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How the “headquarters of malnourishment” is turning into a smart village in India


In a way, Mahatma Gandhi conceptualized smart villages.

 A champion of participatory democracy and grassroots development, he believed making villages self-contained and sustainable was the first step towards 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.
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.
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 skilling 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, thus, 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 multi-stakeholder team, we began by recognizing that building a smart village was more of an anthropological problem than a technological one.

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