A blueprint for India’s ‘Smart Villages’

January 06, 2018 07:57 pm | Updated 08:00 pm IST

Sometime in early 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Cabinet put forth a plan for upgrading a cluster of 300 villages to ‘Smart Villages’. Christened as the Shyama Prasad Mukherji Rurban Mission, after the founder of the Jan Sangh, the project aimed to develop the first phase by 2019. A sound plan, considering that at least 833 million, about 68%, of Indians are living in rural areas. And one that can be easily realised in a developing setting such as India’s, according to Yousef Khalili, head of Smart City Digital Transformation Consulting Unit at NXN Group.

For Mr. Khalili, one of the architects of the Smart Dubai projects, Smart Villages is an idea that’s close to his heart. “The baseline for smart communities is always constant, whether it is a city or a village. It’s how you use technology to better the lives of people,” he explains in an interview.

For India, Mr. Khalili recommends starting with the challenges that are presented for such a project. “The stress points of a city are very different from that of a village; and the quality of their life is perhaps the most prominent challenge in rural areas. Here, we are talking about demands of basic decent life conditions — education, health care, environment and employment among others,” he elaborates.

Mr. Khalili says one should not look for the typical solutions that governments often resort to which have had little success over decades. “If a government aspires to focus on education, instead of budgeting for an expensive school infrastructure, they could create units for smart learning in digital classrooms.”

When pointed to the obvious drawback that most villages lack the kind of Internet connectivity required, Mr. Khalili strikes back with complementary solutions. “I feel it is much more scalable as a solution to offer remote education within villages if the governments were to collaborate with private investors.” In India, he believes, the private sector is not assured of return on investments. “The government here needs to step up [its part], and implement a national programme whereby they take their infrastructure to the villages in exchange for subsidised markets and revenue shares,” he recommends.

“[The] same framework would apply for health care,” he says, adding that access to technologies in health care needn’t affect the budget set aside for emergencies. “The government can offer tele-medicine and mobile clinics in the village.” Since India is an agrarian economy, Mr. Khalili recommends services aimed at farmers. “Apart from the consultation and support services, an exchange or an online platform could be set up at village centres that allows the farmers to sell their crops at the best prices,” he suggests. “It will bring transparency.”

Business model

However, even with pragmatic, yet lofty ideas, Mr. Khalili is aware that realising them would require more than just good intentions. At his previous position with Cisco as well, Mr. Khalili had worked extensively on a project focussing on India as a landscape to launch Smart Villages. “After six months of study, I realised why such a project was unable to take off in the real world,” he explains. “I believe that despite all the wishful thinking and good intentions, the business model or the lack of one was not cracked.” The government alone cannot bear the financial costs of the project, and the private sector doesn’t see the revenues for them, he says.

Ruchi Kumar is an independent journalist based in Kabul

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