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Smart Cities : More Questions Than Answers

Published May 17, 2015 by vishalvkale

SMART CITY
A ‘smart city’ is an urban region that is highly advanced in terms of overall infrastructure, sustainable real estate, communications and market viability. It is a city where information technology is the principal infrastructure and the basis for providing essential services to residents. A Smart City, should have Power, Water, Cleanliness, Seamless Information, 24/7 Utility Services, WiFi zones, Recreational Spaces, Waste Management, Connectivity in transport as well as communication, Speedy Service, Transparency and Accountability etc.

While there are good points & it is also a good and needed step, but…. firstly, it doesnt take into account the realities of the Indian Demography, Polity, Bureaucracy, Governance and Systems. it doesnt take into account the Indian Economy, and its doesnt take into account the status of the real estate sector, as also any number of other realities that beset the Indian Economy.


ECONOMIC STRUCTURE

Economic output by the entire corporate contributes just 18% or thereabouts to the Indian Economy. The rest is Agriculture, and unorganised sector. A smart city implies high doses of technological capability, which scores upon scores of our companies do not possess, and the gap is too large for them to plug, given the history and the monetary requirements. Other nations enjoy economies of scale and can produce whatever we can at cheaper rates. If we keep a purchase local condition, we are finished before we start, like the FDI in retail brouhaha.


If we cant compete in a commodity like Stainless Steel, it is foolish to believe we can compete in high-tech sectors. We have skills aplenty; they have the economies of scale, which is what is needed. For that, we have to dismantle a large part of our taxation structure, which is inverted in more than a few categories.



Next, how do you fit in the small variables like the thelaa-gaadis, small eateries, roadside stores etc – all the things that define a lovely Indian City in a Smart City concept? Is it clear? What happens to these small support services? They are a cultural reality; I wouldnt be caught dead in a 5-star; too stuffy and showy for my taste, Give me the fantastic Idli-Vada at Sion Station; given a choice, I would eat Idli Vada over those showy dishes in a Marriott any day! The point is that these minor details need to be idenitified and clarified before we start, or we run the risk of overzealous officials banning or relegating such activities to the backburner, leading to loss of livelihood to thousands, and an erosion of uniqueness and attractiveness as well.



Next, Sustainable Real Estate. End of Story. Take a gander at the real estate market in India. It is controlled and cartelised, beset by crime and corruption. TIll last year, prices were holding in Urban India depsite their being a 50% vacancy rate of unsold inventory. What happens when the Smart City Ball gets rolling? Sustainable? That it isnt. Valuations will go through the roof, and that is a fact. 


It completely ignores the structure of the Economy, which is characterised by small entrepreneurs. I would like to understand how the small entrepreneur with 50000 seed capital can make a mark in your smart cities. These ventures are capital intensive, and import oriented, which is the real reason why everyone from China to USA is agog; they see $$$$Kaching$$$$! Study the incomparable report on the Indian Economy by Prof Vaidyanathan – India, Uninc; it gives figures from Government sources and introduces you to the real India.


There are two data points available : 5th Economic Survey, 2005 and NSSO 2011, Both tell the same story: Smart Cities are nothing but a fantasy. They are premature, they are the future, but very premature. The Idea is right, but a decade or two too early. As per the first, there are 41.83 Million establishments in India; 76% of these worked without any power; employing 100.9 Million; 46% were own account establishments. As per NSSO 2011, 66% were OAE; retail trade slipped from 42% to 30% and ,manufacturing grew from 23% to 31%. Own Account Establishments were 60% of retail, 72% of Manufacturing, and 63% of service. Contribution to the GDP : between 46-58%.


Given the Smart City definition, a good number of them don’t fit – and largely for no fault of theirs. These organizations do not have the money to upgrade – they will upgrade eventually : a process that is currently underway. That is the time these concepts can work. And this will happen in tandem with improvements in education etc basic facilities in India, not before.

PRIORITIES & REQUIREMENTS

What does the nation require? Research shows that nearly 93Million of our farmers are losing 800-odd per crop; data shows the level of poverty in our nation; consumption trends corroborate, with the top 10% growing at a rate of 3% as opposed to 1% consumption growth for the bottom 40%. Farmer suicides are going up; the economic fundamentals are shaky; the global economy is in unprecedented turmoil, and all we can think of is Smart Cities? Our Armed Forces are in dire need of funds; and all we can think of is Smart Cities? We spend the lowest in GDP terms on Education, Defence and Health, and all we can think of are Smart Cities?



