‘A city is like thousands of naval frigates combined, not just one ship’

Shashanka Shekhar Panda, Founder-Chairman and CEO, Blue Earth Enterprise. A first-generation entrepreneur, Shashanka has a rich and varied expertise ranging from finance to public policy strategy in sustainable energy development. He has been working in the field of green building energy integration and smart cities development. He has been a Chevening-Gurukul Fellow and is a South Asian Democratic Forum Fellow.

Shashanka Shekhar Panda, Founder-Chairman and CEO, Blue Earth Enterprise
  • Client

    Blue Earth Enterprise

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    Finance to public policy strategy in sustainable energy development

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    Planning & Consultancy

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How smart are our cities today?

This question can be answered in two ways – one, by statistical review and other by anecdotal recounting of experiences in specific cities. Beyond this there is a third and in fact the most important way of answering the question – the 'relative orientation perspective', because in essence it is driving the positive and hitherto vacuous discourse in what is now the new-found, meaningful system that has evolved in the last few years. The equivalent urban development policy that was known as Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM) was launched only in 2005, 58 years very late, by which time most of India's cities had already burst beyond the seams, leading to their ghettoisation.

The upshot of the tardy pace of JNNURM was that India’s policy infrastructure simply lacked the capacity required to suddenly shift gears from what seemed to be a back-gear mode to fifth-gear. Yet, since the JNNURM was replaced by Smart Cities Mission (SCM), HRIDAY, AMRUT and Swachh Bharat Mission, a sea-change in approach and execution has surprisingly emerged.

But, those who are looking for quick fixes, sudden turnaround, would be obviously disappointed as a better fundamental understanding of the nature of the project would be needed to understand the situation. A single city is a colossal matrix of very complex moving parts involving hundreds of functions across scores of sectors such as energy, transport, waste management to name a few interacting together in infinite ways that need to be maintained in a sustainable mechanism for the life of the citizens to develop and progress with strength and happiness. Therefore, the smartness of our smart cities would measured not against 'absolute' standards but against relative standards – are we better off today than we were 1, 3 and 5 years ago, in that proportion? The answer is an emphatic yes. The layered, measurable, monitored and above all the transparent nature of the project is itself a very good start.

A case in point would be the Eastern Peripheral Expressway being built to obviate the pollution in Delhi. The statistical reviews of the SCM and the associated projects can be read in the Annual Report of the MoHUA, and the tweets of India's Urban Affairs Minister Mr Hardeep Singh Puri are other encouraging anecdotal examples that are available for study on the website of the Smart Cities Mission –

What exactly makes them smart?

First of all, well begun is half done. As a policy strategist working in an associated sector, that of railway station redevelopment, I can say that the foundation of any project has to be integrated project planning. The Smart Cities Mission gets that right – a competitive, transparent environment gives the participants realisable incentives to participate. The well thought out process of the mechanism of the Smart City Plan (SCP) by the participating city-candidate at various rounds from 1 to 4 in two stages is at the core of the SCM, the critical aspect of the current strategy, which thereby makes the system significantly robust and credible. The rest is mere details, because the transparent process presupposes the eventual success, notwithstanding inter-mediating challenges such as political, funding, policy and legal challenges.

An important aspect of the definitional framework would be critical. The Smart Cities Plan had a series of components that behaved like a credit system. These 'credits' would feed and inform the transformation of a city from being 'dumb' to 'smart'. That's a good start. I suggest that the credit system needs to be more granular and built up to a standard, such as an ISO system or a green building rating system. A series of credits would need to be created, say a 10,000 credits, housed under 10 top-structural credits, with 100-sub credits and each sub-credit further split into its 100 components. Further these credits should be constantly developed and upgraded. These credits would be implemented by smart cities rating agencies just as green building rating agencies.

Again, the SCM website explains the components that make cities smart very comprehensively, so discussing that here again would be a redundancy. However, one aspect that is critical and most policy makers overlook easily for the reason that its underrated and taken for granted but is actually the most important in a Smart City is Commissioning and Training & Development (T&D). T&D would be the last item in the list of items that would make a smart city, in terms of decreasing budgetary outlay but has the highest impact. A smart city is not just infrastructure but how it's O&M is structured. Most high-quality projects in India are built to grandeur but very poorly operated and maintained. The difference is commissioning and T&D. Commissioning of city systems, ranging from that of building systems, transportation infrastructure, waste management, energy systems, to name a few, and then training O&M staff would cost not more than 0.5% of the entire envisaged investment of INR 2 lakh crore on the one hand and on the other hand pay rich dividends in terms of low O&M costs and optimally running systems. This is the missing jigsaw piece of the puzzle in the Smart Cities Mission framework. I am not suggesting it's not there, but just that I don't get to hear and read about actual serious work being done in the area.

