India’s 100 Smart Cities Mission is a gargantuan exercise, with states across the country vying with one another to ensure that their cities get picked to be part of the prestigious project. At stake is a chance to win the coveted smart city tag and an opportunity to rejuvenate existing infrastructure while making these cities more livable, in line with cities in the developed world. With the deadline for receiving proposals having passed, NDTV’s Nikhil Narayan Sivadas caught up with Kunal Kumar, Commissioner of Pune Municipal Corporation to get a sense of the effort and planning that went into prepping his city for the Smart City mission.
(This interview has been edited for clarity and conciseness)
Nikhil: The Smart City race is heating up. What make Pune an obvious candidate for the challenge?
Kunal Kumar: I feel the biggest advantage that Pune has is a very active citizenry which engages, collaborates and really participates on multiple platforms with the government. It’s that strength which will really help us to go forward with the smart city mission. Which city has so many engineering colleges? Which city has such a young population? Most figures would show that nearly 25-30% of the population of Pune consists of students. While people may talk about Bangalore and other cities, they don’t realize that these cities are primarily focused on the IT sector. Pune doesn’t depend on any one sector or industry and so we are not at risk if a particular sector collapses. We also have a very vibrant startup culture. If you see the number of startups in Pune, they are the highest in the country. I think these are the strengths which an urban innovation hub is looking for. Plus we have a very active citizenry and we have received more than 3 million suggestions & inputs from citizens so far. We are staggered by the numbers and there have been many times when my website has actually crashed dealing with these kinds of numbers. It’s been a phenomenal and very humbling experience and I feel that Pune has a very good chance to become a smart city thank to all these trends.
Nikhil: Take us through the work that went into Pune’s smart city proposal. What’s interesting here is that you seem to have actually engaged with citizens to get their inputs for the Smart City plan. You don’t usually see that kind of approach being taken when it comes to urban planning and development.
Kunal Kumar: Yes. You need to guide citizens through engagements. You can’t just go out and say that a smart city mission has come up and that you need ideas to make Pune smart. It was a phenomenal exercise with five stages conducted over 100 days. First we took up the stage of envisioning for the cities and about 3 lakh families which is about 15 lakh individuals came together to decide what the vision for Pune should be. Here it was clear there that everyone wanted Pune to be the most livable city in the country. Once that was established, we then went onto the second stage, which was setting goals so that this vision could be met. The third stage was co-creation, where we said if these are the goals you have decided that Pune should opt for, then these are the projects we should look at adopting. Here we threw the plan open for citizens to ideate and come to us with their suggestions. After that, we had a refinement phase where we got together different experts from various fields and then they brainstormed different ideas and helped define solutions to the various problems the citizens had presented. The final phase was the sharing phase where everything that had been planned was placed before the citizens and I am very happy that they have fully supported the proposal.
Nikhil: What about the area-based development component of the Smart City mission? Did you go through a similar process in shortlisting a region for this?
Kunal Kumar: Yes. We selected 11 areas based on the parameters listed under the mission and we put these up in front of the citizens. They were then asked to vote on six different questions and a weighted averaged measure was done and one area was selected .Simultaneously, we brought together people’s representatives from all parties, including ministers, MPs, MLAs and opposition leaders to vote on which area they wanted to go for. And amazingly, they went for the same area which the citizens had voted for. Once we decided the area to be developed, we went to each household in that area, talked to the people to figure out the problems they were facing, to get their thoughts on how to develop a smart city in that area and we have taken those ideas and incorporated them in our proposal. The area we have finally chosen for area-based development under the Smart City plan is the Aundh-Baner-Balewadi region which is spread over 900 acres. We expect the population here to increase nearly four times over the next 15 years. This area lies on the western extremity of Pune and is very close to Mumbai. It has a university, a lot of IT companies, five-star condominiums and a river front. We plan on completely transforming the area through our smart city proposal with plans to introduce smart streets, smart street lighting, smart metering, smart water supply and a lot more innovations. We are also setting up of India’s one of the largest startup/innovation hubs in that area where we can initiate and accelerate startups. We also have plans to setup multimodal transit hubs too, so a lot of plans in the offing for that area.
Nikhil: What about funding? Do you have an estimate on how much this exercise will cost you?
Kunal Kumar: Our estimated budget for the smart city proposal is around 3,500 crores out of which 1,000 crores goes into the pan-city kitty. Around 1,200 crores will go into the area-development kitty and around 1,200 to 1,300 crores is expected to go towards recurring expenditure over 5 years for various expenses.
Nikhil: I understand that the funding that comes in from the central government may not be enough to fully implement your smart city proposal. Are you looking at alternative sources of financing?
Kunal Kumar: We are aware that funding is limited but we are looking at this funding in the nature of seed capital. There are multiple other ways of funding our plans that we are looking at. You might be aware that the Pune municipal corporation did its credit rating exercise very recently and Fitch has ranked us stable AA, which is one of the best ratings that any municipal corporation in the country probably has at the moment. So we are very stable in terms of revenue, incomes and the kind of balance sheet we have. We are looking at leveraging the market; we are looking at land monetization, we will look at user charges. We could be looking at municipal bonds; we could be looking at multilateral and bilateral agencies and tie ups with them. So there are many options that we have so I think financing is not going to be a problem for our city.
Nikhil: How about engaging with foreign agencies and foreign governments in terms of technical assistance and financial assistance?
Kunal Kumar: We have been in touch with many other foreign governments. The UK government has shown interest in developing Pune as a smart city and their representatives have been in talks with us to discuss the roadmap ahead. We are looking at both commercial as well as technical collaboration with their experts coming here and our experts going there. We plan on collaborating on transport, collaborating on setting up an innovation hub, collaborating on ease of doing business. There are many such plans in the offing and it is very exciting to see that a lot of people want to support Pune on its journey.
Nikhil: We are getting a lot of complaints that Pune is getting congested. Existing infrastructure is under severe pressure and it is becoming a lot like Mumbai in that respect. And now, on top of this we have these smart city plans also coming in. What are you planning on doing to upgrade and improve infrastructure?
Kunal Kumar: If you see any growing city, the infrastructure always tends to be under pressure and that’s been the case with Pune because the city has really grown phenomenally in the last 15 to 20 years. We have our plans to improve infrastructure and we have our funding plans in place so that hard infrastructure can be developed. The Pune metro in fact is now in the last stages of approval and I think the approval should come in at any time in the next three months. I expect work will start on the metro within another 6 months. We have incidentally launched our Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in August and we are looking at an ambitious plan to increase the number of kilometers that we have under BRT. Nearly 12 lakh people travel on public transport every day in Pune, but there is scope to increase this number phenomenally. It is all about making public transport more comfortable, more convenient for people. That is our focus and a major plan of our smart city mission.
Nikhil: Agencies like CIDCO and the Pimpri-Chinchwad Municipal Corporation (PCMC) are trying to develop their own smart cities independently of the 100 smart cities mission. What do you think of all this competition coming in?
Kunal Kumar: The competition is always welcome. If CIDCO is doing something, if PCMC is doing something, it is great because their peers can learn from that. The very basis of the 100 Smart Cities competition is to help kickoff healthy innovation among cities. We in Pune are ready for the long-haul and it is definitely going to be a long-drawn process. A city is not going to come up overnight, it will take 10, 15 or even 20 years and even then, only those cities which have the wherewithal will succeed. So time will tell.
Nikhil Narayan Sivadas, Assistant Editor, NDTV