Smart States Are Needed, before the Cities Turn Smart

- By Rohith Batni Rao
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The current NDA government in India has been making quite a lot of noise about the hundred smart cities that it wants to build. All this noise is uncalled for in a federal democracy. In fact it appears to be signaling the formation of an ecosystem of governance where the States are conveniently expelled from their place between the Centre and the people!

Smart Cities Council, a portal where global companies and city stakeholders discuss smart city ideas, hosts this infographic that explains the nitty-gritties of smart cities. According to it, a smart city is that which is nearly self-sustenant and whose public policy and data are transparently available to people for scrutiny and other uses.

The idea of smart city also strives to make legislation and policing minimal by letting advanced technology assist, if not replace them. More importantly, at the heart of these smart cities, is the idea of governance by least hops and the idea of self-rule. For cities in India, the closest tier of an elected government is either a municipality, corporation or the panchayat. The central government is far-fetched and impractical. Attempts like these being made by the Urban Development ministry in GoI, therefore, are designed to fail.

If self-sustenance and local governance are the mantras for smart and efficient living in the modern world, then Smart States, not cities are what India needs primarily and urgently. These smart States would have to be more self-sustenant, self-reliant and self-driven than they are allowed to be in India today.

Having some cities under the direct regulation of the central government burdens it with additional fiscal responsibility but brings in revenues that the States need and deserve more, thus denying those cities and States the attention and resources they need and deserve. Given the nature of horizontal fiscal devolution prevalent in India, such centrist ideas of building cities could siphon funds away from well performing cities into the non-performing, yet enumerated cities. This corrupts fiscal performance equation of States and also creates an unfair and uncompetitive environment in the nation.

Amidst all the diversity in India a State is the real unit of governance that needs to turn smarter, not the city. It is a smart decision to respect the diversity and embrace the challenges it offers, for a solution agnostic of diversity is not smartness, it is brutal rudeness. That is the real federal way of imbibing smartness, for smartness of a democratic and diverse nation like India really lay in its Federalism.


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