17 Feb 2016 14:53 IST

This ‘queen’ is in desperate need of a facelift

But inadequacy of land, and a turf war among civic authorities, cramp Kochi’s revival

The ‘Queen of the Arabian Sea’, as Kochi is somewhat grandiosely known, is getting on in years, and age is beginning to tell on her. Civic administrators are, therefore, looking to leverage the Smart City Project to restore some of her lost vitality.

The coastal city in Kerala was for centuries the centre of a flourishing spice trade, which drew merchants from far, including Greece, Rome, Arab lands, and China. But in more modern times, it has evolved as the State’s commercial capital, with construction, manufacturing, trade, tourism and hospitality driving economic growth.

And, yet, several impediments are hindering the city’s smooth development, the foremost among them being an acute scarcity of land for development, and an outward migration of its educated population.

Administrators are looking to respond to these challenges and open up new avenues for investments that will render the city “really smart” in every way, as APM Mohammed Hanish, the seasoned IAS officer who heads the Smart City Mission, says.

To read the previous Smart City profile, click here .

Focus on quality of life

The project envisages a pan-city initiative to enhance the quality of life of its residents, through improved living spaces, by ensuring their safety through a network of surveillance cameras, providing rechargeable points for electric vehicles, and providing energy-efficient street lights. There are also plans to enable residents to avail of services and make utility payments under a single open-loop smart card. An effort to integrate multi-modal transport systems – roadways and waterways – efficiently is also being planned.

Given the shortage of land for development, the fact that land parcels are badly fragmented, and the impracticality of demolishing existing structures, city authorities have given up on the options of Greenfield development and redevelopment. Instead, the area-based development programme will focus on retrofitting a 7-sq-km area encompassing the Fort Kochi, Mattancherry and Ernakulam Central City regions.

The central themes of the project are seamless connectivity, improved basic services, enhancement of tourist experiences, and connectivity of open spaces.Hanish says a special purpose vehicle (SPV) will be formed soon, with an IAS officer as its CEO, to implement the project.

The total development cost – for the pan-city initiatives and the area-based retrofits – is estimated at ₹2,076 crore. The Centre will contribute ₹500 crore, and the State and the Urban Local Body (ULB) will contribute ₹577 crore. The rest of the funds will be tapped from other sources – such as funding from multilateral agencies such as the World Bank and the ADB; through the issue of municipal and infrastructure bonds; and through PPP, Hanish said.

“The idea is to position Kochi as a city with unique potential in the whole of South Asia. We intend to complete the procedural matters like formation of SPV and appointment of officers to it by March 31,” he said.

Turf wars

However, the Kochi Municipal Corporation is apprehensive about the structure of the SPV, as the urban local body fears that it will be sidelined in the decision-making process and that its role in shaping Kochi’s future will be restricted.

“Ours is a democratically elected representative body and has constitutionally guaranteed powers of Panchayati Raj institutions,”points out City Mayor Soumini Jain.

“The council should be given prominence in the SPV, especially in the delegation of power. A mere representation on the SPV is not agreeable; the statutory powers of the ULB cannot be surrendered,” she adds.

There have been reports, as yet unconfirmed, that the ULB will be required to hand over to the SPV a fair bit of its constitutionally delegated powers, including the planning of projects and tax collections.

Asked how the cash-starved Kochi Municipal Corporation would contribute its share of the funds for the Smart City project, Jain said these issues would be decided after discussions in the council.

Asked about the possibility of collecting user fee for services, Jain said there were several other options in the smart city guidelines, which could be explored. However, the priority would be given to the welfare of the people, she said.

Implementation challenges

Hanish said that the authorities were fully aware of the challenges to be faced at the implementation stage of the project, particularly the scarcity of land and the lack of synergy among different departments. These challenges, he said, would be addressed by the SPV.

Cochin Chamber of Commerce and Industry, the 158-year old trade body that ideates on developmental activities in the city, believes that there needs to be a change in the mindset of people if Kochi is to be made a smart city in “every sense”.

The trade body president, C.S.Kartha, suggested that NRI investments be tapped, given the growth in expatriate remittances to Kerala, which is to the tune of ₹1 lakh crore.

Of ideas, therefore, there are aplenty; the hurdles are in the implementation. Precisely how this coastal ‘queen’ reconciles these differences will determine whether her stately grace will regain its vitality and glow for centuries to come.