We dont need Smart Cities, We need Schools, Colleges, Primary Health Centers, Rockets, Mortars, Fighter Aircraft, Missiles, Satellites, Seed Research, Irrigation, Water Purity for Agriculture, Extension Workers to teach our Small and Marginal Farmers, Redoing our Duty and Taxation Structures, Fair prices for farmers at farm-gate, cement or pukka roads, etc etc. A smart city can come after that.



Besides, a Smart City requires – data connection. We in India have average & unreliable speeds of around 1,5mbps; the developed nations have a speed of upwards of 22mbps. They have high penetration of credit and debit cards and acceptability of online commerce; we dont. India has precisely 73Million broadband connections – this is including individuals with a double connection; I have three. Less than 69Million Indians consume more than 512mbps of data on a monthly basis; and cashless transactions are unknown outside the protected environs of top places.


The logic is sound, I clearly stated that concept is needed – but a decade or two too early. This will work in a relatively corruption-free atmosphere, where the Land issues are under control. That we dont have. Next, this works in economic reality which enable the above, which again we dont have, as I have been at pains to point out.


The shift to the small cities will not happen in the industrial sector; the vast majority – upto 90% – of the actual producers are concentrated in only a select few agglomerations, namely Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai, followed by Kolkata, Bangalore, Pune, Ahmedabad. Other second-level sites are Nashik, Meerut, Hyderabad, Coimbatore, Ludhiana, Kanpur, Rajkot,Surat. No one else comes even close to these cities, although Jaipur, Chandigarh, Hissar, Nagpur and a couple others do try hard. These are further populated by small enterprises.



The shift will not happen from these established centers; there is in existence an ecosystem that now is impossible to replace,. with manufacturing facilities being deeply interlinked with their vendors and suppliers who have now set up in the same or nearby areas. In B2B industries, a symbiotic relationship has started with the consumers and the manufacturers sometimes co-located, or located within 8-10Kms of each other.



The proof is in the manifest failure of industrial areas in other wannabe metros, like Indore and Bhopal, which have simple failed to take off. They remain consumption and trading centers, not producers, despite an incredible level of support given to them by successive Governments. The failure of Bhilai to rise as a comparable center to even Nagpur, let alone Surat & Rajkot, is a case in point.


MY FEAR
We are only exacerbating the rural-urban divide. As on date, few Urban Indians show the same level of passion for rural development, which is the only thing we need. Rest will take care of itself! We are asking people to focus their valuable- sorry, waste their valuable time on cities, where the conditions are utopic in comparison to villages and that is a fact! Large numbers of villagers would willingly settle for facilities comparable to our current “stupid cities” and that is also undeniable.


No amount of planning will overcome the serious objections there are, some of which are enlisted below. I dont buy visions; they are a dime a dozen. I buy execution – call it my sales instinct, but I am not impressed by Grand Visions without a proper execution document, which contains detailed studies & steps.  And this is not made after finalising the plan; that is stupid, blunt and straight. Typically, that is to be visualised before finalising the plan and the execution.



Where is that plan? If it exists, why isnt it in the public domain? Where is the detail on what exactly a “Smart City” means in practical terms – real world terms, not meaningless jargon, which even I can write, given I am a part-techie and a part-telecom / business person to boot?????? Give a person time and opportunity, and out comes a logical sounding plan! That is dead easy; doesnt require any great skill whatsoever. What will be the mode of transport in a Smart City? Residence and Commercial Areas? Connectivity in Roads? Size of internal roads? Drainage?



What will be the connectivity in terms of data and communication? What technology will be adopted? How will the technologies communicate with the other “stupid’ cities? What will it cost the residents?What happens to the slums? Or doesnt the concept apply to the slums? If they are in a smart city, they should be smart slums too! Each city has bylanes with crowded marketplaces; these are the epicenter of business in India, commanding a lion’s share of the business volume pan-India. What does this mean for them? What is in it for them?



