Will Chennai Smart City Limited bring a new dawn for the city?

CSCL, formed to execute the Chennai Smart City Mission, has both area-specific and pan-city projects on its immediate agenda. Mahesh Kumar S T provides an overview of the CSCL mission and the potential challenges on its path.

In the recently undertaken Swacch Survekshan 2017, a cleanliness ranking of cities published by the Ministry of Urban Development of the Government of India, Chennai’s ranking plummeted from 37 in 2016 to 235! Corporation officials have explained this saying that the “independent observation” was done a few days after Cyclone Vardah, which is why there has been a dip in the rankings.

However, even if Chennai had scored the same on all parameters as in 2016, our rank would have been 120 for 2017, after Srikakulam (Rank 119, Marks 1198). Moreover, independent observation had a weight of only 25% in the rankings. 50%  goes to self-assessment based on a questionnaire, and the balance 25% to citizen feedback. Chennai scored lower in all parameters when compared to 2016.

The fact is that the number of cities that were surveyed increased from 73 in 2016 to 434. Our rank dipped essentially because now there are more competitors, and more importantly, better competitors. Therefore if anything, the rankings are evidence of the city creaking under the pressure of urbanisation, something that is reflected in various crises — of waste, natural drainage, open spaces, traffic, water scarcity and the like.

Can Chennai come out of these anytime soon? There is hope. An agency which might potentially help turn things around, has been functionalised recently, with the appointment of a CEO for Chennai Smart City Limited.

The Smart City Mission is part of an ambitious initiative by the Modi government to transform the urban Indian landscape, to make cities more livable. Chennai is one of the 100 cities selected countrywide for this initiative (12 in Tamil Nadu) and Chennai Smart City Limited (CSCL) is the special purpose vehicle (SPV) created recently to implement the city project.

Chennai Smart City Limited (CSCL)

Under the Smart City Mission launched by the Union urban development ministry, the Centre will allocate Rs. 48,000 crore over the next five years and an equal matching grant will be given by the state government and the urban local body. For this, the Chennai Smart City Limited registered under The Companies Act, 2013 has been promoted by the Tamilnadu Government and the Greater Chennai Corporation jointly, both having 50:50 equity shareholding. This agency will implement the scheme of Smart City at cost of Rs.1366.24 crore.

The Smart City mission offers a platform for constructive competition and a chance to learn from success stories in other cities, and the selection process itself encouraged competition among the cities. While the Chennai Metropolitan Development Authority is the nodal agency for overall planning, execution requires coordination across agencies. CSCL will promote coordination in the various projects under the Chennai mission.

Low talent pool in urban planning

The key leadership positions within the SPV are those of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Chief Financial Officer (CFO). The promoters had the option to either choose an IAS officer or go for external talent to fill these positions.

CSCL appointed Raj Cherubal, Director at Chennai City Connect Foundation (CCCF) as the CEO of Chennai Smart City Limited. CCCF has been working on diverse urban issues —  from traffic de-congestion to inclusive street designs to marsh conservation. Cherubal, who has taken charge of CSCL from April 17, 2017 therefore has extensive experience in urban planning and in working with various agencies across Chennai.  

For CSCL, it is heartening that the CEO is a man from outside the bureaucracy and with relevant urban experience and networks, given that the CEO, once appointed, cannot be removed until his term is over without the consent of the Urban Development Ministry.

But while the SPV was fortunate to find a suitable CEO from a pool of just 11 applicants, it has not been able to find a suitable CFO, a post for which it received only 6 applications. The hunt is on still for a CFO.

Mission 2020 for CSCL

CSCL has two components in its present mission. One is an area-based proposal and the other is a pan-city component.

Under the area-based component T Nagar has been selected for ‘retrofitting’ at a budget of Rs 877 crores. The key targets of the makeover project are decongestion via inclusive public spaces for pedestrians, encouragement and facilitation of cycling, parking improvements, integration of all modes of public transport and development of a feeder network, and proper accommodation of street vendors. The project will also focus on solid waste management, water supply management and stormwater management.

Pic: Vijay Sriram

The pan-city proposal includes a smart solution for non-motorized transport and water management at a cost of Rs 488.3 crore. It will address traffic safety and sustainability issues by encouraging non-motorised transport systems — wide pedestrian pathways, car-free streets, bicycle lanes, along with a cycle-sharing system and a modern surveillance system. It also envisages the use of information and communication technology tools for disaster management.

According to officials, CSCL is in the final stages of the planning process now, done with the guidance of Tamil Nadu Urban Finance and the Infrastructure Development Corporation Ltd for the past year.

Challenges ahead

While the work is cut out for CSCL, there are challenges that need to be overcome by it to achieve its mission. The original intended tenure for the company was during the financial years 2015-16 to 2019-20, but the appointment of the CEO happened only in April 2017. Clearly, it needs to make up for lost time.

CSCL doesn’t even seem to have a website yet, which is critical for providing information on the organisation and status of its projects in public domain. Several other smart cities already have sites for the respective projects or SPVs, Bhubaneshwar being an example.

CSCL also needs to accommodate plan changes due to the Metro Rail Project in T Nagar, which was announced in April 2017. This has led to the original plan of Panagal park being refurbished and retrofitted with green open spaces being dropped for now.

On the financial front, CSCL is currently completely dependent on grants for funds. The Special Purpose Vehicle also needs to look at raising funds from the private sector and levying user charges. This, together with navigating and working with a maze of existing agencies, poses a formidable challenge.  

On May 14, 2017, the Tamil Nadu government requested the Centre to tweak the Smart City project guidelines to allow for pan-city implementation of all proposals initially considered only for T Nagar. The reason behind the proposal seems to be that pan-city projects enjoy a cost and scale advantage compared to execution of smaller area-specific ones; bureaucracy also responds better and more effectively to larger projects. However, while the intentions are noble, the practicality of such a proposal even for the medium term leaves scope is questionable.

CSCL needs to evolve a mechanism for citizens to be partners in its mission. Urban India has made some progress through the JNNURM mission. The Smart City Mission is certainly a leap from the former JNNURM, at least on paper, and may help set a higher bar for urban planning and design in the city. However, without citizen involvement and dialogue, reversing the civic miseries of the city may be a far cry.

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