Basics lie at heart of 'smart city' plan

NEW DELHI - An ambitious Indian government plan to develop 100 "smart cities" around the country stirred excitement when it was announced in the July budget. The plan has an outlay of 70.6 billion rupees (S$1.5 billion) for preliminary work.

Visions of futuristic Internet-driven 21st century metropolises appearing all over the country were conjured up by the announcement. But that is not quite what the government meant. Although clothed in the language of information and communications technology, the announcement was primarily about something much more important: a concerted attempt to make India's largely dysfunctional big cities work properly.

The government is sketching out its vision in an evolving draft concept note, last updated in December, which focuses on basic issues such as improving transport, providing reliable electricity and water supplies, and installing better quality sanitation. Internet connectivity, information communications technology and "intelligent infrastructure" are part of the mix, but appear to be overshadowed by more pressing needs such as quality schools and hospitals.

There is little in the concept note that could not be found in developed-world cities from London to Tokyo. And there will be few new towns. The focus is on smartening up existing cities -- mainly 17 state capitals, 10 cities important for religious or tourism reasons, and about 44 other urban areas with a population of more than 1 million.

Described in this way, the smart cities project sounds a lot less exciting than the prospect of gleaming towers and skyscraper helicopter landing pads. But the potential gains are enormous. Rapid unplanned growth has left India's cities crippled with hazards: tacked on roads are choked with cars, raw sewage pumps into rivers, slums sprawl outwards, garbage piles up, power and water supplies are regularly interrupted, and poor migrant workers continue to stream in, sleeping on roadsides for lack of cheap accommodation. Indian-style smart cities promise to be cleaner, healthier places where people travel to work more easily and businesses can thrive.