How will rural India benefit? Please give specifics : not general statements like find jobs, or employment generation. Jobs in which industry, at what level paying what? Where will they stay? Where will the land come from? What will it do to land prices? How will you ensure proper settlement for dues – and if you think this is not important, I can produce 40 years worth of terrifying tales of neglect? How will you ensure Land Mafia is controlled – without real and serious administrative reform which no government – AAP apart- has shown any appetite for?



A Smart City means Power, Water round the clock, Where will that come from? We dont have enough power now, wont have for another 2 decades. Who will sacrifice their power for these Smart Cities? And why should any stupid city sacrifice even one kilowatt for a smart city, pray tell? Where will water come from? Any number of cities are seriously water deficient. Where is the plan for all this?????????



A Smart City implies a certain level of data connection backbone; which we dont have, and wont for a minimum 5-10 years more. It also means seamless information availability. How will you ensure that, given the various data collection points, formats, protocols? When your land records are not computerised? When any number of public facilities are not online fully, and there are no plans for them either? When you still have no common information system in the Government? When there is a redundancy in several documents?  I could go on and on… Where is the real plan?


Why does this generate this level of interest? Why doesnt the question of farmer suicides, famers earnings, rural facilities, etc generate the same level of attention, interest, passion in Urban Indians? Arent they Indians? What is being done for them, pray tell? We are still focussing on cities, not on the villages where the situation is decidedly bad. Why hasnt the same level of euphoria, the same level of passion, the same vision, the same money been generated for setting things right in Rural India? The government is hard selling this concept abroad, showcasing our development, whereas we require basic steps like Education, Health, Governance and Defence!



What it should have done is launched rural programmes with the same fervor, passion, vision and attention – which is not the case. We have finite resources both in terms of money as well as other aspects. How we spend those resources is the key.

In point of fact, Smart Cities is the last thing we need; we dont have the ground realities even in urban India for it, and that is a fact. Not one person anywhere in India has even tried to meet the serious and potent objections being raised by any number of people; and are focussing on the vision. 




Remember : Great plans fail on execution as, among other reasons, it turns out that the ground realities did not support the plan in the first place.



Modi Sarkar and The Farmer : The Achilles Heel

Published May 2, 2015 by vishalvkale

MODI SARKAR : THE ACHILLES HEEL

It has taken a long time to manifest itself, but at long last, we see a developing Achilles Heel in our famed Modi Sarkar; a sad development indeed, given that this is the best government we have had in the past several decades. The only good thing is that the Achilles Heel has manifested itself from a totally unexpected direction; not only that, it also holds serious potential of rekindling a genuine opposition on a national scale, which is a needed and vital component of a functioning democracy.

It has taken twin developments in two connected areas for the weakness to manifest itself : Farmers’ Suicides, and The Land Bill. Taken together, this has created a situation in which, if properly strategized, the opposition can rebuild itself, while simultaneously undermining the central government.

THE CONGRESS : AWAKENING
The sad part is that once again,  it is the Congress that has the opportunity to rise from the ashes. This is sad because it has yet again failed to democratize, and has placed its faith on Dynasty. I have nothing against Rahul Gandhi; he may be an excellent potential leader for all I know; then again, he might not. That is not relevant; what is relevant is the fact that The Congress does not have any leader it feels can connect with the people, despite having some good people on its roster.

Be that as it may, the  Congress has taken what seems to be the right step; change track from the all-too-familiar “communal politics” track to a far more sensible and development oriented focus : that of the farmer and their issues. This bodes well for our democracy, for our economy and for our society, as now there is a chance the real issues might get a much needed attention and focus.

The best way to tackle communalism is not to fan it; all the while building solid relationships within communities. A politically charged message has a polarizing impact, and if the community specific plank is being abandoned by all parties, this is a development worth celebrating. If all parties can abandon a community specific focus, the only way India can go is up and forward. Aag ko jitnaa tool doge, jitni hawaa doge, utni failegi.

And harping on the communal message, which was not making a connect with any definable voter base was always a suspect strategy. Besides, there has to be a provable base for such a strategy that can be directly traced back to your opposition; and this is clearly absent in the BJP.


