Out of several new initiatives taken by the new Government after assuming office, the scheme of developing hundred smart cities has caught the imagination of all. Foreign countries, especially those recently visited by the Prime Minister, have offered support to transform specific existing cities to smart cities or to develop new smart cities. The technology companies are vying with each other to collaborate with the Government in various smart city projects, both Geeenfield and Brownfield. There is a strong justification for smart cities on two grounds. Firstly, as per a study by McKinsey, it is projected that the urban population will expand very fast and become nearly 40 percent of country’s total population by 2030. Secondly, technology has the potential to offer smart integrated solutions to tackle the problems related to urban living, which can help cities become better liveable, while also providing superior opportunities for economic growth and employment.
However, it is also true that India has nearly 6,40,000 villages with rural population nearing 840 million as on date, who also seek better living conditions and opportunities for growth. It is often forgotten that despite rapid urbanization, the rural population will continue to have a formidable presence in India, which can’t be wished away. Therefore, we need to think as much about developing smart villages as we think about developing smart cities, from the point of view of equity and inclusiveness. In the absence of adequate attention to the problems and challenges of rural living, the phenomenon of migration from rural to urban areas will continue unabated. This, coupled with the fact that resources such as land, water and power are finite, will actually increase the challenges of nurturing smart cities on a long time basis. Therefore, the need to develop smart villages as habitats co-existing with smart cities can’t be over-emphasized.
Ingredients of a smart village
Just as a smart city would use ICT (information and communication technologies) to build and integrate critical infrastructure and services, in the same manner, a smart village would use technology to imbibe smartness in solutions for local problems, though at a much smaller scale. It is obvious that scale matters; the choice of technology solutions would therefore need to be adopted to the local needs. Smart villages would not have ICT- enabled tall buildings, big industry, large office complexes and sophisticated infrastructure. However, they would require technology to integrate various aspects of village life so as to make them better liveable and enable the village population to secure local growth and employment opportunities. Villages too suffer (and in fact, more so compared to the cities) from the malaise of inadequate water quality, power shortages, poor sanitation, poor health facilities and poor accessibility, etc. They too require technology-based solutions to address these problems.
However, technology alone would not provide smart solutions. The village people would have to become healthy knowledge workers through better health care and opportunities for acquiring knowledge and skills through education at primary and secondary levels and vocational training opportunities relevant to the skills in demand at the local level.
Avenues for economic activities in which they can participate will need to be provided at the local level. Avenues for innovation and creativity will have to be created for them, not only to provide a source of economic development, but also to create a sense of village identity among them. Equally important would be the need to make them a part of vibrant knowledge communities, focusing on the furtherance of social relationships and enabling them to plan their own collective future. Thus, smart villages would have to have the ingredients of a knowledge centre as well.
Previous initiatives towards smart knowledge villages
The country has witnessed several initiatives in the past aimed at using technology to make village life better, but with mixed results. An ambitious scheme was “Mission 2007: Every Village a Knowledge Centre” propounded by M S Swaminathan Foundation, which had targeted to provide knowledge connectivity to each of over 6 lakh village of India by August 15, 2007, through convergence among numerous on-going programmes by different agencies. The scheme for PURA (Provision of Urban Amenities in Rural Areas) through three layers of connectivity namely physical, electronic and knowledge connectivity, initially propounded by Dr A P J Abdul Kalam was successful in several areas but was not adequately scaled up due to a variety of reasons. Many such past and on-going initiatives highlight the need and urgency of developing smart knowledge rural habitats as important national agenda.
Developing smart villages through Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojna
On 11th October 2014, the Prime Minister has also launched the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojna which demonstrates the sincerity of the Government not to lose sight of the important agenda of developing villages in the glamour of smart cities. The scheme has many pluses to its credit. For instance, it is perceived to be a bottoms-up and demand-based scheme with active involvement of local population. Though its coverage is small — three villages to be adopted by each member of parliament by 2019, Government expects 8,000 to 10,000 villages to get covered by that year through a cascading effect on surrounding villages and with adoption of similar schemes by State Governments. Each of these villages would be converted into a model village through convergence of different Government schemes.
However, the Adarsh Gram Yojna appears to be silent on inculcating smartness in village life and using technology for the same. Hopefully, those engaged in supporting the Gram Panchayats in local planning and implementation of this scheme would ensure that they receive the requisite technology related inputs, resources and support from their smart city counterparts.
Another challenge likely to be encountered in developing smart villages would be the challenge of scale. From the point of view of making investment in technology for integrated development, a single village may not have enough critical mass. This may make it incumbent to focus on village clusters than on individual villages for the scheme to be successful.
Bridging the urban rural divide
It is evident that as long as a sharp urban rural divide exists, migration from villages to cities will continue unabated. This would constrain the implementation of smart city initiatives from providing lasting solutions. There is a strong need therefore to minimize the urban-rural divide. The remedy lies in creating smart knowledge villages co-existing with smart cities. What the country requires is smart knowledge habitats wherein the citizens, whether urban or rural, develop to their full potential, contribute to economic growth and sustainability and lead a reasonable quality of life.
(Author: Dr Surinder Batra, Professor, Institute of Management Technology, Ghaziabad)