Time to Bridge The Urban-Rural Divide

Efficient policy and smart implementation can completely change the demography of Indian villages

Largely unknown to the rest of India, Mori used to be a sleepy village in remote East Godavari district of Andhra Pradesh. However the village came into limelight afterit was declared the first 100 per cent digitally literate village in the country. While cities are struggling to go complete cashless, Mori achieved status of complete cashless transaction village and open defecation free village.

All the 1,900 houses in the village are tuned to all-new fibre network hosted television, internet and telephone network. Villagers could now pay house and water taxes and power bills online and necessary training had been imparted to all the villagers. The village is working on smart classes with video conference facility. Work is on for a dedicated e-commerce portal for cashew farmers and a dedicated organic farming programme for shrimp hatcheries.

Behind it was the team from University of California, Berkeley, under the guidance of Professor Solomon Darwin, representatives of Silicon Valley, private players like Google, Cisco, IBM, Ericsson, just to name a few, supported by dedicated team of state government officials. who came up wuith fibrenet programme.

Under the fibrenet programme, the villagers are given a package that will include 250 television channels, internet with 15mbps speed, unlimited free phone calls and free video calling facility within the network, all for Rs. 149 per month. The village which is one of the exporters of cashew and handloom weavers, were also given training on how to do social marketing of their product to boost their business prospects.

“Villagers were provided fullest training to operate internet and making use of it to improve their finances through direct marketing via social media. Once it enhances their earning, they are ready to pay,” state fibernet project managing director Koganti Sambasiva Rao said.

Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu was so impressed with the turnaround of the village that he extended the ‘smart village project’ to 58 villages in Razole constituency and said it will be extended to all villages of the state in the phased manner.

“With this great inspiring achievement of Mori citizens, the state government would put its efforts to change all villages into ‘smart villages’ in a phased manner,” Naidu announced.

Mori has became an example of how right technological innovation can transform a while village and a live model for many state governments to follow.

Taking a cue from the Smart Cities Mission, many states are adopting fresh rural planning for the village that includes complete digitalization, efficient waste management, use of renewable energy and smart classroom and road, making it at par with the cities.

The Rajasthan government recently launched a smart village programme which envisages cleaning close to 10,000 gram panchayat, installing solar grids at all panchayat headquarters so that electricity can reach to far-flung villages, which lacks access to conventional energy.

According to a senior official, the government has roped in IIT, Bombay for smart village project for the technical support for solar project.
“Solar energy can work very well for Rajasthan as it has enough sunlight throughout the year. This will go a long way for the state in rural electrification. We are already preparing a plan,” said an official at the rural development department, Rajasthan government.

Another state Haryana is tawpping its NRI population to adopt villages and are taking various initiatives to develop rural areas into smart villages. It has established two NRI cells to attract investor for the project as a part of ‘Self-motivated model village scheme’ which will help in the development of rural Haryana.

“The Haryana NRI cell has been launched for a focused facilitation of Pravasis, and NRIs can contact the cell for business queries, investment interest and other suggestions,” said Manohar Lal Khattar, Chief Minister, Haryana said during Haryana Pravasi Divas, organised in Gurugram on January 10 and 11.

Madhya Pradesh has initiated Smart-Villages project with an investment of Rs.150 crore. Even Bihar government had launched programmes to create ‘smart villages’ so that people do not need to move to cities. Last year even President Pranab Mukherjee adopted five villages under the smart villages’ initiative.

Attractive Market For Tech Companies

One of the leading initiative from the Central government is the Digital Village initiative, which aims at adopting a service based approach that would look at providing services such as tele-medicine, tele-education and Wi-Fi hotspots in the village. Initially it was to be implemented across 100 villages in its pilot phase.

“Digital Village pilot intends to provide a platform for availability of services such as tele medicine, tele education, LED street lighting, wi-fi hotspot and skill development to the people at the gram panchayat level in select blocks across various states and union territories. This project moves away from the traditional approach of e-Governance projects (that focused on creating infrastructure) and adopts a service based approach for pilot of the Digital Village,” according to a latest communication issued by the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology.

The idea instantly clicked with the private technology players, who were ready to grap the rural market. The potential of rural market is largely untapped and private players are finding fresh interest to increase their reach. As per the industrial estimates, in 2014–15, 60 million, equivalent to the entire UK population, went online for the first time. Currently about 900 million people in India, mostly in rural areas, are offline and private players see a huge opportunity here and are pushing for Digital Village project.

No wonder then Rural Digitalization was one of the key agenda of Satya Nadella, head of software giant Microsoft during his recent India visit. He never forget to mention his Harisal village initiative, a joint venture by the Maharashtra Government and Microsoft.