THE BJP : SLEEPING!
The BJP, meanwhile, is basking in the glory of its rise to power, and ignoring these undercurrents, which might yet turn into a deluge. While it is doing excellent work in any number of areas, its approach and presentation to the people on these two issues is strange and more than a little disturbing, given the party’s admirable understanding of the pulse of India and the Indian people.

Please note my choice of words : in this article, I am taking no position on the Central Government’s Agricultural and Land Policies – that is the subject of another, research based and supported article/s that I shall take up a little later on the Agricultural challenges being faced by India. I am only analyzing the potential impact of the presentation in front of the people, and the angst among them.

It adheres to a top-down development ideology, counting on investment in infrastructure, amenities to drive rural upliftment and employment, while attempting to ensure good governance at all levels of Government. It has also taken a few good steps in the Agriculture sector {Analysed on my blog here : Union Budget Analysis}; these will require time to properly strategise and implement.

What is more pertinent that it has done little to meet head-on the anti-farmer label that is being leveled against it by some, beyond messages to the farming community by the PM. More and more parties and  groups are now coming into the open, calling its policies as pro-Urban India and anti-farmer. The most important aspect that the BJP seems to have forgotten is the population of India – the top 200 Urban Agglomerations account for only around 15.46% of population as per Census 2011

Thus, any message targeted at the rural community that is focused not on ideology, religion, regionalism but rather on their bread and butter is certain to get the attention of the people. That is a foregone conclusion; the needs of the stomach will take primacy; that is a primordial fear. The BJP is giving a message of development : how is this message being received by the population? Is it making a connect with the people?

THE HISTORY
For Urban India, it means investments, growth and jobs. What does it mean for Rural India? What have the prior experiences of Rural India been in this regard? It should mean the same for them : but is this the way it is being perceived in Rural India? Farmers stand to lose their lands; what will they get in return? Each piece of land further supports landless labourers, input vendors etc – we are talking of snatching an entire ecosystem.

What is the history, the prior experiences of the farming community in India? As This Article : Why Farmers Have Every Right to Feel Gypped explores in painful detail – there is a sad, almost terrifying history of governmental failure of monumental  proportions behind this rising tide of protests against the BJP Government with regard to the Agricultural Sector;  what is sad is that this Government has actually started a series of steps that drive some hope into the refurbishment of this sector in the budget, which makes this image of anti-farmer a real tragedy in itself.

And look at the third and recent case reported this month in The Times of India which makes you want to cry and laugh – both at the same time!
The gist of the case is: in 1998, the Railways acquired land from Mela Ram and Madan Lal to lay the Una-Amb track in Himachal Pradesh. As usual, the Railways adopted delaying tactics when it came to paying up. The farmers filed a case for enhanced compensation. After a fair amount of legal to-ing and fro-ing,  in 2013, the HP High Court directed the railways to pay the money within six weeks. “But the railways hasn’t deposited the amount until now”, the farmers’ advocate AK Saini said a few weeks ago. Typical.
So, on April 9, 2015, Mukesh Bansal, the additional district and sessions judge of Una ordered the attachment of the train if the railways failed to pay compensation to the two farmers!! The court said if Mela Ram and Madan Lal did not get Rs. 8.91 lakh and Rs. 26.53 lakh respectively, the train would be stopped at Una station at 5 am on April 16 and attached by it. The farmers were asked to select one out of four trains – and they selected The Delhi-Una Janshatabdi Express!


SUMMARY
My point is simple : the steps taken by the BJP Government have exposed a chink in their armoury, one that is now being exploited by the opposition. This is the Achilles Heel; their weakness. And there is nothing they can do about it; not over the short term. I have purposely taken an isolated case history above : the point is that there is a feeling of inadequacy and helplessness that is rooted in genuine truth and a terrifying history of crass incompetence on the part of successive central governments over the years.

And this atmosphere is giving rise to an opposition movement that is, for the first time in my memory {correct me if I am wrong}, focused on real issues that make a powerful connect with the target audience in Rural India as on solid whole. For the first time, we now have an issue-based discussion in Indian Politics, which is bringing this issue mainstream.

