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Who wants a smart city? Not Mamata

Sulagna Sengupta | Updated on: 18 August 2016, 20:38 IST

The Centre's ambitious Smart City plan was all about taking cities to the next level with new-age facilities. The Union government held competitions to pick cities that had the potential to become the next Smart City.

Each city selected in different rounds of competition will be given central assistance of Rs 200 crore in the first year and Rs 100 crore each over the subsequent three financial years.

State governments and respective urban local bodies will also be provided the same amount.

Under the Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation (AMRUT) scheme of Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) the Centre has decided to create 100 smart cities by 2019-20, with the Union government providing financial support to the extent of Rs 48,000 crore over five years.

While some cities have already made the cut, another 40 smart cities will be selected during 2016-17 and the remaining 40 over the next financial year.

Eager to jump onto the Smart City bandwagon, West Bengal CM Mamata Bannerjee applied with four cities on her list - Durgapur, Asansol, Salt Lake and Rajarhat (New Town).

The Centre scrapped the first two, adding Salt Lake and Rajarhat (townships around Kolkata) to the list in the second round.

While this came as great news to residents who were looking forward to the next-level of urbanisation, Mamata has decided to take a step back in this aspect.

So, what will these a Smart City have?

According to the Union Urban Development Ministry's website, Smart Cities are projected to be equipped with -

- Basic infrastructure that will offer a good quality of life through smart solutions

- Water and power supply

- Sanitation and solid waste management

- Efficient urban mobility and public transport

- Robust IT connectivity, e-governance

- Citizen participation along with safety are some of the projected attributes of these smart cities

Financial assistance on offer

Each city selected in different rounds of competition will be given central assistance of Rs 200 crore in the first year and Rs 100 crore each over the subsequent three financial years.

State governments and respective urban local bodies will also be provided the same amount.

Eventually the amount of funding for Green City is yet to be decided by the state government, and it was decided that a scheme will be implemented by the state government to carry out the Green City Plan.

What happened

On Wednesday, the West Bengal government rejected the proposal of the Union Ministry of Urban Development to include New Town and Salt Lake in Smart City list creating a fresh outburst in the Centre-state conflict.

Significantly, the spat between Centre and state has been going on for a few months, with CM Mamata Banerjee declaring that Centre is trying to disturb the federal structure of the state as they have not disbursed any moratorium for debt restructuring. She is allegedly miffed with the Centre after Union Finance Minister Arun Jaitley expressed the disability in providing moratorium to the state.

Mamata has also blamed the Centre for making Aadhar card mandatory for availing facilities, like cooking gas cylinders at subsidised rates.

A few days ago, Mamata has written to the Center protesting against the picking of eight probationary IAS officers who were supposed to undergo training in various departments of the state government for Central government postings.

Since she came to power in 2011, she had always complained to the Central government for not getting adequate number of IAS officers to run the state administration.

The fall out

After the state cabinet meeting on Wednesday, state municipal affairs minister Firhad Hakim said that they have already informed the Centre that they do not want to include New Town and Salt Lake in the Smart City list.

They reasoned that the state funding would increase substantially to set up Smart City infrastructure in Salt Lake and Rajarhat.

Under the Smart City Mission , the state government needs to contribute Rs 500 crore in five years ie Rs 100 crore every year and Mamata has earlier said that it would be a huge burden on the state government given the financial situation and debt burden of more than Rs 3 lakh crore.

Instead, the state government wants to convert Salt Lake and New Town as Green City which will be entirely funded by the state government.

Gautam Deb, who was the housing affairs minister in the previous Left Front regime and the brain behind setting up of Rajarhat New Town, said: "I am still unclear why Mamata had applied for the Smart Mission scheme of Centre if she wanted to reject the proposal"

Deb said apart from politics, the state government should work in close collaboration with the Centre for overall development of the state.

Justifying the decision

Mamata has clearly said that it was not possible for the cash strapped state government to shell out Rs 100 crore every year for building infrastructure of a Smart City at Salt Lake and Rajarhat.

While the justification of not including Salt Lake and New Town in the Smart City list is not clear, political analysts however feel that it is because of Mamata's ongoing tussle with the Centre.

The state government had planned to set up a company under New Town Kolkata Development Authority (NKDA) - which will be named as New Town Smart City Corporation - to receive and utilise grants from the central and state governments separately every year for the next five years for the Smart City.

Making the list

Salt Lake and New Town made the Smart City list on its second attempt with a slew of smart proposals that included cycle and wheelchair tracks, Wi-Fi and GPS-enabled e-transport and bus stops with screens showing when the next bus will arrive.

New Town ranked No. 6 among the set of cities chosen by the Union Ministry of Urban Development in its second Smart City list.

A senior official of the state government, who does not want to be quoted, said that it's a political decision of the state government to not include Salt Lake and Rajarhat in the Smart City list, but he highlighted the positive aspect of the Green City.

According to the official, there is a need to for using alternative source of energy and if Salt Lake and Rajarhat could be developed as Green City, then solar energy can be used which will be beneficial for the environment, considering the increase in city population.

The good & the bad

Debasish Sen, chairman of New Town Kolkata Development Authority, highlighted the benefits of green cities and said that the objective is to increase the green space by making pocket forests in urban areas which will help to preserve the environment.

Architects and town planners are of the opinion that there are positive aspects for setting up Smart City as well as negative sides too.

Partha Ranjan Das, a senior architect of a private company, said, "By laying down IT enabled services in a city, it will definitely help people to deliver their services, but at the same time, government employees need to be curtailed if IT enabled services is there in a city."

According to Das, a Smart City should be developed in such a way that it will benefit the poor people staying there. But if the IT concept is introduced then the poor won't get the benefit as they need to be computer literate to access all services.

Avirup Sarkar, an eminent economist, however, said that both Smart City and green cities have their own positive impact on the economy of a state and smart cities are usually set up for optimal use of scares resources like land and water.

Sarkar said, "At a time when land and water is scarce there is a need for a Smart City, but if we develop Green City too then also we can check the degradation in the environment and an alternative source of energy can be used."

Drawing flak

The opposition, however, criticised the move and said they could not understand why the Mamata government applied for the cities to be included in the Centre's Smart City Mission and later rejected the proposal.

BJP national secretary Rahul Sinha said, "I am unaware about such development. But if it has happened then it's a big embarrassment for the state, as the state government applied first in the Smart City Mission scheme."

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

Also read: The upsides and downsides of Modi's smart cities

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First published: 18 August 2016, 20:38 IST