Hope springs in India’s smart cities

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi’s promise to create 100 hi-tech urban spaces is in the works. And projects such as Palava City aim to alleviate the pressures of population explosion.

With rapid urbanisation taking place across India, there is a need for projects such as Palava City near Mumbai, to alleviate pressure from growing populations in cities. Subhash Sharma for The National
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MUMBAI // About 35 kilometres north-east of the congested chaos of Mumbai, one of India’s biggest developers is building what it hopes is a future-ready city.

Palava City, which will spread over 4,500 acres with a planned investment of 280 billion rupees (Dh16.4bn) by 2025, is incorporating the latest technology to try to make life for its citizens as easy as possible.

As work continues on the project by the Mumbai-based Lodha Group, 5,000 families have already moved in and the city is starting to trial some of its “smart” elements. These include a cashless smart card and a mobile application that allows users to do a range of things, from reporting a faulty streetlamp or a pile of rubbish that needs to be cleared to booking a tennis court or paying bills.

Lodha Group is aiming for the city to become one of the top 50 most liveable cities in the world by 2025. Work on the project started in 2010.

It has partnered with IBM and General Electric, among other major international companies, to bring advanced features to the project.

All lighting in common areas will be solar or LED, while utility metres will be installed to reduce wastage, for example by detecting any water leaks. Everything is linked to a central command centre.

“A lot of what we have developed is to some extent trial and error with global learnings adapted to India,” says Shaishav Dharia, the development director for strategy at Lodha Group.

Such a development is paving the way for understanding how technology might be used in future smart cities, he says.

India’s prime minister Narendra Modi has talked about ambitious plans to create 100 smart cities across the country. With rapid urbanisation taking place, there is a desperate need for such projects to alleviate the pressures from growing populations on existing cities.

There are varying definitions of what a smart city is exactly, but there is some agreement on the main features such developments should have.

“A smart city is a city that is self-sustained,” says Tanuj Shori, the chief executive and co-founder of Square Yards Consulting, a property advisory firm. “Smart cities make ardent use of digital technology to enhance infrastructure performance. A smart city has smart computing systems, a cohort of integrated hardware, software and network information technology with real-time cognisance of the surrounding world that can help citizens make quick decisions. The crucial feature of a smart city is the amalgamation of affordability, resources and sustainability. Smart cities should be able to deliver good infrastructure such as water, sanitation, waste management, reliable utility services and health care. Their processes should be transparent, simple and citizen-friendly.”

Debasis Chatterji, the chief executive of Netxcell, says that India needs smart cities to boost its economic growth.

“From online shopping to remote home surveillance and managing home appliances, smart cities enable more and more efficiency,” he says. “Smart cities make the common man’s life more convenient in such a way that commuting is smarter by an efficient mass-transport system.”

Other projects that are incorporating smart city features include Lavasa, a hill city being built near Pune in Maharashtra, and Gift City, which is being developed as an international financial services centre in Gujarat. Dubai’s Tecom is building SmartCity Kochi, an IT and business park, in Kerala.

“Envisioning itself as the first smart city of India, Lavasa’s vision is that each infrastructure layer will interoperate under the control of the smart city management infrastructure,” says S Narayan, the chief executive and president of Lavasa Corporation.

But Gift also says that it is on track to become India’s first smart city.

“By integrating various infrastructure and utilities through an optical fibre-based IT network spread across the city and by building intelligence in every building and utility, Gift City is able to see the status of various services in a holistic manner and manage them on a real time basis,” says Ramakant Jha, the managing director and group chief executive of Gift.

A number of companies are expecting to benefit from the push for smart cities.

“Involvement of technology companies holds the utmost importance in terms of network infrastructure – establishing CCTV control rooms in the cities, data centres and wireless devices,” says Manoj Kumar, the executive vice president and chief executive of Ricoh India, an automation services company.

BVR Mohan Reddy, the founder and executive chairman of Cyient, explains that the Hyderabad-based engineering and networking company is working on a number of initiatives geared towards smart cities.

“For utilities, Cyient has implemented enterprise ICT solutions to help utilities operate smarter,” he says.

“In communications, we have been involved in network planning and expansion for major communication service providers across major cities in India.”

Schneider Electric is involved in bringing energy-related smart city initiatives to India, and its projects include a partnership with Palava City. But it says that the government’s plans to build 100 smart cities will be far from easy to implement.

“The biggest challenge is the sheer scale, size and complexity of the initiative,” says Ravi Kant Malhan, the director of smart cities and special projects at Schneider Electric India. “Nowhere in the world, including in advanced developed economies, has ever anything of this magnitude been undertaken. There are no comparable past learnings and lessons. India is planning to leapfrog everything that has been done until now.

“Availability of land, proper connectivity among cities and lack of skilled labour in most of the industrial sectors are also some serious issues that the government will need to address as it moves ahead on its ambitious vision of developing 100 smart cities in India.”

Developers are also hoping to benefit from a smart city building boom.

“A smart city could take between 8 to 10 years to build and even more time to attract businesses and people,” says Kamal Khetan, the chairman and managing director of Sunteck Realty, a property developer based in Mumbai.

“The challenges that India would face when it comes to smart cities would be obtaining timely clearances and approvals from authorities and the financing of the projects for these smart cities.”

Mehul Thakur, the director of Viva Homes, an Indian developer, says: “With smart cities coming up, more land will be available at cheaper costs. With the development of the smart cities, people will chose to move from the main city into the suburbs because of the affordability factor. The government needs to ensure that the market is ready to absorb that kind of supply.”

Other experts have also voiced concerns.

“It is to be seen how government will pull off such an ambitious and mega project,” says Manoj Sai Namburu, the chairman and managing director of Alliance Group, a developer based in Chennai. “In a nutshell the government announced a very ambitious programme without doing their homework properly, and even before defining the modus operandi as to how they are going to develop these smart cities. In my opinion, it will take some time for us to see the smart cities in reality.”


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