be able and willing to work with a people-centric approach.

In conclusion, a process-centric engagement with the infrastructure and services of a city is needed over a procurement-centric approach. SPVs and ULBs need not have independent or conflicting priorities: ULBs are central to improving infrastructure and service outcomes in the city, and it may be useful to think of SPVs as a part of the same institutional space rather than as a parallel one. Further, the funding of public service infrastructure such as transport is as “smart”as a city gets, even if it means incurring a financial loss for an overall public gain. Projects under the smart city plan must also engage with the existing infrastructure and services in the city rather than seek to create new systems that have no grounding in the social and economic setting of the city. Upgradation as a way of creating infrastructure may work much better than greenfield systems. Finally, any meaningful change must engage with institutions and the complexity associated with them in our cities. Navigating through various committees/subcommittees to build consensus on critical decisions is a challenge that must be outmanoeuvred. “Participation” often tends to get viewed as a “more-or-less” phenomenon with focus on the modes of reaching out to people. However, it is the dynamics of administrative spaces and procedures discussed in this paper that may be central to how our programmes and projects respond to the priorities of people.

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