The small village, which is known as malnourished village has a Wi-Fi tower and three smaller hotspots and free internet to all the villagers. For 2,000 odd villagers, there are only five or six laptops in the village, but almost every household has a smartphone. For them, the new Wi-Fi connection changed their lives overnight. Especially for the kids. Microsoft, which funded the project, now plans to get 50 more villages around Harisal online.

A successful story of digital India initiative can be seen in Dighi village, about 80 km west of Purulia on the Bengal-Jharkhand border. Once known to be a Maoist stronghold, is today the state’s first tribal hamlet to get 100 per cent broadband link under the Centre’s ambitious National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN).

A joint initiative by the Centre and the West Bengal Government, the project includes Wi-Fi zones, seamless mobile connectivity, telemedicine links to medical colleges, cashless markets and smart classrooms, a gram panchayat equipped with laptops and a solar panel for power supply. There is a bank and ATM which will use National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) for an ATM service. Fringed by forests, and marked as Red Zone, this remote hamlet will serve as a model for 40 other ‘smart villages’ in the state.

The man behind Mori village, Professor Solomon Darwin, who teaches ‘smart cities programme’ and is Director, Garwood Centre, at University of California, says that “for holistic development, developing villages will not only create job opportunity but it can also ease the pressure on cities which is bursting at its seams due to huge influx of migrating population from village in search of livelihood. Also it helps in bridging the rural-urban divide”.

That makes sense for India where large chunk of population is still concentrated in rural pockets. According to Census 2011 data, 69 per cent of India’s population, or around 833 million people, lived in rural areas, against 31 per cent, or 377.1 million people, in urban areas. It is projected that the latter figure will jump to 50 per cent by 2050. Giving priority to village will positively impact cities in the long run. Development experts claim that by improving infrastructure, people and businesses will move to villages, increasing revenue, resources and job opportunities in rural India, which will also take the steam off the cities.

And he claims that transforming village is easier than it is projected and do not require huge investment.

“A Smart Village does not mean bringing in a lot of infrastructure and spending huge money, but empowering people with access to tools, resources, real time transparent information and uninterrupted internet connectivity,” said Darwin.

And even private players claim that the model is very much replicable in other villages.

“The IoT solution that we have demonstrated at Mori village is scalable and can be replicated in other villages as well. Our connected Aquaponics and smart water grid management system have been conceptualized to help improve the quality of life of villagers in and around Mori Village. These solutions can help improve harvest, optimize water distribution and has the potential to provide an improved life for millions of farmers in the country,” said a spokesperson from Swedish communication technology firm Ericsson.

After Mori Village the company is looking to extend its efficient water management project in other parts of the state as well. The company is also in talks with other state government for similar project.

Lack Of Focussed Approach

One of the challenge of Smart Village project is the lack of a common vision and mission on the lines of the Smart Cities Mission. There is digital village initiative, Adarsh Gram Yojna, which encouraged MPs and MLAs adopting a village but largely it is restricted to few model village. All the example mentioned in the story are either, CSR Initiative of the state government project, promises to solve only part of the problem. For instance digitization, nowhere solved the basic infrastructure problem of the Harisal village, which still gets only 4 hours of electricity supply, safe water is still a problem, and so is high rates of malnourishment. Despite these programme, there was no unified vision so far and the progress is restricted to few clusters.

Road Forward

India require a clear vision and well conceived roadmap of the villages, with focus on improving basic infrastructure and civic amenities. Only comprehensive step in this direction was ‘Rurban Mission which talked about developing 300 ‘Rurban’ clusters by 2019.

Apart from the budgetary allocation of Rs.5,142 crore, the mission specified 14 components in a list of parameters: skill development training linked to economic activities, agro-processing, storage and warehousing, digital literacy, sanitation, provision of piped water supply, solid and liquid waste management, village streets and drains, streetlights, fully equipped mobile health units, upgrading school infrastructure, village road connectivity, electronic delivery of citizen centric services, public transport and LPG gas connections.

However the challenge lies in implementation. Many people in villages still do not have an internet connection or enough content in their own vernacular languages. For example in Melghat district there are 350 villages which are totally cut off from the mainstream telecommunication and waiting to be adopted like their neighbouring village Harisal. India still has poor bandwidth speeds. Many villages still lack electricity and the push for renewable energy just does not seem to be enough.

Smart villages can translate into improved farm productivity, water conservation and economic independence to village youth. It makes great social, economic and political sense only if is smartly implemented.

As United Nation’s Resident Coordinator Louis Georges Arsenault sums up, “The concept of rural and urban should not be segregated and a unified approach towards development should be adopted. Then only India can achieve inclusive growth”.