28 Aug 2015 19:03 IST

In the smart city challenge, my vote goes to Bhubaneshwar

From an efficiently run administration, well built infrastructure to a novel e-governance system, this city trumps on several facets

When the Government announced the names of 98 cities that have made it to the second round of the Smart Cities Challenge, I was delighted to find Bhubaneshwar on the list. The inclusion of Odisha’s capital may not have come as a surprise to most, including me, but I was glad. I have been to Bhubaneshwar four times, the latest being last week, and have always enjoyed my visits there.

This time, there were a few changes from my last visit around four years ago. The Biju Patnaik International Airport looked cleaner and outside, cabs were better regulated, and overall it was not as chaotic as it was when I first visited the city in 2009. In July this year, the airport had seen its first international flight taking off. The aviation industry has been bolstered by the Naveen Patnaik-government’s move to reduce the value added tax on aviation turbine fuel to zero from five per cent.

As the taxi took me to the hotel, I was again impressed by the clean pavements and wide and well-maintained roads. And I was pleased to note that the city walls continued to be largely free of posters – of both the political and movie kinds – that, in cities such as Chennai, seem to occupy every wall available in a public space like water hyacinths.

Most of the boundary walls, especially those along the arterial roads, have been turned into canvases that feature ethnic Odiya art. In some places the paint has begun to wear out and I hope the Bhubaneswar Municipal Corporation will take note.

The most impressive part of Bhubaneshwar is the separate, clean zones for vendors. The stalls here, most of them coloured green, are easily recognisable, well organised and maintained, and are clean. One hardly finds a vendor with his cart eating into the road space, a sight common to other parts of the country. Zones like these bring ease to everyone’s lives – from vendors to consumers.

Last week, I had written on my experience at the government secretariat in Bhubaneshwar; and also the administration’s attempt to leverage technology to attract investors. To cater to the common man, a recent report by Indian Express said that the Odisha government had already taken the digital mode for accessing things such as birth certificate, passport, land registration, college admissions and driving license. While most of the digital push has originated from the central government, Odisha has done well till now to implement it.

Becoming smart

So do these things already make Bhubaneshwar smart, at least partly?

The smart city statement and guidelines released by the Ministry of Urban Development in June is pretty detailed in the definition of a smart city.

It says: “The conceptualisation of Smart City, therefore, varies from city to city and country to country, depending on the level of development, willingness to change and reform, resources and aspirations of the city residents. A Smart City would have a different connotation in India than, say, Europe.”

It is a valid point. So the things that impressed me about Bhubaneshwar, would be a given in the cities of the developed world. Our needs and aspirations are different.

The Ministry’s statement adds: “To provide for the aspirations and needs of the citizens, urban planners ideally aim at developing the entire urban eco-system, which is represented by the four pillars of comprehensive development — institutional, physical, social and economic infrastructure. This can be a long term goal and cities can work towards developing such comprehensive infrastructure incrementally, adding on layers of ‘smartness.’

The document then lists 10 core infrastructure elements of a smart city. How does Bhubaneshwar fare on them? I’m not the best person to comment on this as I have not lived there. From my stays of up to three days, I can say that the Odisha capital fares favourably on indicators such as sanitation and solid waste management. I read recently that the BMC has made plans to ensure adequate drinking water supply and 24X7 power supply, which are not consistent at present. Apart from these, it is surely improving on e-Governance front.

But how does the city fare in safety and security; or, public transport, health and education?

Execution does it

Many of the elements that are working for Bhubaneshwar, and which impressed me, were a result of one woman’s initiatives. Her name is Aparajita Sarangi, the 1994-cadre IAS officer who was the Commissioner of the Bhubaneshwar Municipal Corporation (BMC) from 2006 to 2009. Quoting from a profile of her in Governancenow.com, “She made Bhubaneswar more presentable and a model for many cities to follow.”

But similar to the career graph of every other bureaucrat known for her work, Sarangi too has been perennially on the transfer train. Sarangi, who is currently Joint Secretary in the Union Ministry of Rural Development, was frequently transferred. In 2012-2013, she had been transfered thrice.

And therein is the real challenge of the smart cities dream. After the final 20 cities are selected in the third round of the challenge, the central government will sanction Rs 500 crore to each of the cities over five years. That is big money that needs to be utilised well with proper and periodic audit. A friend in Odisha told me that Sarangi’s initiatives often clashed with political interests in Bhubaneshwar.

One particular politician, who has since passed away, was particularly adamant in making her life difficult.

The alignment of political interests with the goals of smart cities will be crucial to the success of this project. In India, it rarely has. But being the eternal optimist, one can only hope.

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