Over 68 percent of India's population lives in rural areas. There has been a gradual increase in migration from villages to cities primarily for livelihood opportunities, better education, and healthcare facilities, among others. The rising burden on urban cities due to migration emphasises the need to transform villages so that they can meet the critical as well as aspirational needs of the villagers. This can be done using innovative technologies and transforming the service delivery models for villages. Transformed villages are called Smart Villages.
While the phrase ‘Smart Village’ has become a buzzword in policy and rural development discussion, there is no universal definition of such villages. Two things that are common to all Smart Villages are the extensive use of technology and integration of several key interventions in infrastructure and service delivery.
It’s an integrated approach of delivering access to skills and quality basic services including education, e-health, 24x7 power, safe food, among others.
There are numerous initiatives supported by the government, and spearheaded and supported by corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives and philanthropic institutions.
The Government of India launched the Shyama Prasad Mukherji Rurban Mission (SPMRM) in 2016, with the objective to spur social, economic and infrastructural development in rural areas. The mission aims at making villages smart and growth centers of the nation. In its first phase, it targeted to develop a cluster of 300 Smart Villages over the next three years across the country. Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana, which envisages integrated development of selected villages was another step taken by government in this direction.
While the government-led initiatives rely on integration and convergence of the existing central and state government schemes to develop these Smart Villages or clusters, the CSR initiatives are generally more innovative in terms of implementation and use of technologies. For example, smartphone-maker Nokia has launched a Smartpur project which aims to create a sustainable ecosystem where community members can leverage digital tools to bring efficiency in daily lives. It aims to bring transparency in governance, economic prosperity for households and ease of access to various government services and information.
Tata Trusts supports agriculture intervention for tribal communities under its Lakhpati Kisan – Smart Villages program. While these CSR or philanthropic institutions do work closely with government institutions, their model of engagement and the partnership with the government vary significantly.
These initiatives have provided key learnings to empower institutions, build engagement models and frameworks for planning, and developing implementation strategies for Smart Villages.
We suggest learning from the Smart Cities mission, but we also caution that these learnings must be contextualised and synthesised, as Smart Villages are very different from Smart Cities. The latter are more focused on increasing the overall efficiency and improvement in civic infrastructure, while Smart Villages envisage the need of building the facilities from scratch.
One of the key challenges in developing Smart Villages is ensuring their sustainability. This can only be addressed if we build our Smart Village strategy with entrepreneurship at its core. Thankfully, India has one of the most vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem that is working towards addressing rural development challenges using innovative technologies and business models.
We have enterprises that are addressing healthcare needs (Glocal Healthcare Systems, mHealth, iKure), delivering quality education (Gyanshala, Hippocampus, Avanti), providing decentralised energy solutions (Sun Moksha, Mera Gao Power, Mlinda), transforming agriculture productivity (Ekgaon, Jain Irrigation, Milk Mantra), providing drinking water and sanitation services (Sarvajal, Svadha, Banka Bioloo), creating livelihood opportunities for women (Dharma Life, Frontier Markets, Sudiksha Knowledge Solutions), and so on. The need is to integrate this approach for the Smart Village vision.
Along with focus on entrepreneurship, there is also a need to provide training and capacity building support to Panchayati Raj institutions and other rural administrative bodies so that they can start thinking beyond the traditional approaches and become amenable to innovative implementation models. These institutions can play a pivotal role in enabling entrepreneurs by supporting them in demand estimation, facilitating community mobilisation and partnerships, and integrating enterprises in the vision of Smart Villages.
Finally, we need to focus on identifying gaps in the existing entrepreneurship ecosystem, especially the critical factors that could enable entrepreneurs to participate in development of Smart Villages more actively. The focus needs to be on fine tuning engagement models, financing of initiatives, as well as the policy framework. Customised solutions will augment the development of Smart Villages in India.
Santosh Kumar Singh is Director and Ankit Gupta is Manager at Intellecap.