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What Does it Take to Build a Truly ‘Smart’ Village?

Mere availability of digital tools and internet connectivity does not make a village smart.

I want to talk to you today about a dream project that we started earlier this year, based on our learnings of last 15 years. When I look back now, I realise that all projects that Digital Empowerment Foundation has ever implemented on ground have been the stepping stones for learning to create a sampoorna (holistic) village. And I am so glad that this vision of ours, of leveraging technology for bottom-up development, found alignment when we sat down with Nokia to make a strategy to create smart villages, following which we put Smartpur in pilot mode in two blocks, Tain in Haryana and Asoor in Tamil Nadu, covering 10 villages each.

The motivation to create Smartpur comes from two realisations. The first is that we noticed that most smart village projects focus on digital infrastructure and not on the integration of technology into the daily lives and services for efficiency. Mere availability of digital tools and internet connectivity does not make a village smart. Rather, it is the integration and optimum utilisation of these resources for social, ecological and economic impact that truly makes a smart village. The other is the constant migration of people from villages to ‘smart’ cities in search of a better livelihood, thereby increasing the burden on cities.

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Smartpur stands on the foundation of six pillars — education, health, finance, governance, livelihood and entertainment. Each of these pillars are further supported by wireless broadband access-enabled digital infrastructure, leading to efficiency in daily lives, transparency in governance, economic prosperity for households, and ease of access to various kinds of services and information.

The pillars ensure that communities have access to affordable medical diagnosis and consultation through digitally-empowered frontline health workers (ASHAs) and telemedicine services linked to nearest district hospitals. Students and teachers in government schools have access to digital tools and content for learning and teaching purposes. Youth and women have vocational training for relevant skills to improve employability or entrepreneurial abilities. Community has easier and affordable access to public schemes and entitlements through a specially-curated app and a digitally strengthened local panchayat. People have knowledge of and access to digital financial services while local banking correspondents have the digital infrastructure required to carry out their day-to-day role. Lastly, we cannot deny that social media, games and music have encouraged thousands of Indians in rural India, just like in urban India, to own a mobile phone. So we developed a digital repository of quality audio-visual content that could largely serve edutainment purposes.

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When we first walked in Asoor and Tain with these ideas, we were apprehensive. Would the community allow us in and let us introduce interventions? Tain, especially, fairs poorly in all development areas as indicated in the Census. The town is notorious for a high crime rate, an askew sex ratio and a below-average literacy rate. Further, during a 100-household survey, DEF found that 58 per cent of the households had no internet connection, an enabling tool in today’s time when the government is pushing digital identities, digital services and digital payments.

However, much to our pleasant surprise, we were more than welcomed. In fact, the panchayat members saw so much value in what we wanted to bring into their community that they offered us a four-room property to establish the Smartpur centre and even put in more than Rs. 50,000 to renovate the space. This only proves how much people want these services, some of them as basic as having access to quality and affordable healthcare, education, financial services and government entitlements. And smart integration of technology at a village level, can make these services available to the masses, besides open doors to unlimited opportunities and information that the Internet has to offer.

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I’ll just like to end with an anecdote that makes us realise our responsibility towards the community that has opened its hearts and homes to us. “Yeh Tain gaon hai. Tumne toh iska naam hi badal diya (This is Tain village, you have changed it entirely)an old man said to our ground staff who explained to him the meaning of Smartpur. “Aise bahot aaye hain aur bahot kuch bol ke gaye hain. Dekhte hain tum kya karte ho (Many like you have come and have made numerous claims, let’s see what you do).”

Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is member, advisory board, at Alliance for Affordable Internet and has co-authored NetCh@kra–15 Years of Internet in India and Internet Economy of India. He tweets @osamamanzar.

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