This article was first published by the Mint newspaper on March 22, 2017.
In the last budget, the government of India assigned Rs9,000 crore as the budget for Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation. But I think the government needs to pause and think again. Do we really need smarter cities? Or should we be making our villages smarter?
When we create a smart city, we try to enhance the efficiency of the city, thereby attracting more attention, and more people into the city and encouraging rural-to-urban migration. But that is not a healthy sign of development, as it does not leave room and opportunity for the country as a whole to grow. Instead of focusing our development and tools to enhance smartness in tier I cities, the government needs to make more efforts at creating tier II and tier III smart cities, and going further down to creating smart districts, taluks and panchayats.
If such an approach is adopted, efficiency will start moving from the bottom to the top, rather than a top-down approach. This will also curb migration to cities and reduce the burden on infrastructure in the cities. Let us not forget that reducing the burden on limited resources is true smartness. The government needs to think about creating 250,000 smart panchayats. Or it can start with a smaller target. It can select 10 gram panchayats for a pilot project, and then scale up.
So what are the parameters to keep in mind to make a village smart?
Firstly, delivery of government services should be efficient to ensure that the maximum number of citizens in a region are able to avail benefits and entitlements. At a village level, a good majority of citizens are dependent on government infrastructure and schemes. Therefore, it is extremely crucial to have an efficient, transparent and accountable service delivery system. For this purpose, provision of connectivity should be seen as a basic infrastructure goal. For example, every gram sabha is supposed to conduct a monthly meeting but it doesn’t always take place. One way to ensure these meetings happen is by making sure all gram panchayat members can be online and conduct their meetings through videoconference with public viewing options. This way, all matters that are discussed in the meeting will be on record. With such transparency, citizens will be able to ask questions and representatives will feel more accountable to deliver what they’ve promised.
Further, if each gram sabha has its own website, the same will act as a repository of information on the gram sabha’s activities, roles and responsibilities. It must be made mandatory for all gram sabhas to post their monthly performance and progress report online, along with the annual allocated budget and expenses.
Moving towards the education sector, unless our schools become smart we will not be able to create smart citizens in the future. It is, therefore, important for every school to have a digital lab with broadband connectivity so that students and teachers can access the internet for more content. All facilities and infrastructure in schools should be monitored via a crowdsourced app or geotagged data collection software application. For example, geotagging of toilets and water coolers will give updated information on whether or not there is water in the toilets on a daily basis. In fact, the entire education monitoring system—from classroom and student management to attendance and midday meal management—should be available in real time.
At hundreds of sub-health centres, doctors are just not available. A simple infrastructure that connects the local health centre with a district-level doctor on a weekly or biweekly basis through videoconference will help improve health in villages. Further, all 1.4 million Anganwadi workers should be given a nationally accepted mobile app, which should list the tasks, roles and responsibilities, besides mechanisms for daily, monthly and quarterly reporting. Content on this app should be available in multiple languages in audiovisual format that can be used by the Anganwadi workers to train themselves and others.
Wi-Fi hot spots should be made available to citizens on a chargeable basis. With broadband connectivity made available, the entire village will have more accountable citizens, accountable governance, accountable business and service delivery mechanisms—thus making it smart.
Incidentally, in each of the described sectors, we have several digital initiatives, but most of them are done in isolation. The need of the hour is to create an ecosystem of panchayat-level data centres. With the panchayat as the centre of activities and monitoring, there should be a mechanism to connect all mentioned institutions to a local database through broadband connectivity. This can further be connected to a block-level database and then at the district level. In other words, we can plan an intranet at the panchayat level with open linkage to the internet.
We need to start with mapping of public institutions and offices, local businesses and organizations. We need to connect schools, colleges, sub-health centres, hospitals, Anganwadis, panchayats, markets, micro-enterprises, NGOs, self-help groups, libraries and other public spaces to the panchayat level intranet-cum-database. So when I’m talking about connectivity, I’m not only talking about access but also availability of all public information and interdependence of information/database between government departments.
Once this is achieved, it strengthens the local community members to become smart individuals who, in turn, will help create a smart village or a smart panchayat.