Zafar Sareshwala is an enigmatic businessman who rebuilt his century-old family business, the Parsoli Corp. Besides his business, he is also the Chancellor of Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. He says in an interview that the Smart Cities Mission is very important for India’s inclusive growth and development. He explains to Chitra Unnithan why Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Smart Cities Mission is a bold initiative to take India to the forefront of the world. Excerpts from the interview
How important is the Smart City Mission for the rapid social and economic development of India?
The concept of Smart Cities is very important to India. In major cities of the country, most of the development happened during the British era. The British developed basic infrastructure such as roads, bridges, railways, etc. In the last 67 years, not much has been done in terms of infrastructure. For instance, apart from a sea link, Mumbai has not seen much infrastructural development. Metros in Delhi and Kolkata are very recent. But now, things are changing. With the proliferation of the Internet, social media, mobile phones and e-commerce, the nomenclature has changed. These will be the growth engine. There will be Wi-Fi-enabled Smart Cities. To give you an example, look at Lavasa city, which Prime Minister Modi had visited in 2013. Some satellite towns are the focus of the government already. Then there is Navi Mumbai, which is a satellite town of Mumbai. Gandhinagar is a satellite town of Ahmedabad or the National Capital Region (NCR), which includes Delhi and the adjoining urban areas. So, most cities have satellite towns and the thrust will be in these towns. Like in Western countries, Public-Private-Participation models will be more in focus as the government cannot create the entire infrastructure by itself. It will be a big area of growth. In various infrastructure projects private investors, who have the capacity, will have opportunities. Already we are seeing foreign direct investment (FDI) in railways since the last budget. And people are ready to pay if they get good services.
Smart Cities Mission aims at achieving growth and there will be affordable housing and other social infrastructure such as schools, public parks etc for everyone. Will these cities include the disadvantaged sections of the society? What are your views of inclusive growth that the Smart Cities Mission will offer?
Smart Cities mission will be an inclusive project. Take Ahmedabad, for instance. Narendra Modi had already brought huge infrastructural changes in Gujarat when he was the Chief Minister of the state. The Sabarmati Riverfront Project in Ahmedabad had been on the drawing board since 1972. Successive governments came and went but it was Modi who implemented it. Ahmedabad had never seen so much water in the Sabarmati riverbed, where people used to play cricket. The riverbed was so dry that it was used to put up circus tents regularly. Modi has delivered something that was considered impossible. There were major problems, which Modi had to address before he could implement the project successfully. Over 26,000 families living on the riverbank had to be given a better place to live in. Every single family had been relocated. Nobody knew roads could be built on that stretch but a 20 km road on both stretches has been made possible. Today, commercial, multi-storied buildings have been earmarked at the riverfront. It is a beautiful model. Why would people not pay money? Besides the riverfront, Modi has added four bridges to Ahmedabad, which had five more than 50-year-old bridges. And he did that while keeping the heritage of the old ones intact.
Dignity to poor
Smart Cities will bring good houses and dignity to the poor. When the Tata plant was set up in Sanand, many farmers became crorepatis overnight. This plant was followed by Ford and Maruti and you will be surprised that even those villagers who have Rs 2 crore balance in their banks work in these companies now. So, Smart Cities will be about providing benefits to everyone, including the disadvantaged. Smart Cities will come with better connectivity, Internet facility, and a better railway network. The major infrastructural boost will percolate to the bottom.
How will you address the scepticism from certain quarters that building Smart Cities is an elitist approach to growth and development?
I don’t think that this is an elitist approach. Lavasa, for instance, has all kinds of people living in the city—be it the working class or the elite. There are all sections of people there, who are interdependent. In any society, there has to be a broad mix of people and for Smart Cities too, it will be the same.
Do you fear traditional business will be negatively hit with Smart City development programmes? How will you address the concerns of traditional shop-owners that they would get pushed out of business?
England’s case is a classic example of how seismic shift happens in a city. England used to be synonymous with steel, especially in Sheffield, which had an international reputation for steel-making. But when I visited Sheffield 15-20 years ago, these steel factories were replaced by malls. The traditional local industries have declined but England has become financially strong.
In a Smart City, for example, there will be supermarkets but the stock has to be supplied by somebody. When this happens, traditional shopkeepers can supply stocks to the supermarkets. So, there is always change and it percolates down. There is always some initial apprehension but a shift is inevitable. Pilgrim centres such as Ajmer is set to get a facelift through the Smart City Mission through a combination of retrofitting and development.
What the suggestions that you would like to offer to make it a reality sooner than later?
The pilgrim centres of Mecca and Medina have been developed in a way that you have everything there. Within a one km radius of Mecca, $50 billion has been pumped in, 5-star hotels and all other amenities make the centre an attraction. This can be replicated in pilgrim places of India, like, Ajmer, for instance.
India has a rich heritage of Hindu, Islam, Catholic, Sikh, Jain, and Buddhist places of worship and if you give one chance to private players, they can provide a big boost to the pilgrim centres. Mathura, the birthplace of Krishna, can be made into a world-class place of worship with better roads and other facilities. River Ganga can be made on the pattern of Ahmadabad’s Sabarmati riverfront.
There are a lot of possibilities and endless opportunities.