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What is the future of digital infrastructure under the Smart Cities Mission?

Since the urban local bodies play a decisive role in planning, provision, and delivery of services, the digital infrastructure created under the Smart Cities Mission should be handed over to them

June 24, 2022 / 12:09 PM IST
Representative Image.

Representative Image.

Gaurav Mittal and Khaliq Parkar

When the Smart Cities Mission (SCM) was launched on June 25, 2015, it did not define ‘Smart’. The emphasis however, was clearly on creating digital infrastructure, and utilising technology solutions for urban management and service delivery.

Many cities have managed to roll out digital infrastructure since then — the most ubiquitous of these are the Integrated Command and Control Centres (ICCCs) that doubled as war-rooms for many cities during the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, cities installed other digital infrastructures — sensors to measure traffic flows, on-board units that monitor municipal vehicles, smart-poles that perform multiple sensing, monitoring, and networking functions, and numerous apps for citizen services.

As cities scramble to finish projects before the looming closure of the SCM next year, it is an opportune moment to ask: what happens to the city’s digital infrastructure and the data it produces?

The SCM asked that cities create Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) under the Companies Act to plan and roll out projects. The SPVs are owned equally by the respective state governments and the Urban Local Bodies (ULBs) creating equal stakes. These bodies fall outside conventional hierarchies of urban administrative structures. It was imagined that the SPVs would be able to remove administrative bottlenecks in project implementation, encourage co-ordination between agencies, facilitate convergence of funds, and attract private sector investments in the cities.

While the SPVs can be seen as relatively successful in implementing projects in co-ordination with different departments at the city level, there are few examples of effective convergence of funds or private sector investment — the SPVs mostly rely on the SCM funds to implement the projects, and for their everyday operations. Once the SCM funding dries up, there is no clarity on the future of how the SPVs will be financed.

Like the uncertain future of the SPVs, the prospects of digital infrastructure assets, and the data they produce are even more unclear. The primary problem is the lack of a clear ownership of infrastructure. If the SPV is dissolved, who will control assets on which substantial amount of public money has been spent? While some infrastructure is created for public agencies such as the transport or the police departments, it is not yet understood if they have ownership of this.

Beyond ownership, who will monitor this infrastructure? Many of the smart cities projects have operation and maintenance (O&M) contracts for up to seven years between the vendors and the SPVs. It is not clear which agency will handle these contracts if the SPVs are disbanded. There are numerous examples where infrastructures such as public buses, and sewage treatment plants have fallen apart after programme completion under previous governments. Such classic infrastructures require more upfront investment and lesser expenditure in O&M, but the case for digital infrastructure is vice versa. Digital infrastructures disintegrate rapidly if not calibrated, and serviced regularly.

The SCM also imagined that digital infrastructures will generate future revenue for the city. Experience from past missions such as the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) has shown the failure of this model. Smart poles and optical fibre installed by the SPV could be leased to telecom companies for 5G rollout, but with uncertain ownership of the assets, it is unclear which city agency can enforce the O&M clauses on vendors and firms, and who can collect revenues from these assets.

The ICCCs are the core digital infrastructure that monitor all other infrastructures created under the SCM. Furthermore, the ICCCs centralise all data acquired from these infrastructures, and create a clear picture of city-level services, from traffic and public transport to solid waste management. Which city agency would monitor all city services in the ICCCs, if the SPVs can no longer do so? Data from the ICCCs can be used to improve service delivery, reduce leakages, and create solutions, but not without a clear agency to perform analytics on this data.

Since the ULBs already play a decisive role in planning, provision, and delivery of services at local level, the digital infrastructure created under the SCM should be handed over to the ULBs. This assets transfer will not only give a clear sense of ownership, but will also effectively bring digital infrastructure under public scrutiny and control.

Digital assets may also enable a revenue stream to the ULBs — infrastructure networks like fibre optic cables and smart poles can be leased. These revenues may help fund the O&M costs, and may also contribute to future augmentation of infrastructure. The value of data created by these infrastructures could also be explored — by making traffic data open-access to researchers, universities, and hackathons, and crowd-sourced solutions could be utilised instead of expenditure on consultants for future solutions.

Gaurav Mittal is Senior Research Associate, Centre for Policy Research. Khaliq Parkar is PhD researcher at CESSMA, Université Paris Cité. Views are personal, and do not represent the stand of this publication.

first published: Jun 24, 2022 12:09 pm