Governance of Smart Cities or Smart Governance?

Soumyadip Chattopadhyay and Arjun Kumar

Cities are expected to house almost half of India’s population and contribute 3/4th of India’s GDP in the coming years. There is no denying that the insufficient water supply, public sanitation, education, health care and lack of other urban infrastructure combined with local governance deficits, seriously undermine their growth potential as well as make them unlivable.

Smart Cities Mission (SCM) was launched in 2015 to deliver livability, economic stability and sustainability to its urban residents through the adoption of context-specific solutions supported by robust IT connectivity, digitalization and improved governance in 100 cities. After 2014, the idea of the Smart Cities Mission experienced a marked shift in focus from greenfield development to brownfield development, and the orientation moved from the construction of 100 new smart cities to making the existing cities smart.

The smart cities are envisioned as exclusive spaces in the form of residential townships, business improvement districts and special economic zones which will attract global capital investment and also offer a higher standard of living with amenities comparable to affluent cities of the developed world. Smart Cities initiatives now involve a growing number of stakeholders, but the actual implementation of the missions are contingent on the very complex interplay between these various stakeholders. There is one major criticism of the smart cities around the world and so in India that these cities are failing to put the people at the center of planning because of their technocratic approaches driven by the professionally managed bodies like the SPVs.

In India, 45 cities have the operational integrated command and control centers (ICCC) set up under the smart cities mission. The smart cities project in India has gathered both appraisals as well as criticisms. Despite the mixed responses, it has successfully transformed the very image of the city making in India, but the central question is “What smart cities are if they cannot help us live a good healthy life?”

Prof. Tathagata Chatterji, in #CityConversations E3 talked about the smart city governance paradigm through the lens of the smart governance framework.  He said, “India is going through a momentous urban change. In percentage terms, India’s urbanization level is still well below as compared to its other neighbouring countries, but in absolute number terms India’s urban change is astonishing”.


In 2011, India’s urban population was 377 million and now in 2020, as per the projections of United Nations world population prospects, we are already about 35%, which is 483 million approximately. By 2030, India’s urban population is expected to reach a 40% benchmark or about 606 million population. These odd 124 million people that would get urbanized between 2020 and 2030 is equivalent to 15 cities with the size of Bangalore. But we are not making 15 new Bangalore cities.

In India, we have some amount of dichotomy in the urbanization process. On the top, we have large metropolitan regions which are the real drivers of the growth as we recently saw in the case of the pandemic lockdown. Covid-19 is very much an urban phenomenon as there was an inadequate understanding of the urban-ness of the pandemic, which created a problem in the decision-making process.

Prof. Chatterji further said that “In India, people tend to think urban and rural as two opposite poles, but in reality, there are various strong interrelations between urbanization and the rural economy Not enough jobs are available in the city, so we have a large informal sector in the cities.” Although India is urbanizing at a steady rate as both the urban and rural are moving simultaneously. Still, India is also unfolding a very complicated pattern of urbanization where instead of a wholesale manner shift of the population it is in bits and pieces format.

Since the 90s, the government in India had been quite active on the urban front. In 1992, the 74th amendment act was enacted, which although empowered the city governments, but the unfolding and implementation of the act were hugely uneven. A significant change happened in 2005 when the “JnNURM” program was launched, which was the first substantial investment by the central government in the urban sector. It was a reform which sought to bring in certain changes in the way the cities are functioned and was invoked until 2015. In 2015, with the new government in power, several new urban-centric schemes/programme were launched. One was “AMRUT”, which carried forward what began under JnNURM. And, the other big program was “Smart Cities”, a very ambitious plan which sought to make the quality of life comparable to the global standards.

Prof. Chatterji said, “While looking at the performance of the smart cities, there are three important aspects which need to be looked upon – funds, functions and functionaries. Indian cities are somewhat deficient in all three aspects. Funding of the city governments is one of the major problems as the cities are facing huge internal revenue deficit even though large powering cities such as Mumbai, Gurgaon, Noida have large property tax base. On top of that, the external sources of funds are problematic too. In India, the municipal revenue as a percentage of GDP is only 1% whereas in other BRICS countries like Brazil and South Africa it is 6-7%.”

While talking about the smart cities notion at a global scale, Prof. Chatterji, classified this notion into three broad trajectories as technology focus, human resource focus and governance focus. He further said, “The role of the government in the smart cities have different notions, so within the smart city governance domain, there are three broad areas of focus, one is the decision making aspect, second is the smart administration aspect, and the third one is the smart urban collaboration aspect.” He further illustrated his point by giving an example, “In New York, Amsterdam, Vienna, Barcelona or other major smart cities, the smart cities notions have been driven by the city governments whereas, in India, we have a different process in which the central government is the driver behind the smart city notion.”

Indian smart cities have a top-down as well as a bottom-up vision. The funding pattern of the Smart Cities Mission in India is decided both by the state and the central government. Smart cities, as of now, according to the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, serve about 25% of the urban population. The total project cost, as of now is about 205 thousand crores which are divided into two components. One is area-based development with 80% share focuses on the urban renewal component. The pan-city component with 20% share aims at improving the infrastructure of the city through technological innovation. The smart cities mission has brought in a new institutional architecture of governance, the “Special Purpose Vehicles” (SPV), to overcome some of the deficiencies in the urban governance system in India.

Prof. Chatterji further raised his concerns that ‘Are our smart cities meeting our priorities?’ Covid-19 provided some critical lessons for the smart cities mission. It underscores the importance of a city level platform for integrated data governance which would facilitate evidence-based decision making at an urban scale, bring data integration between multiple sources and agencies and also, at the same time make the data accessible and focus on wide dissemination so that data can be a way to engage with the citizen of the country.”

“The need of the hour is to relook at the mission and its priorities. The smart city plan is only one of the components of the overarching planning process of the city. The smart city mission sought to bring in smart governance like the SPV, but even SPV too did suffer from certain deficits.”, quoted Prof. Chatterji.

In his concluding remarks, Prof. Chatterji emphasized that there are a lot of questions of smart cities that need to be looked at from the angle of good governance. “It is the time now to rethink the Smart City Mission and link it up with the Sustainable Development Goals in order to help in evidence-based planning and to have a more integrated vision for planning at the city level. We need to move away from the vision of a smart city to smart city governance. Unless we improve the governance system of the city, we really cannot have a smart city which is effective, efficient, participatory, consensus-oriented, accountable, transparent, responsive, equitable and inclusive.” 

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Feature Image Courtesy: Pixabay