India’s First ‘Smart Village’

Can a public-private collaboration transform India’s struggling communities?

In a way, Mahatma Gandhi conceptualized smart villages.

A champion of participatory democracy and grassroots development, he believed that making villages self-contained and sustainable was the first step toward empowering India.

Contrary to popular belief, he wasn’t against industrialization, markets and competition as long as they did not lead to the passive or active exploitation of villagers.

Image Credit: World Economic Forum

Yet, seven decades after independence, we are nowhere close to realizing Gandhi’s vision of empowered villages. Rural India remains in a deplorable state.

One reason for this is institutional neglect.

Headquarters of malnourishment

A glaring example is Harisal, a small village in Amravati district in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.

During my first fieldwork in this village, I learned that telephone lines and mobiles didn’t work here, infant mortality rates were alarmingly high, finding meaningful employment was impossible, school dropouts were the norm and avenues for learning skills were non-existent.

In fact, soon after taking charge in October 2014, chief minister Devendra Fadnavis even referred to Harisal as the “headquarters of malnourishment.”

Harisal was far from being one of the Narendra Modi-led central government’s smart villages.

Being a passionate skeptic of blanket monolithic solutions, my vision for smart villages is for them to emerge as a cluster of connected communities, each having a distinct sense of style, purpose and being.

For me, Harisal will be smart when a handloom weaver near the Melghat Tiger Reserve begins her day by powering her mobile internet through “White-Fi” (technology that leverages unutilized spectrum owned by television channels to provide low-cost internet connectivity), discovers business opportunities using a customer relationship management app and partners with payment gateways, e-commerce firms and rural transport services to provide finished garments from Mumbai to Jammu.

So, over the past year, the Maharashtra government and Microsoft have collaborated to develop a strategic framework for smart village adoption and to identify an impact-driven, public-private partnership-enabled implementation model to transform Harisal into India’s first smart village.

Working as a multistakeholder team, we began by recognizing that building a smart village was more of an anthropological problem than a technological one.

Although it is too early to celebrate success, the feedback from villagers has been encouraging.

We now have a better understanding of the core elements of a smart village and hope the framework is widely used by the government, private players and non-profit organizations.

Interventions must be pivoted around three core pillars:

info button 1

Ensuring last-mile access.

info button 2 yellow

Providing technology infrastructure.

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Fostering a sustainable ecosystem.

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Last-mile access

Mobile networks still don’t operate in Harisal, but the village now has internet.

“White-fi” technology is being used to deliver broadband internet. Villagers now use Skype and WhatsApp to connect with the wider world.

Encouraging alternate technologies and new business models designed for scale must be the first step toward the digital transformation of our villages.

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It is no secret that India missed reaping the benefits of the first, second and third industrial revolutions. Now the fourth is upon us.

Technology infrastructure

It is no secret that India missed reaping the benefits of the first, second and third industrial revolutions. Now the fourth is upon us.

It would witness the fusion of physical, biological and digital worlds with the mainstreaming of technologies such as 3D printing, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

According to the World Economic Forum, almost 90 percent of the world’s data was created in the last two years.

Going forward, the pace will only increase. With this data explosion, cloud technology will be instrumental in shaping disruptions and redefining customer experiences, innovation methodologies and governance models, not only for urban India but also for “Bharat.”

Smart villages must be data-driven and cloud-powered.

Let us take healthcare as an example. Infant mortality rates are alarming in Harisal. Last year, in April and May, 158 children under the age of 1 died.

Given the acute shortage of doctors – one for a population of 11,000 – tele-medicine and tele-consultation are necessary but not sufficient to transform healthcare.

Even though we have engaged leading doctors from nearby cities, long-term success will be contingent upon regular data collection, monitoring and analysis.

Cataract is another common occurrence in the region. Considering constraints of income and distance to the nearest treatment center, it is vital to build up predictive capabilities using advanced analytics – again premised on data.

Similar arguments can be advanced for education where building a digital classroom will help but not until learning outcomes are measured and students’ progress tracked.

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Almost 70 percent of India lives in villages where the social and economic conditions are sub-optimal.

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Sustainable ecosystem

Developing an economically viable and culturally sensitive ecosystem in villages is of paramount importance.

Unfortunately, direct access to the market has been a major challenge largely due to multiple intermediaries and lack of skilled workforce.

Even Amravati, well-known for its garments, gets almost 7,000 weavers from Bengal every season to fill the local labor gap.

To counter this challenge, a three-pronged strategy will be useful:

info button 1Provide training that supplements indigenous skills.

info button 2 yellowEnsure digital and IT-readiness.

info button 3 yellowLink skilling-interventions to market – both online and offline.

Almost 70 percent of India lives in villages where the social and economic conditions are sub-optimal.

The country has often been touted as an emerging superpower even though most Indians remain super poor.

This is why empowering villages through technology and creating rural innovation clusters will be critical to reconcile India’s “super power-super poor” conundrum and realize the true potential of digital India.

This article originally appeared on the World Economic Forum and was republished with permission. 


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Utkarsh Amitabh is a Global Shaper at the World Economic Forum.

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