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India and USA Relationship on Smart Cities, Comment

Year 2015 Began on a futuristic note for India, when we signed three key agreements with superpower United States of America for developing smart cities in the Allahabad in Uttar Pradesh, Ajmer in Rajasthan and Vishakhapatman. Each of these three cities will be developed as Smart Cities with the help of United States Trade and Development Agency aka USTDA. It's interesting note that each of these cities have a peculiar feature about them. While Ajmer is known for its large muslim population, Allahabad is a popular Hindu pilgrimage town and Vishakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh underwent major deconstruction last year, following the catastrophic 'Hud Hud' cyclone; and because, it is also a major port city in India. While the agreements were signed this year, this initiative found its mention during the September visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the US.

But before going into the dynamics of India-US Smart Cities collaboration, it is important to understand what a smart city really is. A smart city is the one which uses the medium of digital technology to upgrade performance by optimum utilization of resources. With integrated digital technologies playing a key role in such a process, a smart city aims to engage more effectively with its citizens by increasing efficiency, transparency and accessibility of public services. It's a city where Information and Communication technology (ICT) forms the core of administration and governance. Also, to what extent can this vision turn into a successful venture will largely depend on how actively the residents and visitors of the smart city will utilize the technologies implemented. In short, the end user and his behavior are key to its success.

According to the signed pacts, the state governments and officials will help in providing technical resources and date for planning, staff, logistics support etc while the USTADA will assist in the areas of infrastructure building, capacity building and feasibility studies.

As world population grows year on year, more and more people are moving towards city life. It is estimated that by 2050, India will need 500 new cities to accommodate the influx of urbanization. The Indian government is realizing the challenges arising out this issue and the vision of '100 Smart Cities' Programme is a step in that direction. But achieving this vision is a huge challenge in itself given the current state of Indian cities which still lack basic infrastructure and governance needs. In this regard, the focus should be on improving the existing cities first and make them habitable with clean and safe surroundings. In many parts of India, people still do not get adequate basic requirements like healthcare, food, electricity and education. Unless, these demand for these basic necessities are not met, the pillars for development will never be strong enough.

On the other hand, one cannot ignore the major advantages of building smart cities in India that are driven by technology. As a fast moving developing economy, this initiative has the potential to put India on a global map and take it ahead in the race of development and growth. US and India already share good bilateral ties and with the help of US, India can further strengthen its global image and take it to the next level. Modernizing the cities will also attract huge public private investment and create new opportunities for jobs.

Indeed, the vision of '100 smart cities' will give a huge boost to cementing India-US bilateral commercial ties, but at the same time, India must not forget its socio-economic challenges such as rural-urban gap, class differences etc. A nation can only progress if it takes its population along. Lastly, while it is a true that Technology can be considered as an enabler of many things, but we must not forget that a city nurtures people from all diverse backgrounds and communities has a soul to it. Can a smart city strive for both of these factors? Only time will tell.

Zenith Sahai