All it really requires to bring the BJP juggernaut to a grinding halt is a solid loss in a few upcoming state elections; were that to happen, coming on top of the shock in Delhi, things will get interesting, as the BJP will be forced to recalibrate and reassess its approach and its communication. Unless the BJP can get its house in order and connect with Rural India and its real issues in light of the historical experience and the on-ground realities and challenges in Rural India, they stand to lose ground…

New Delhi’s Astounding 67: Why The BJP Should Not Panic

Published February 11, 2015 by vishalvkale

The astounding 67… a major victory of the Aam Aadmi Party, and an almost seminal event in Indian Politics. Any election that returns 95% successful candidates is an astonishing event, deserving of accolades as well as hopes of genuine change. But let us not go overboard and read too much into this, for a deeper look at the ground realities and figures reveals a slightly different picture.

This cuts both ways and has major positives as well as negatives. The positives have been exceedingly well documented and commented upon, including the emergence of the Aam Aadmi Party as a significant player in the consideration set of voters. Once can be a fluke, or euphoria; twice cannot. The AAP now has emerged as an acceptable alternative in front of the people.

It is being said that this is a setback for the BJP, and a comment on Narendra Modi and the current Government. That it is – but only up to a point. On this, I agree with the BJP Government, but the reasons are different. And that reason is not connected to this being a state election, or limited to one city-state alone.

Firstly, this election does not represent an rejection of the BJP government by the electorate : their vote share remains intact at 32.2% vis-à-vis the last state election in New Delhi. What this essentially means is that those voted for the BJP and Narendra Modi, elected to do so again, by and large. Thus, prima facie, there hasn’t yet been a major shift either way for the BJP, neither is there any discernible dissatisfaction with their performance among its supporters. To know more, we shall have to wait for more detailed figures and psephological analysis to emerge, as well as more data from other coming state elections this year. As of now, it is too early to comment.

The biggest, and indeed only, defeat of the BJP has been its inability to expand  its voteshare, and appeal to a broader cross-section of the society. It has apparently not been able to appeal to a larger cross-section, which should be the cause of deep introspection within its ranks. If they think they have nothing to worry about in other areas, they may just be right. A few days ago, Indore returned the BJP in a majority in the municipal elections. The BJP remains limited to its core set of followers, and this is both a strong point as well as an Achilles heel.

In a straight one-on-one contest between two parties, the BJP was decimated. Nowhere else in India can this be a reality, thus making the chances of BJP victories elsewhere as well as in 2019 almost certain, or at least making it the only strong contendor. The learning for the BJP is that the moment the fragmented vote consolidates; it will get decimated by the electorate.

It needs to take a deep look at its own failures and tone down the fundamentalist aspects of some of its people to grow beyond this share. It also needs to take a deep look at its economic policies, as well as how it markets and sells them to the people. There is a good chance that the recent episodes of fundamentalist proponents, and the attendant silence of the officialdom at the top, has ensured that its appeal has not grown despite a good performance in the central government till date. This is combined with the other economic issues, creating a lack of growth.

This is a worry because you are performing well {excellent, in fact}  in the government, and are yet unable to win the electorate. This also places at risk your existing vote share, in that they may get swayed by the negative coverage of some of the policies and aspects. If you are doing a great job, you should grow : this is a clear basic aspect of life itself. And this election shows that despite an excellent performance, it has not been able to grow.

In other states, the electorate gets divided, with other strong contenders who have their own set of followers, which ensures a division of the non-BJP vote bank; with the BJP maintaining its appeal, their victory becomes easy, as recent history has proven. Thus, there is no reason to hit the panic button – but there is reason to worry for the BJP.
In one way, this represents a clear rejection of at least some aspects of the BJP’s agenda; what precise aspects of the agenda have been rejected is not yet fully clear, and will require more data. But, as I observe above, they have completely failed to convert non-voters into their agenda, who remain unconvinced regarding the BJP. That is why, in the presence of a credible single alternative, with a pedigreed track-record of the past year when the AAP did ground-work, the BJP was decimated.


And that is also why this election has thrown many questions for us as a people, as well as clarified once and for all the full scenario. Furthermore, as we shall see in the next article in this mini-series, this election has also actually relegated the AAP to the level of a regional small outfit, with very little chance of growing into a national player as things currently stand. Thus, this election represents in a small way a major electoral triumph of the BJP. For the nation, this election is a cause to celebrate as well as worry, as I look at in the next part of this series, which will deal with the Aam Aadmi Party…