100 ‘smart cities’? Getting just one done will be a challenge

April 15, 2015

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s plan to build 100 “smart cities” by 2022 to decongest existing urban centres probably will take longer to achieve. Reuters visited the foundations of one of these cities in Gujarat, a finance centre called Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (GIFT).

Situated between the cities of Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad, the government wants the city to double as an international finance centre to rival crowded Mumbai and business hubs such as Singapore and Dubai. It plans to offer drinking water from the tap, automated waste collection and dedicated power supply. [Full Story]

Getting there will be the hard part. Ramakant Jha, managing director and CEO of GIFT Company Ltd, which is executing the project, said he needs several things just to get the process going: better transportation infrastructure to connect GIFT to nearby cities, lower taxes and an easier system for regulatory approvals. Here are edited excerpts from our interview with the 69-year-old veteran urban planner:

Q: What are the “smart” lessons you have brought to GIFT?
A: My experience has taught me that a city has to generate its own resources, its own money. So I modified and rationalised a lot of plans as they were earlier not financially viable.

We put all the utilities in a tunnel, otherwise there is frequent digging of roads. According to initial designs, each kilometre of tunnel was costing 1 billion rupees ($16.1 million). We redesigned it and could manage it in 250 million rupees ($4 million) per kilometre.

Power is always a problem in any city. Even if it has power, distribution is an issue, so we built our own substation. The whole city will be air conditioned so by having a district cooling unit, we are able to reduce energy consumption.

The idea is we should know the problems before the consumer does and repair it before we receive a complaint.

Q: What are some of the challenges you are likely to face? How do you plan to solve them?
A: This is a very complex project. It is not just a city. It is a city for global financing, and that too a “smart city,” which has never been done in the country. Unless you develop the human resource, you cannot undertake such a task. So we spend a lot of money training people.

Another challenge is the limited capacity of Ahmedabad international airport as business trips will increase significantly. Similarly, the connectivity to Ahmedabad city by metro and rail from GIFT. If we have to cope, these have to be developed in advance of the demand. Otherwise, it will become the weakest link for us.

Resources for building infrastructure is a challenge. We have requested the government to provide funds under the smart cities project so we can provide infrastructure upfront. If we depend on our cash flow, it will be slow development.

Q: What are some of the mistakes that cities make in urban planning?
A: Every city has some carrying capacity based on the infrastructure. Disregarding that, each successive government (in Mumbai) has been raising the floor space index and encouraging people to live there. That’s why you have slums. (Floor space index is total built area in relation to size of plot of land)

Working on the Navi Mumbai project, which was envisioned as a secondary business hub to decongest the island city, gave me a lot of input on how a city develops, how you plan something, how demand comes. When we were building a train station in Vashi, people said this is too big. But today it can handle traffic.

Q: What does India need to be an international financial centre?
A: We have requested for three important elements – a competitive tax regime, proactive and alternative dispute resolution and single window clearance for ease of business. If our taxes are much more than our competitors like Singapore, Dubai and Malaysia, and if the legal system takes too long, global businesses will not come here.

(Editing by Tony Tharakan and Robert MacMillan; Follow Aditi on Twitter @aditishahsays, Tony @tonytharakan and Robert @bobbymacReports. This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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