Important lessons for the Smart Cities Mission


Content from the Brookings Institution India Center is now archived. After seven years of an impactful partnership, as of September 11, 2020, Brookings India is now the Centre for Social and Economic Progress, an independent public policy institution based in India.

Editor's note:

This article first appeared in the Mint. The views are of the author(s). 

With the 26th UN-Habitat governing council conference (GC26) held last month, the new urban agenda (NUA) has once again come to the fore. As the world moves towards a globalized policy discourse, one wonders if the NUA is an improvement on the existing unratifiable global documents. India’s minister for urban development, Venkaiah Naidu, chairing GC26, provided a fillip to the government’s motto of “Integrated, Inclusive and Sustainable Urban Development”. In his keynote address, Naidu highlighted the Smart Cities Mission (SCM) as prominently allied to the goals of the UN-Habitat. In this situation, one is tempted to ask, what next? How does the introduction of the NUA drive urban policy discourse for the Indian scenario?

While the NUA is not without its faults, one must use it as a lens to study policy developments, rather than view it as a stand-alone manuscript. Coming on the heels of the announcement of the UN’s sustainable development goals (SDGs), the NUA is a landmark vision document that calls for a paradigm shift in addressing urban issues, rooted in concerns of sustainability. Allied with the SDGs, the NUA promises to usher in an innovative era of global urban policy. “Sustainability” (through sustainable economies and environmental sustainability) and “inclusivity” (through the “right to city” paradigm) are the core principles of the NUA. Placing an unprecedented emphasis on local governance, the NUA requires that countries involve municipal, state and federal governments to form a basic framework for implementation of urban reforms.

The most controversial phrase in the NUA is the “right to city”—a LeFebvrian concept that propounds equal access to various facets of an urban life to all city-dwellers—shot down by developed and developing countries alike. While countries in the West are primarily concerned about the implications the right to city has for specific cases like sanctuary cities, developing countries are uncomfortable with the possible legitimacy granted to squatter settlements and the resulting consequences, for land regulation policies and physical infrastructure.

In 2015, the Union government launched its flagship scheme targeting urban transformation, the SCM. Touted to be one of the largest enabling policy mechanisms for a gamut of projects (oriented across infrastructure and service industries), the mission targets the 100 cities chosen by the ministry of urban development (MoUD) to be a part of the Smart Cities Mission. Based on the proposals submitted by each city, the MoUD announced a list of 20 winning cities in January 2016. Further, other cities were encouraged to rework their proposals to re-enter the challenge.

With an emphasis on smart governance, the SCM has the potential to be the blueprint for a new era of governance systems in the country. The challenge component of the SCM is one of its characteristic features, ushering in an era of competitive federalism in Indian policymaking. Moreover, the element of self-evaluation and consequent project proposals for development and transformation of the city provide greater freedom to the city to decide personal goals for the SCM, overturning the rather static ideas of Centre-based policy schemes for urbanization.


Using the NUA as a lens to view the SCM is quite simple. The smart city guidelines stipulate that the Indian smart city needs to adhere to 24 features in order to be “smart”. The overlap between these features and the transformative commitments of the NUA are quite significant. With an emphasis on promoting civic engagement and strengthening participatory local governance, the NUA mirrors the commitment of the smart city for civic participation—where the citizens of the city have been involved in the mission at every step through polls and calls for suggestions to redevelop their cities. Similarly, the SCM has promoted the concept of municipal bonds in Indian cities. Further, with regard to the empanelment of special transaction advisers for each of the cities, the MoUD has also assigned credit ratings for most of the smart cities to facilitate the process of issuing municipal bonds for mobilization of resources. On the other hand, the NUA calls for sustainable financial frameworks for municipal finance and local fiscal systems.

The NUA aspires to integrated and vulnerable section—responsive housing policies, aspects that many of India’s smart cities are paying close attention to—with the lead city Bhubaneswar making these the prime focus of its redevelopment efforts. Furthermore, both the NUA and SCM guidelines pay close attention to infrastructure and services such as solid waste management, compact urban planning and energy resources. At this juncture, the SCM can be viewed as an extension of the strategy expressed in the NUA.

As India strives to leave a mark on a world that is becoming increasingly urban, we would do well to follow a comprehensive and well chalked out strategy for our cities. Though a commendable step in the right direction, the SCM has its own pitfalls and shortcomings. With urbanization gaining prominence in the global policy discourse, it is important, now more than ever, to focus on local governance. Currently, there is an inadequate emphasis on the functioning of urban local bodies when it comes to centrally motivated schemes like the SCM. India is a signatory of the SDGs. Paying further attention to the aspects of resilience and local governance outlined in the NUA and the allied action framework can ensure that Indian cities respond to more than just competitive sub-federalism. Indian cities, catalysed by learnings from the NUA, can become competitive global cities.