Sunday, 17 May 2015
Smart Cities : More Questions Than Answers
A 'smart city' is an urban region that is highly advanced in terms of overall infrastructure, sustainable real estate, communications and market viability. It is a city where information technology is the principal infrastructure and the basis for providing essential services to residents. A Smart City, should have Power, Water, Cleanliness, Seamless Information, 24/7 Utility Services, WiFi zones, Recreational Spaces, Waste Management, Connectivity in transport as well as communication, Speedy Service, Transparency and Accountability etc.
While there are good points & it is also a good and needed step, but.... firstly, it doesnt take into account the realities of the Indian Demography, Polity, Bureaucracy, Governance and Systems. it doesnt take into account the Indian Economy, and its doesnt take into account the status of the real estate sector, as also any number of other realities that beset the Indian Economy.
Economic output by the entire corporate contributes just 18% or thereabouts to the Indian Economy. The rest is Agriculture, and unorganised sector. A smart city implies high doses of technological capability, which scores upon scores of our companies do not possess, and the gap is too large for them to plug, given the history and the monetary requirements. Other nations enjoy economies of scale and can produce whatever we can at cheaper rates. If we keep a purchase local condition, we are finished before we start, like the FDI in retail brouhaha.
If we cant compete in a commodity like Stainless Steel, it is foolish to believe we can compete in high-tech sectors. We have skills aplenty; they have the economies of scale, which is what is needed. For that, we have to dismantle a large part of our taxation structure, which is inverted in more than a few categories.
Next, how do you fit in the small variables like the thelaa-gaadis, small eateries, roadside stores etc - all the things that define a lovely Indian City in a Smart City concept? Is it clear? What happens to these small support services? They are a cultural reality; I wouldnt be caught dead in a 5-star; too stuffy and showy for my taste, Give me the fantastic Idli-Vada at Sion Station; given a choice, I would eat Idli Vada over those showy dishes in a Marriott any day! The point is that these minor details need to be idenitified and clarified before we start, or we run the risk of overzealous officials banning or relegating such activities to the backburner, leading to loss of livelihood to thousands, and an erosion of uniqueness and attractiveness as well.
Next, Sustainable Real Estate. End of Story. Take a gander at the real estate market in India. It is controlled and cartelised, beset by crime and corruption. TIll last year, prices were holding in Urban India depsite their being a 50% vacancy rate of unsold inventory. What happens when the Smart City Ball gets rolling? Sustainable? That it isnt. Valuations will go through the roof, and that is a fact.
It completely ignores the structure of the Economy, which is characterised by small entrepreneurs. I would like to understand how the small entrepreneur with 50000 seed capital can make a mark in your smart cities. These ventures are capital intensive, and import oriented, which is the real reason why everyone from China to USA is agog; they see $$$$Kaching$$$$! Study the incomparable report on the Indian Economy by Prof Vaidyanathan - India, Uninc; it gives figures from Government sources and introduces you to the real India.
There are two data points available : 5th Economic Survey, 2005 and NSSO 2011, Both tell the same story: Smart Cities are nothing but a fantasy. They are premature, they are the future, but very premature. The Idea is right, but a decade or two too early. As per the first, there are 41.83 Million establishments in India; 76% of these worked without any power; employing 100.9 Million; 46% were own account establishments. As per NSSO 2011, 66% were OAE; retail trade slipped from 42% to 30% and ,manufacturing grew from 23% to 31%. Own Account Establishments were 60% of retail, 72% of Manufacturing, and 63% of service. Contribution to the GDP : between 46-58%.
Given the Smart City definition, a good number of them don’t fit – and largely for no fault of theirs. These organizations do not have the money to upgrade – they will upgrade eventually : a process that is currently underway. That is the time these concepts can work. And this will happen in tandem with improvements in education etc basic facilities in India, not before.
PRIORITIES & REQUIREMENTS
What does the nation require? Research shows that nearly 93Million of our farmers are losing 800-odd per crop; data shows the level of poverty in our nation; consumption trends corroborate, with the top 10% growing at a rate of 3% as opposed to 1% consumption growth for the bottom 40%. Farmer suicides are going up; the economic fundamentals are shaky; the global economy is in unprecedented turmoil, and all we can think of is Smart Cities? Our Armed Forces are in dire need of funds; and all we can think of is Smart Cities? We spend the lowest in GDP terms on Education, Defence and Health, and all we can think of are Smart Cities?
We dont need Smart Cities, We need Schools, Colleges, Primary Health Centers, Rockets, Mortars, Fighter Aircraft, Missiles, Satellites, Seed Research, Irrigation, Water Purity for Agriculture, Extension Workers to teach our Small and Marginal Farmers, Redoing our Duty and Taxation Structures, Fair prices for farmers at farm-gate, cement or pukka roads, etc etc. A smart city can come after that.
Besides, a Smart City requires – data connection. We in India have average & unreliable speeds of around 1,5mbps; the developed nations have a speed of upwards of 22mbps. They have high penetration of credit and debit cards and acceptability of online commerce; we dont. India has precisely 73Million broadband connections - this is including individuals with a double connection; I have three. Less than 69Million Indians consume more than 512mbps of data on a monthly basis; and cashless transactions are unknown outside the protected environs of top places.