Grappling with poor infrastructure, is it possible to make our cities smart?

This is an easy one to answer. Yes. But remember that a city is like thousands of naval frigates combined, not just one ship. It takes time to turn around, especially when the relative discourse is steeped in negative superlatives such as 'Delhi is the world's most polluted city'. So, the way to measure change is to look at incremental data. Everything is possible. The most important ingredient is political will. As I can clearly see, there is no dearth of political will. The next step is getting the policy makers, the bureaucracy to be given a clear policy to work with.

Again, that ingredient is in place in the form of the Smart Cities Mission and other associated flagship programs. A good example would be Uttar Pradesh. Just a year and a half ago, Uttar Pradesh was the worst performer on ODF. Today it is the best performer. If an entire state as big as UP can bring about such an absolute transformation, then a city can definitely do it. So the subtext in the challenge here really is the size of it. A good way of tackling it would be to focus on capacity building. An important aspect of tackling capacity building is the bidding process wherever involved. This again is a novel idea being propagated by us as a solution. Let bidding parameters focus on skills, qualifications and experiences of team members more than focusing on the dimensions of the Balance Sheets and P&L accounts of the companies. Tenders requiring multi-disciplinary firms with low financial qualification criteria would be an ideal solution. Otherwise, the policy makers reduce the number of firms that participate and as a result the tenders get costly. Usually only the 'big 4' and the equivalent are able to participate in the tenders one after another and that makes it a 'transparency' problem together with ancillary problems such as lack of true competition and fresh ideas. There are many brilliant minds out there who would get to contribute to the cause of national development and lead to smarter cities, quicker, if the bidding processes are easy on financial criteria and focus more on individual team skills and experience.

Gathering data is one thing, sifting through it is another. Implementation is most important. Do we have the mechanism in place?

I think I have, in ways, already answered the question. However, there are certain important aspects to this that are to specifically tackled – Data, Implementation and Monitoring. Yes, a mechanism is in place to do exactly that. However, I wish the monitoring part was done by an independent regulator. So, this is another missing part of the jigsaw puzzle and a big one. Smart Cities Mission needs an independent regulator, distinct of the MoUHA and the implementing states and participating cities, of course. This could be arranged and stacked-up similar to the structure of the independent regulator in the power sector. I'd like to state that in the transportation sector, most EU nations have an independent regulator.

India should have an independent regulator in both transportation and urban development. Urban development being a massive sector, more than one independent sector regulators may be envisaged. How different it would be to the power sector would be a matter of thrashing out the sector specific peculiarities and idiosyncrasies. On data, I would like to add that India's Open Data systems leave much to be desired. The missing part here is UI and UX design in the digital space. Even raw data needs to be made available for public study and even more importantly for use by developers through APIs. I must state that the Indian Railways has done a good job in sharing information through APIs with developers on rail traffic through CRIS. This has led to a lot of useful apps to track useful information for the millions of passengers. In fact, why be economical with a good idea. The UI and UX design can also be extended into the physical urban space and the design of urban infrastructures such as transportation hubs and waste management hubs (first, let's have them and second let's design them such that they are not an eyesore).

Utilities, especially water and electricity, are low hanging fruit, perhaps?

If the context is the very previous questions, then – yes, utilities lend themselves to statistical analysis very easily if they are properly metered. Again, I can't help quickly pointing out that in Indian context, thanks to our socialist policies that ordain a 'free' mindset and the euphemism of T&D losses when it comes to electricity and where metered water connections are not prevalent and waste dumping happens in open grounds, so metered waste generation and management is like in the galactic vicinity; all this would require scrupulous planning and implementation. This should be a normal way of doing things in any sane urban planning system. So, metered systems that have zero leakages (yes, that's possible) are a necessity for any Smart City.

But such networks can also be vulnerable to cyber attacks. Are we prepared for that?

Yes, this is the next level of potential trouble that would devolve if our systems do become that connected. Right now, this is true only of the section of power grids that are smart grids which are interconnected by network of data servers. They are vulnerable to a cyber attack. The counter strategy would be an ever evolving landscape, where hackers master the rules and the 'keymakers' of the system raise the complexity levels by higher and higher encryption levels. I am unaware of any guideline formed by India in this regard. I have heard of the talk of the need of an independent regulator in this field. I feel that such a mechanism should be housed within the existing framework of the current independent regulator, the CERC and the SERCs for the sake of expediency and cohesion. National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) of USA has evolved guidelines for smart grid cyber security that may be followed, if they are not too advanced for our smart grids which are yet in an embryonic state, relatively. In fact, this lack of advancement, the fact that the Indian grids are not connected by internet in the same way as the Western European or the US smart grids, also makes the Indian electricity less vulnerable to a cyber attack.

(This interview is part of the series on Government of India’s Smart Cities Mission and the progress made so far.)