Affordable Housing in Hi Tech Cities: Debashish Sen

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Debashish Sen , Principal Secretary Urban Development Department Government of West Bengal and CMD - HIDCO

As various states join the smart cities race, West Bengal is all set to make extra efforts for ensuring affordable housing. Debashish Sen, Principal Secretary, Urban Development Department, Government of West Bengal and CMD – HIDCO, tells Poulami Chakraborty of Elets News Network (ENN) at length how the State is charting out the smart city course

Smart City has created a lot of buzz in the country today and the Government of India is keenly working on it. How do you view this concept of Smart Cities?

We recognise that smart technologies alone will not solve all problems that urban India faces. Moreover, Smart City programme recognises the fact that application of technology can make the life of an average citizen better in many ways. Be it smart parking, smart bus stop, or a Wi-Fi enabling universal access to the digital world, there are areas where a smart intervention can make a difference even while basic urban goals continue to be addressed separately through other missions and projects.

As of now, 98 cities have been selected by the Centre to be made ‘smart’. What according to you should be the approach towards affordable housing?

There are four smart cities from West Bengal in the list — New Town Kolkata, Bidhannagar, Haldia and Durgapur. All the four have submitted their plans to the Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India. While affordable housing is covered under the Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana (PMAY) and not under the Smart City programme, we believe a system of cross-subsidisation should be the approach for affordable housing: by charging a marginal incremental amount to HIG housing units in a given project, the LIG/EWS housing units can be made affordable. Besides, digitised online plan sanctions will also ensure that time spent in the process of getting approvals for home projects is reduced and the costs come down. Indeed, New Town is a path-setter in this, and already it has an online building plan sanction scheme in operation, which could be a model for other smart cities.

ICT is the prime tool for establishing a strong base for building a smart city. How are you engaged with ICT players?

We have interacted with ICT players at several levels. There have been brainstorming workshops in collaboration with NASSCOM, AmCham, BCCI and CII as also with major IT players, including IBM, HP, Bosch, Intel, CISCO, 3M, Siemens, etc. We have evaluated their innovations and are already working on some of the suggestions as a PoC (Proof of Concept). We have also especially banked on residents of smart cities, who are themselves IT experts; such primary stakeholders have given us rare insights about which global practices can or cannot be tweaked according to the local requirements.

We believe a system of cross-subsidisation should be the approach for affordable housing: by charging a marginal incremental amount to HIG housing units in a given project, the LIG/ EWS housing units can be made affordable

Green building devices, smart home tools, smart living solutions and building efficiency systems are some of the primary elements for smart urban housing. How will your department play a role in this regard?

After months of consultations with citizen groups, expert technical firms, innovative think tanks and internal brainstorming, all the four proposed smart cities of the State have painstakingly put together a Smart City plan that is specific to them. Broadly, these are categorised into two groups: pan-city solutions and a set of area-based solutions. Since all interventions cannot be spread over the whole cityscape, making the resources thinly spread out, an area of 500 acres or more would be taken up for creating a synergy of smart solutions and these can further be replicated in other areas. The pan-city solution, on the other hand, would impact all residents, with eGovernance being an obvious example.

Tell us about the newest projects floated by HIDCO and Urban Development Department in the State.

WBHIDCO is positioning New Town as a smart futuristic planned city where there is a fine work-life balance. Thus, on one hand, there are things like Eco Park, Mother’s Wax Museum, Rabindra Tirtha, Nazrul Tirtha, Urban Eco Village, Swapna Bhor Park for senior citizens, Café Ekante, Ekante Cottages, Utsari Glass Hall, Upasana Griha, Biswa Banga Convention Hall and original sculptures and art installations, including road graphics and graffiti walls, all in the public space, and the educational and health hub, financial and legal hub, and the IT hub for generating economic activities, on the other. We have also held Sculptors’ Camp and Art Camps with talented artists to create original designs. Most of all, we are receptive to fresh innovative ideas and are prepared to experiment. There is also a 3-acre tea plantation in Kolkata’s New Town, overlooking an exquisite hugely popular tea lounge in the Eco Park.

What according to you will it take to help cities in deploying solutions for modern urban infrastructure?

I am sure that no cut-and-paste solution is likely to work. What is needed is an enthusiastic team consisting of young IT-savvy persons and an expert team of planners and engineers from all walks of life to make team work. A core group of professionals with visions and ownership of the ideas will also be essential.

What do you think about foreign players showing interest in the Indian Smart Cities project?

In New Town Kolkata, we formed an advisory group of professors, IT experts and engineers who actually stay in New Town, but have worked all over the world. The group was to evaluate and assess solutions offered by the international players. The reality of the Indian situation cannot be ignored: the social safety network prevalent in developed countries make certain solutions work, which may not always work in our towns. So, while we should not try to reinvent the wheel and look at great foreign born ideas, we must always temper it with the thought, as it is also often limited to only few islands of urbanscape even in the western world and does not become universal.

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