One initiative, many perspectives: the Indian Smart Cities Mission, part 2

A version of this post is also available on Greg Marsden’s personal blog page, where he writes on various transport and governance-related issues.

My last blog post on the UnderReform project covered some of the dialogue we have had with stakeholders about what kind of initiative the Smart Cities Mission is. In this post, I focus on one of our core interests which was to understand what was happening in terms of changing governance relationships. We can only see some of this, as we have yet to speak with national level stakeholders (underway this week!).

Indian flag waving in breeze

However, the introduction of a competition for funding marks a major departure in the way Indian government works. This has been generally welcomed by our interviewees, albeit that these are the winners of the funds. The process of implementation is of particular interest. The initiative is delivered through Special Purpose Vehicles (SPV), constituted of local and state actors with private sector funding also drawn in. The SPVs are scrutinised by, and report to, central government. They are accountable for spending against profile and on projects in the agreed areas or on specified pan-area initiatives. The SPVs are largely staffed by private sector consultants to draw in skills and innovation whilst being able to bypass the pay structures and bureaucracy of the Indian Civil Service. We will be exploring this further, as whilst it may make for a more effective delivery mechanism for funding, it has a number of potential implications:

  • This seems to work against the general principles of devolution of powers and funding through the 74th Amendment. The ways in which the money is channelled and the high levels of scrutiny of expenditure and programme suggest strong centralising behaviours.
  • The decision to deliver the projects through an SPV builds on previously successful models (e.g. Delhi Metro). Whilst it seems to enable access to different skills, the SPVs are only scheduled to last five years and there are risks that there will be little or no capacity building within the local government as a result of the SCM.
  • The strong emphasis on spend and delivery of programme may be limiting participation and debate in the projects and programmes. Whilst we see evidence of increased e-participation initiatives this is not accessible to everyone and it seems to focus on consultation on implementation rather than on needs in the first place.

In writing this update, I have deliberately tried to focus on questions of what is rather than what should be. There are many more statements and comments on the latter rather than the former both more broadly in the literature, the media and even in our interviews. At this stage we feel it critical to focus our efforts on what has actually been happening before we can make conclusions regarding implications on issues such as how this relates to development needs in India, democratic processes, participation, implementation and outcomes for the public. What is clear is that the SCM is a fascinating case to study because of its implications for narratives of development and modes of governing. Some of these might be more significant in the longer term than the specific details of the SCM itself.

We are keen to develop and share this debate as broadly as possible. Please get in touch via our contact page, on twitter @underreform or through one of our forthcoming presentations:

World Conference on Transport Research Special Session, Mumbai – May 2019
International Public Policy Association, Montreal – June 2019
Royal Geographical Society Annual Conference, London – August 2019.

Photo credit: © Yann Forget / Wikimedia Commons