This article was first published by the Mint newspaper on November 17, 2015.
What is smarter: building smart cities or smart villages?
In 1967, I was born in a village called Islampur in Nautan block near Bettiah town in the West Champaran district of Bihar. My father soon got a job at the Heavy Engineering Corporation Ltd (HEC) in Ranchi, and our family shifted to HEC Township, 6 km from the centre of Ranchi city.
The township had all the urban amenities: wide roads, open spaces, playing fields, hospitals, recreation clubs, shopping complexes and so on.
Yet, my best childhood memories are of our village vacations, when we enjoyed fishing in the village ponds, roaming in mango and lichi orchards, farming, riding horse carts, playing for hours on trees and fields, and milking goats and cows.
Obviously, the amenities in Islampur were no match for those in the HEC Township. Now, I live in Delhi, and the urban amenities I get in Delhi, I do not get in Ranchi, leave alone Islampur.
The HEC Township is practically dead after the factory that sustained it turned sick a long time back. Every HEC employee who could find work migrated to another town or city.
Islampur has become a ghost village, with almost no one living there. The huge house of my maternal grandfather is in a dilapidated condition. Ponds have dried up and orchards have been cut.
Electricity has not reached Islampur yet, and there is no road that leads to the village.
Denizens of Islampur have long moved out, finding their space in the slums and unauthorized colonies of Delhi. It is clear that the human desire for better living will drive migration.
The new government has promised to make 100 smart cities, for which the Union budget has allocated Rs.7,060 crore.
When we talk about making cities better, we often use the word smart. Alongside, we also have plans to make villages better. For that, the government wants members of Parliament to adopt and develop model villages.
Is it really smart to create smart cities? Or should we reverse our thinking to concentrate on making smart villages?
I found several definitions and examples of smart cities on the Internet, but could not find a single good explanation of smart village. Wikipedia defines a smart city (also smarter city, intelligent city, digital city) as “an emerging conceptual view of a city that promotes the use of information and communication technologies (ICTs) to engage with citizens to develop social capital and intellectual capital, to make better use of hard infrastructure (physical capital), reduce usage of environmental capital and support smart growth (sustainable economic development)”.
If we go ahead with our smart city plans— and I am not saying we should not—we will end up fuelling migration, leading to unsustainable growth and disastrous living standards.
However, if we apply the same definition of a smart city to a village, we will have at least one outcome—less migration, and thus better applicability of tools that make a smart city.
Let’s consider a typical village and its wings: a village as a part of a panchayat has 29 subjects within its ambit—some of them are agriculture, land, animal husbandry, fisheries, forestry, housing, water, sanitation, school or education, health, fuel and fodder, electricity, libraries, cultural activities, family welfare, women and children, social welfare, small scale industries, roads, bridges, infrastructure, markets and fair, and public distribution.
In most villages in India, most of these are non-functional. As I see it, a smart village should have digital connectivity, easy access to information, and all 29 panchayat subjects must be enabled with digital infrastructure. Considering that digital tools have become the most important pillar of basic infrastructure, its applicability to village, panchayat and tehsil level would create an ecosystem of bottom-up development.
In other words, to make an effort towards making the cities smart, we need to first look at making our villages smart. The success of smart cities lies in making our villages smart first, and the first target should be the panchayat level.