Interview with the Coimbatore Municipal Corporation Commissioner
Raja Gopal Sunkara is a civil servant working with the Government of Tamil Nadu, with experience spanning across general administration, policy making, development, disaster management and maintenance of law and order. After a brief stint at a logistics startup, he joined the Indian Administrative Service (IAS), considered the premier civil service of India.
As Commissioner, what are your main takeaways from the Indian Leaders Program?
From a Municipal Commissioner's point of view, the visit to Canal de Isabel II was very interesting, as water supply is a big problem in Coimbatore. It was extremely useful to learn how water supply problems are monitored, how quickly incidents are attended to, how water is supplied from the dam to the tap, etc. Also, regarding the transportation system in Madrid, the fact that all transportation is administratively and technologically integrated was a valuable learning experience.
On the other hand, being able to learn about the different programs that the innovation centers in Valladolid and Barcelona are carrying out was a great opportunity, as these are agencies that we do not currently have in Coimbatore, i.e. a body working only on the promotion and development of innovation and sustainability projects in the city. For example, in Valladolid they told us about a facility in which they were trying to integrate different municipal services, and it is an idea that I am taking with me to India. These are the aspects of the Programme that most enriched me as Coimbatore Comissioner.
You mentioned water supply as one of the main challenges facing Coimbatore. How could municipal cooperation with Spain help in solving your city's challenges?
Water supply is undoubtedly the main challenge facing Coimbatore. Although we have an adequate water source, our distribution system can be improved, so there are areas where drinking water supply is not available once every 10 days or once every 15 days, and people have to store it. But here in Spain, drinking water is available 24 hours a day. We are trying to set up projects that go in that direction, but we still have a long way to go.
The second big challenge in Coimbatore is solid waste management. We have seen how clean the cities in Spain are, whether it is Madrid, Valladolid or Barcelona, and we were also able to visit the waste management facility in Madrid [Valdemingómez Technology Park]. In Coimbatore we have a landfill of almost the same size, but in terms of waste management we have a long way to go. We are also planning to implement waste-to-energy plants, so we could certainly learn from Spain's experience in that area as well.
What could we do to strengthen municipal relations in urban development and sustainability between Spain and India?
We have visited private companies as part of the Indian Leaders Programme, and what I have realized, in terms of infrastructure or technology, is that Spain has successful multinational companies that operate globally. They have, for example, the technology to convert waste into energy, or an advanced and efficient water supply system, but I think because of the language and the fact that Spain is more culturally affiliated with Latin American countries, the focus on India has not been as great. There are Spanish companies in India that we are not even aware of, also in Coimbatore. Some of the experiences of Spanish companies that have already invested in India could be shared with other companies that are interested in investing in the country, thus exchanging information on what problems they are facing or success stories that can be replicated.
What could be done at the institutional level to strengthen bilateral relations?
There are huge opportunities outside the big Indian cities; there are many projects that are being carried out, so there needs to be a Spanish administrative structure in India that is constantly aware of the projects and tenders that Indian municipalities put out so that Spanish companies can participate and invest in India. In addition, the Consulate General could regularly visit other Indian cities and see what projects are being carried out, which is something that other European countries are doing.
What complementarities exist between Spain and India in sustainability and urban development, and in what areas can we cooperate?
As far as smart cities are concerned, we have known that the Smart Cities concept was brought to Barcelona in 2011, and the India Smart Cities Mission was launched in 2015, i.e., just four years later, so our thought process is quite similar. The size of large cities in Spain and medium-sized Indian cities are similar: Barcelona has 1.6 million inhabitants; Coimbatore has 2 million inhabitants. Also, the population density in Barcelona is quite high, as is also the case in Indian cities, so there is a complementarity in the type of cities. The solution to the problems, therefore, could be similar, be it in relation to water supply or solid waste management.
How does the PLI help bring India and Spain closer together, and why would you recommend it to future participants?
Before attending the Programme, I was hoping to learn how Spanish cities solve everyday urban challenges. We were able to visit Madrid, Valladolid, and Barcelona, three different cities, and the experience in all three cities was very enriching. The places you have taken us to have been carefully selected, and the visits you have organized have addressed different sectors: water supply, waste management, innovation, city strategies to become carbon neutral, etc. We have learned a lot, and we have also seen that Spanish companies have an advanced technological capacity that can be exchanged with India. Spanish cities have solved most of the problems that Indian cities need to solve. So, there is a lot to learn from Spain and you have reached a point where some of the problems that Indian cities face are not even problems for you, such as water supply. Spain is certainly able to transfer its innovation know-how to Indian cities.