In a way, Mahatma Gandhi conceptualized smart villages.
A champion of participatory democracy and grassroots development, he believed that making villages self-contained and sustainable was the first step towards empowering India. Contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t against industrialization, markets and competition as long as they did not lead to the passive or active exploitation of villagers.
Yet, seven decades after independence, we are nowhere close to realizing Gandhi’s vision of empowered villages. Rural India remains in a deplorable state.
One reason for this is institutional neglect.
Headquarters of malnourishment
A glaring example is Harisal, a small village in Amravati district in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.
During my first fieldwork in this village, I learned that telephone lines and mobiles didn’t work here, infant mortality rates were alarmingly high, finding meaningful employment was impossible, school dropouts were the norm, and avenues for learning skills non-existent.
In fact, soon after taking charge in October 2014, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis even referred to Harisal as the "headquarters of malnourishment". Harisal was far from being one of the Narendra Modi-led central government’s smart villages.
Being a passionate skeptic of blanket monolithic solutions, my vision for smart villages is for them to emerge as a cluster of connected communities, each having a distinct sense of style, purpose and being.
For me, Harisal will be smart when a handloom weaver near the Melghat Tiger Reserve begins her day by powering her mobile internet through “White-Fi” (technology that leverages unutilized spectrum owned by television channels to provide low-cost internet connectivity), discovers business opportunities using a customer relationship management app, and partners with payment gateways, e-commerce firms, and rural transport services to provide finished garments from Mumbai to Jammu.
So, over the past year, the Maharashtra government and Microsoft have collaborated to develop a strategic framework for smart village adoption and to identify an impact-driven, public-private partnership-enabled implementation model to transform Harisal into India’s first smart village.
Working as a multistakeholder team, we began by recognizing that building a smart village was more of an anthropological problem than a technological one.
Although it is too early to celebrate success, the feedback from villagers has been encouraging.
We now have a better understanding of the core elements of a smart village and hope the framework is widely used by the government, private players, and non-profit organizations. Interventions must be pivoted around three core pillars: ensuring last mile access, providing technology infrastructure, and fostering a sustainable ecosystem.
Last mile access
Mobile networks still don’t operate in Harisal but the village now has internet. “White-fi” technology is being used to deliver broadband internet. Villagers now use Skype and WhatsApp to connect with the wider world. Encouraging alternate technologies and new business models designed for scale must be the first step towards the digital transformation of our villages.
It is no secret that India missed reaping the benefits of the first, second and third industrial revolutions. Now the fourth is upon us. It would witness the fusion of physical, biological, and digital worlds with the mainstreaming of technologies such as 3D printing, artificial intelligence and machine learning.
According to the World Economic Forum, almost 90% of the world’s data was created in the last two years. Going forward, the pace will only increase. With this data explosion, cloud technology will be instrumental in shaping disruptions and redefining customer experiences, innovation methodologies, and governance models, not only for urban India but also for “Bharat.”
Smart villages must be data-driven and cloud-powered. District collectors – the Indian Administrative Service officers in charge – should consider re-skilling block development officers (implementers of rural schemes) in basic data collection and analysis so that they monitor education, healthcare, agriculture, and financial inclusion metrics. Progress on these metrics must be shared with the chief minister’s office, local administration, and villagers. This would ensure transparency of goals and outcomes.
Let us take healthcare as an example. Infant mortality rates are alarming in Harisal. Last year, in April and May, 158 children under the age of one perished. Given the acute shortage of doctors – one for a population of 11,000 – tele-medicine and tele-consultation are necessary but not sufficient to transform healthcare. Even though we have engaged leading doctors from nearby cities, long-term success will be contingent upon regular data collection, monitoring, and analysis.
Cataract is another common occurrence in the region. Considering constraints of income and distance to the nearest treatment centre, it is vital to build up predictive capabilities using advanced analytics – again premised on data.
Similar arguments can be advanced for education where building a digital classroom will help but not until learning outcomes are measured and students’ progress tracked.
Developing an economically viable and culturally sensitive ecosystem in villages is of paramount importance. Unfortunately, direct access to the market has been a major challenge largely due to multiple intermediaries and lack of skilled workforce. Even Amravati, well-known for its garments, gets almost 7,000 weavers from Bengal every season to fill the local labour gap.
To counter this challenge, a three-pronged strategy will be useful: provide training that supplements indigenous skills, ensure digital and IT-readiness, and link skilling-interventions to market – both online and offline.
Almost 70% of India lives in villages where the social and economic conditions are sub-optimal. The country has often been touted as an emerging superpower even though most Indians remain super poor. This is why empowering villages through technology and creating rural innovation clusters will be critical to reconcile India’s “super power-super poor” conundrum and realize the true potential of Digital India.
The India Economic Summit is taking place in New Delhi, India, from 6-7 October.