Searching for the 'Smart City' in Shimla

by Mahima Taneja, Research Assistant

Shimla, a picturesque hill station nestled in the Himalayan foothills, has lived through many changes in the last one century which are reflected in its demographic, social, and physical characteristics. I got a peek into what lies beyond the grandeur of the mall road which is invisible to a common tourist. I first arrived here earlier this year and started looking for a place to rent, before diving into field work. Below the mall road, I found the bustling areas of Lower Bazaar, Gunj and Ram Bazaar where the cacophony of sounds and smells overwhelmed me. Further down on the hill I found Krishna Nagar with matchbox houses on sloping paths. At that point, little did I know that I would be spending the next five months studying these two areas and become closely acquainted with shopkeepers and residents here. I also explored suburbs of Sanjauli and New Shimla, located on either side of the core town and found them to be very different in their built-up structures and density.

Known as the summer capital of erstwhile British India, Shimla was also the state capital of Punjab for a few years after partition of India, before it settled into its current place as the state capital of Himachal Pradesh. Currently, Shimla is one of the cities nominated under the Smart City Mission of Government of India which is geared towards ‘improving quality of life’ through local area development, provision of core infrastructure, and use of technology and ‘smart solutions’. The 100 cities have been selected under the mission in four rounds based on a competitive process.

 As we began our research on Shimla as a smart-small city, we found that Shimla won the smart city tag only after filing a petition in Himachal Pradesh High Court challenging the selection process followed by the state of Himachal Pradesh (Sanjay Chauhan vs Union of India and others, judgment dated December 17, 2015). After the High Court’s intervention, Shimla Municipal Corporation (henceforth, SMC) rallied its resources to win the smart city tag in 2017 during Round 2 of the selection process. It launched a public engagement and consultation phase to gather inputs from city residents. This included distribution of door-to-door survey forms, ward-level meetings, a social media campaign to increase downloads of existing apps such as Swachhta App (in order to increase points required for city assessment as part of the smart city proposal), and launch of an online poll and discussion forum. The bidding process was led by the Municipal Commissioner along with the then Mayor and Deputy Mayor (both of whom were elected representatives from CPI(M)). The proposal was accepted by the Ministry of Urban Development in June 2017. By that time, a new mayor from BJP had taken over after local elections.

 When speaking about this journey to us, most government stakeholders expressed pride at being selected after a ‘struggle’ and at facilitating extensive community engagement for developing the smart city proposal. However, finding details about the citizen consultations was a difficult feat. The Shimla Smart City Proposal (SCP) we found online did not have the complete annexes and we couldn’t find any other documentation at the municipality regarding this. We finally found the details of ward-wise community meetings and survey results when we visited the Shimla Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) office where we found a complete version of the SCP. What struck is that the copy of the SCP available on is only 100-page long and ends abruptly after Annexure 4 but the softcopy we received from SPV office was thrice its length with 10 Annexures including copies of discussion documents, resolutions passed and notifications issued, citizen engagement report, newspaper coverage, details of SMC meetings, and so on. We don’t know why the complete file was not available online, though we assume it’s probably because of its heavy size.  

After being selected, Shimla Smart City Limited (SSCL) was constituted in August 2017 as Shimla’s SPV. SPV is a para-statal organization, registered as a limited company under Companies Act 2013 and responsible for implementation of smart city plan at city level. Shimla’s SPV office is located in New Shimla. This is the first important milestone for Shimla smart city. A series of meetings were held between September 2017 – October 2017, minutes of which are publicly available on the SMC website.  What we did not know however is what happened after October 2017 and this is what we set out to explore during our initial field work. We still do not know why there is no update on Shimla smart city on SMC website after this period. We also don’t know the impact of changes in elected representatives at municipality level right after Shimla was selected as a smart city and of reshuffling of administrative officials some of whom were initially a part of the SPV on trajectory of smart city.

The first month of field work in Shimla was spent on getting a hand on different documents and understanding this ecosystem. Changes in elected representatives and government appointees meant it was harder to get access to minutes of meetings and progress reports. The officials who were active in 2017 on the project are no longer the key points of contact in 2019 or have distanced themselves from the same due to other work responsibilities. Added to this is the fact that transparency in government offices still remain elusive. Government officials are bound by strict orders and in their individual capacities cannot share anything that’s not been made public by higher authorities. This has meant that even getting a hold of digital ward-wise maps for Shimla has been a difficult feat, even though we have visited multiple government departments at district and state level. The fact that Shimla’s urban governance has also been riddled with stories of government documents being lost in fires, property litigations, complicated building bylaws, transfer of civil servants, conflict between municipality and state government, and lack of clarity on data sources has further complicated our search for the smart city in Shimla. Furthermore, a Project Management Consultant (PMC) has not been appointed yet for Shimla Smart City and as a result none of the proposed projects are on ground yet. Local officials accrue these delays partially to local, state, and national level elections scheduled one after the other in the last two years.

 We were thus faced with the task of exploring the trajectory of an ambitious scheme which envisages significant changes in infrastructure of a city, use of massive resources, and more than fifty projects across different departments, with limited information available to us through the public domain. We did not know which are the priority projects or their implementation timelines. In this context, we had to take several strategic methodological decisions early on during the field work. We had to decide who to interview – ex-officials or current officials related to smart city? How to access data and documents? How to organize the interviews? Which tangents to explore in our interviews – role of SPV as a parastatal organization in facilitating convergence between different departments, power politics between elected officials, appointed bureaucrats and SPV staff members, idea of ‘smartness’ and smart city vision/objectives, distinctiveness of small smart cities, role of technology in smart cities, or how do the proposed projects align with the needs of the community? We also had to select case studies for our project but without anything on ground, it was difficult to make these decisions.

The next blog will touch upon some of the proposed projects under the smart city proposal in Shimla and introduce our case studies.