Insights into Editorial
For Modi’s smart-city vision to become a reality, India needs smart villages first
It is now widely agreed that development of rural India holds the key to the nation’s sustainable economic growth. In this regard, experts have advocated transformation and development of “smart villages” across the country to improve standard of living in the rural areas and boost the rural economy.
Why concentrate on villages?
Almost 70 of the Indian population lives in villages. In recent times, more cases of farmers’ suicides due to crop failure have been reported. Even after 70 years of independence, we lack a ‘support and guidance system’; nor do we have professional counselling for farmers. Many of them have no secondary source of income — this is a major lacuna.
- The lack of job opportunities in villages coupled with less remunerative farming (except in the case of large land holdings) compels village youth to migrate to cities. There, many of them do not enjoy a reasonable quality of life because they manage to get only subsistence jobs.
- The migration is also unidirectional as they continue to live in cities in the hope of landing better jobs. In the long term, this leads to desertion from villages, dilution of village culture, reduced land under cultivation and, consequently, farm output.
- In the cities, uncontrolled migration adds to pollution, traffic problems, crime, and over-burdening of civic amenities and infrastructure. Therefore it is natural that for ‘inclusive’ development, the Government must focus on them.
According to the most recent socioeconomic and caste census data, a third of India’s rural households are landless and dependent on manual labour for an income.
- About 13% of rural households are still only one-room tenements built with mud walls and fragile roofs.
- There is not even basic health insurance in case of serious illnesses. Rural health centres are not easily reachable, and even if they are, they don’t have either the facilities or the medicines to treat anything other than diarrhoea and bacterial infections.
- Malnutrition is widespread and one of India’s most enduring enigmas.
- Roads in the interiors are also not in good condition. They are difficult even to walk, not to speak of travelling by carts, and have been in that condition for years.
What needs to be done?
- The top priority should be the creation of opportunities for youths in villages, thereby discouraging migration to cities. We must create an eco-system that makes youth interested in working from their villages. BPOs/KPOs can operate from villages and young people can be encouraged to take up IT jobs there. Many jobs require computer skills instead of degrees. The digitisation of post offices, rural banks, and IT-enabled services provide excellent opportunities.
- Farming should be made a remunerative occupation, with guidance and mentoring to small farmers on how to get the best yield and market at remunerative prices. It’s important to train them to develop a secondary source of income.
- The benefits of schemes such as crop insurance, soil health card, and neem pesticides must reach the grassroots. Proper implementation is key. A helpdesk set up in every village and manned by trained individuals to handle farmers’ queries and provide solutions would be most useful.
- Projects supported by Digital India and Skill India should be integrated through a unified agency to reach villages. For instance, Skill India can empower youths to start their own small businesses after training as masons, mechanics, electricians, and drivers or to run repair shops, poultry and dairy farms, kirana stores, tea-shops, dhabas and so on.
- India’s crafts thrive in villages, especially as cooperative ventures. Pottery, metal craft, weaving, jewellery making, wood craft, shell craft, cane craft, embroidery, ivory craft, glass craft and paper craft could be sources of income. The arts and crafts ecosystem of villages is impossible to recreate in cities. A great deal of export potential is hidden here. Senior/elderly artisans can be employed as ‘trainers’.
- Villages traditionally preserve large number of water bodies like ponds, wells, bawadis, canals etc. Training villagers in water harvesting methods, rejuvenating ponds/wells to improve water storage and sharing these good practices systematically with others, would help mitigate hardships.
Things to consider while making villages smart:
Basic facilities should include health and sanitation, housing, power, skill development centres and micro-industries.
A four-step method has also been proposed to create a smart village:
- First, a central place must be chosen as a hub and person must be assigned to work with villagers. This person could be a wealthy local elder who is well respected and influential in his village or town. Having a local leader will generate more trust and support among the villagers. The hub should preferably be a pucca (proper) building that is centrally located in the village. The building should have a few guest rooms, a common room and dining area, and should be in a safe location.
- Second, is the availability of basic infrastructure. Although many city dwellers want to experience rural lifestyle, they are accustomed to basic comforts like clean drinking water, fans, internet, TV, fridge, clean toilets, easy access to roads and public transport. People will prefer places that already have the basic infrastructure in place or that can be upgraded with minimum effort. A genuine village experience coupled with the availability of basic infrastructure could attract people to the village.
- Third, is to encourage people to move to locations outside the city. With urban centres getting over crowded and expensive, many people will be willing to consider relocating. Working from rural locations will help startups widen their focus, and take up new challenging business domains and niche problems. This will also allow the firm to test the market before formally launching. Besides, as founders of startups usually prefer working round the clock to stabilise their projects, they are the ideal long-term tenants for the village hub building.
- Finally, it is important to find the right kind of investors. Conventional investors may not be interested in people- or rural-centric projects. The ideal investor would be an ‘angel investor’ with a critical connection to the locality community. Tapping into CSR funding from a large corporate with a local presence is also an option. Additionally any government projects or funds for the area could augment the initial growth phase of the smart village.
The task is enormous and requires tremendous planning as well as a huge amount of resources. State Governments, corporate sector and charitable institutions have to contribute generously. The NITI Aayog can draw a master plan to make every village smart in the next five years. Invite support from private institutions or NGOs; however, execution must remain with a governmental ‘nodal agency’.
While it is true that India is urbanising at a faster rate than many other countries, it will not be fully urbanised overnight. The simple truth is we must continue to look after our villages well in order to let our cities survive. Smart villages can translate into improved farm productivity, water conservation and economic independence to village youth. It makes great social, economic and political sense.