Three years on, where does the Hubballi-Dharwad Smart City project stand?

Out of 27 projects proposed by these twin cities in North Karnataka under the Smart Cities Mission, only one has gotten off to a start. An interview with the Special Officer of the SPV on the challenges and overall progress so far.

The Smart Cities Mission project was one of the most ambitious projects launched by the Union Government in 2015. Identifying 100 cities (currently 99) across the country for sustainable development at an estimated cost of Rs 98,000 crore, the project was among the first major efforts launched by the Modi Government with a focus on urban development. Among the cities identified, based on their Mission proposals, seven were in Karnataka – Mangalore, Belgaum, Shimoga, Tumkur, Davangere, Bangalore and the twin cities of Hubballi-Dharwad in the northern part of the state.

As the Ministry as well as the cities chosen acknowledge, there are no fixed parameters for what constitutes a Smart City. The Hubballi Dharwad Smart City website itself says:

The definition of Smart City varies from city to city, depending on the level of development, willingness to change and reform, resources and aspirations of the city residents. The purpose of the Smart Cities Mission is to drive economic growth and improve the quality of life of people by enabling local area development and harnessing technology, especially technology that leads to smart outcomes.

But this task is easier said than done – especially in a tier two cities such as these. We sat down for a presentation by S H Naregal, Special Officer, Hubballi-Dharwad Smart City Limited, the SPV launched for the implementation of the mission and tried to explore why there has been no significant progress on the ground even after so much time.

Excerpts from the chat:

It has been three years since Hubli-Dharwad was announced in the list of cities to be developed under the Smart City Mission. Can you tell us where things stand today?

The focus over the first three years was on setting up the logistics for the mission itself. It took more than a year to set up the Special Purpose Vehicle, that is Hubli-Dharwad Smart City Limited (HDSCL), of which I am currently the special officer in charge, entrusted with steering the projects (the HDSCL was announced in October of 2016).

The SPV had to be staffed and we also had to find premises to work out of. We then had to get project consultants on board (PricewaterhouseCoopers are the consultants, appointed at a cost of Rs 22 crores) for planning these projects. These things took time.

Can you give us some details of progress on the actual projects proposed?

A total of 33 projects were first identified, which we eventually consolidated to 27; as of now six are PPP (Public Private Partnership) Projects, while 17 are non-PPP projects.

We have prepared feasibility reports for projects worth Rs 631 crore; draft DPR for projects worth 162.527 crore; final DPR and RFP for projects worth 81.527 crore, and tender notification for projects worth 64.527 crore. These numbers are for the non-PPP projects. (DPR: Detailed Project Report | RFP: Request for Proposal)

In case of PPP projects, feasibility for projects worth Rs 308.45 crore is ready; REIA (Rapid Environmental Impact Assessment) and SIA (Social Impact Assessment) reports for projects worth Rs 283.37 crore is ready; RFP reports for projects of Rs 283.37 crore and tender notification for projects worth Rs 137.37 crore have been called for. Tenders for ten projects have been called for so far – eight of them are under the Smart City Mission and the other two are PPP projects.

So which one of  these has been the first project to start on the ground?

That would be the smart toilet project which began on May 24th. In Phase I, we will be installing 15 smart toilets around the city – seven for men, seven for women and one for people with disability. The primary focus will be on Hubli city for now. These coin-operated toilets are self cleaning and will be the first of its kind in the city.

I noticed that multiple projects, where tenders had been called once, had to be re-tendered because of non participation. Why has this been the case?

Yes, it has been a challenge to find vendors who are interested in bidding for tenders with technical requirements. The three projects where we had to reopen tenders because of no participation are Solid Waste Management in litter free zones, electric crematorium and the rooftop solar project. The last one was opened twice and we still haven’t got any response and we are now proceeding to open it the third time.

The problem we face is that there is local technical expertise is really scarce in a small city like Hubli and the bigger players from cities like Bangalore are not really interested because the budget is way too small for it to make sense to them. It is a Catch 22 situation.

So what is the solution to this?

We decided to lower the technical requirements and also educate the local vendors about the projects so they could bid on it. With the rooftop solar projects, we are also in discussions with the KERC to revise the tariff rate for buy back, to make it more attractive for the people to opt for it.

One of the projects listed is a smart parking tower for 300 cars. RTO officials say the vehicle population in the cities has grown by 300% in the last 2 years. Keeping this growth in mind, does it make sense to increase the capacity of this facility?

This is only the first step towards traffic management in the city and it will be expanded in time. Don’t forget the BRTS is also coming up.

How do you see the BRTS shaping up and how would you explain the incessant delay?

I cannot comment on that.

The reason I ask is because one of the projects listed under the smart city mission is the Public Bike Sharing; you also spoke about a dedicated bike lane. How feasible is it in a city like Hubli which doesn’t have the best roads? The project was a monumental failure in Bangalore.

(The team leader from PWC, who are the consultants, chipped in with this response) You can’t always look at the worst example. If it didn’t work in Bangalore, it doesn’t mean it won’t work here. It has worked in Mysore. We have a bicycle club whose members have been organizing one event or another every weekend.

But Mysore is a heritage city and the PBS system was designed to cater to the international tourists to go around the city. Hubli doesn’t have that advantage. As for the club, will the project cater to serious cyclists or those who cycle as a hobby?

There are certain parameters for the smart city mission and this is one of them. If we don’t provide the facility to the general public, we will not be able figure out if it will work at all, or for whom it will.

But won’t there be a study done beforehand about the demand for facilities proposed? For example, one of the projects listed is an electric crematorium. In a city dominated by the Lingayat Community, who traditionally bury their dead, how would you justify the demand for such a facility and its cost?

Without hurting the religious sentiments of any community, if you look at it practically, we are running out of land for burial grounds. People will eventually have to shift, because we won’t have a choice. And it is not that there is no demand for this facility – we have six manual firewood burning facilities used by other communities in the city.

What about maintenance of these facilities? You also have a project to install smart poles that will have wifi, surveillance, remote scheduling and monitoring installed in it. The street lights are going to be LED. The on ground reality is that it takes forever to get a non functioning regular street light fixed.

Each of the PPP projects will have a fixed maintenance period during which the private partners will be looking into any issues, which is an average of about five years. So that bit of taken care of.

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