Almost after a year of the announcement of the Smart Cities scheme, PM Narendra Modi has launched 84 ‘quick-win’ projects for the first 20 cities, costing Rs 1,770 crore. These include development of robust water supply, sewage treatment plants, solid-waste management, development of green and open spaces under AMRUT, housing projects under Pradhan Mantri Awas Yojana and technology-based pan-city solutions, installation of roof-top solar plants, pedestrian walkways, development of information system through apps and website and Wi-Fi connectivity depending upon the requirements of the city.
All this is very heartening, indeed. But while we do it in the right earnest, we must think hard over the fact that most of our cities are bursting at the seams because of migration from villages in search of employment. These migrants are permanently temporary workers who live in cities while maintaining their base in villages; a large part of their income is sent there. Given they form a large chunk of the urban population (about 40% in some cities), the pressure on existing infrastructure has led to cities becoming too cramped and congested.
Despite realising this, the government has done precious little to check migration. To achieve the objective, we should look at making our villages also smart.
First, we should develop labour-intensive manufacturing units under Make-in-India so that villagers find suitable employment locally. Such units should be established in small-scale and cottage industries. Also, some industries should be reserved for small-scale units to avoid competition from bigger units. For this, skills of village labour through Skill India needs to happen.
Second, wherever relevant, rural and semi-urban areas should be well-connected with nearby tourist spots—enabling villagers to sell their products directly to tourists for better prices.
Third, we need to provide suitable ICT network in and around villages under Digital India, so that villagers are informed in real time about the prices of produce—both in agricultural sector as well as industrial. Farmers are already sharing and utilising necessary information delivered via TV and mobile phones to their advantage.
Fourth, the government must provide good sanitation facilities under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. We also need to provide other necessary infrastructure such as efficient medical centres, potable water supply, housing and electricity for all, and power for industry, preferably from sources such as solar or wind, or even biomass.
The Centre and states are together spending a lot of money to set up 100 smart cities in the next 5-7 years. In addition, the private sector is expected to invest in cities of their interest. As per a 2016 study done jointly by IESE Business School of the University of Navarra, Spain, and Centre for Globalisation and Strategy, India’s smart cities may take up to 15 years to reach global standards. This is because our four top cities—Mumbai, New Delhi, Bangalore and Kolkata—were ranked 167, 174, 176 and 179, respectively, out of 181 cities, based on the parameters of economy, human capital, technology, environment, international outreach, governance, planning, public management, social cohesion, mobility and transportation. In comparison, the extra expenditure to be incurred by the government in making villages smart would be a minuscule fraction. Here, we should not go by the sheer number of villages in India as they could be developed in clusters and the requirements in terms of infrastructure are moderate.
By developing smart villages, the poor would no longer remain a problem—rather, they would become a part of the solutions to various problems faced by cities. If the influx from rural India is not checked, smart cities would again be flooded with various problems in the course of time and the scarce resources and valuable time spent on making them smart would amount to nothing. Our cities have to be environmentally-sustainable and liveable, in consonance with UN Sustainable Development Goals, to attract foreign investment and drive future economic growth. So, developing smart villages is the crux.
Since the launch of the ‘Community Development Programmes’ on October 2, 1952, governments have been working on several rural development schemes but, alas, development has not been commensurate with the huge spending because of well-known reasons. Rampant corruption in implementation and lack of efficient monitoring, disjointed and fragmented planning by the concerned ministries and departments and the erstwhile Planning Commission are the factors responsible. As a lesson from past experience, I suggest that NITI Aayog or the Union ministry of rural development should work as a single, powerful coordinating authority to sort out various implementation issues arising from time to time. We should also reduce the number of these schemes, to the extent possible, to avoid duplication of efforts and for the ease of correct monitoring of implementation.
The author is former director, CSO (ISS) and rural development ministry, and former UN Consultant