The logic is sound, I clearly stated that concept is needed - but a decade or two too early. This will work in a relatively corruption-free atmosphere, where the Land issues are under control. That we dont have. Next, this works in economic reality which enable the above, which again we dont have, as I have been at pains to point out.
The shift to the small cities will not happen in the industrial sector; the vast majority - upto 90% - of the actual producers are concentrated in only a select few agglomerations, namely Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, followed by Kolkata, Bangalore, Pune, Ahmedabad. Other second-level sites are Nashik, Meerut, Hyderabad, Coimbatore, Ludhiana, Kanpur, Rajkot,Surat. No one else comes even close to these cities, although Jaipur, Chandigarh, Hissar, Nagpur and a couple others do try hard. These are further populated by small enterprises.
The shift will not happen from these established centers; there is in existence an ecosystem that now is impossible to replace,. with manufacturing facilities being deeply interlinked with their vendors and suppliers who have now set up in the same or nearby areas. In B2B industries, a symbiotic relationship has started with the consumers and the manufacturers sometimes co-located, or located within 8-10Kms of each other.
The proof is in the manifest failure of industrial areas in other wannabe metros, like Indore and Bhopal, which have simple failed to take off. They remain consumption and trading centers, not producers, despite an incredible level of support given to them by successive Governments. The failure of Bhilai to rise as a comparable center to even Nagpur, let alone Surat & Rajkot, is a case in point.
We are only exacerbating the rural-urban divide. As on date, few Urban Indians show the same level of passion for rural development, which is the only thing we need. Rest will take care of itself! We are asking people to focus their valuable- sorry, waste their valuable time on cities, where the conditions are utopic in comparison to villages and that is a fact! Large numbers of villagers would willingly settle for facilities comparable to our current "stupid cities" and that is also undeniable.
No amount of planning will overcome the serious objections there are, some of which are enlisted below. I dont buy visions; they are a dime a dozen. I buy execution - call it my sales instinct, but I am not impressed by Grand Visions without a proper execution document, which contains detailed studies & steps. And this is not made after finalising the plan; that is stupid, blunt and straight. Typically, that is to be visualised before finalising the plan and the execution.
Where is that plan? If it exists, why isnt it in the public domain? Where is the detail on what exactly a "Smart City" means in practical terms - real world terms, not meaningless jargon, which even I can write, given I am a part-techie and a part-telecom / business person to boot?????? Give a person time and opportunity, and out comes a logical sounding plan! That is dead easy; doesnt require any great skill whatsoever. What will be the mode of transport in a Smart City? Residence and Commercial Areas? Connectivity in Roads? Size of internal roads? Drainage?
What will be the connectivity in terms of data and communication? What technology will be adopted? How will the technologies communicate with the other "stupid' cities? What will it cost the residents?What happens to the slums? Or doesnt the concept apply to the slums? If they are in a smart city, they should be smart slums too! Each city has bylanes with crowded marketplaces; these are the epicenter of business in India, commanding a lion's share of the business volume pan-India. What does this mean for them? What is in it for them?
How will rural India benefit? Please give specifics : not general statements like find jobs, or employment generation. Jobs in which industry, at what level paying what? Where will they stay? Where will the land come from? What will it do to land prices? How will you ensure proper settlement for dues - and if you think this is not important, I can produce 40 years worth of terrifying tales of neglect? How will you ensure Land Mafia is controlled - without real and serious administrative reform which no government - AAP apart- has shown any appetite for?
A Smart City means Power, Water round the clock, Where will that come from? We dont have enough power now, wont have for another 2 decades. Who will sacrifice their power for these Smart Cities? And why should any stupid city sacrifice even one kilowatt for a smart city, pray tell? Where will water come from? Any number of cities are seriously water deficient. Where is the plan for all this?????????
A Smart City implies a certain level of data connection backbone; which we dont have, and wont for a minimum 5-10 years more. It also means seamless information availability. How will you ensure that, given the various data collection points, formats, protocols? When your land records are not computerised? When any number of public facilities are not online fully, and there are no plans for them either? When you still have no common information system in the Government? When there is a redundancy in several documents? I could go on and on... Where is the real plan?
Why does this generate this level of interest? Why doesnt the question of farmer suicides, famers earnings, rural facilities, etc generate the same level of attention, interest, passion in Urban Indians? Arent they Indians? What is being done for them, pray tell? We are still focussing on cities, not on the villages where the situation is decidedly bad. Why hasnt the same level of euphoria, the same level of passion, the same vision, the same money been generated for setting things right in Rural India? The government is hard selling this concept abroad, showcasing our development, whereas we require basic steps like Education, Health, Governance and Defence!
What it should have done is launched rural programmes with the same fervor, passion, vision and attention - which is not the case. We have finite resources both in terms of money as well as other aspects. How we spend those resources is the key.
In point of fact, Smart Cities is the last thing we need; we dont have the ground realities even in urban India for it, and that is a fact. Not one person anywhere in India has even tried to meet the serious and potent objections being raised by any number of people; and are focussing on the vision.
Remember : Great plans fail on execution as, among other reasons, it turns out that the ground realities did not support the plan in the first place.