My model digital and smart village

We are doing opposite of what China did, by building centers of global excellence in every village that create jobs in the village and allow people to improve their quality of life using digital technologies 

Imagine you driving to a village that has a paved road connecting to the highway, with both sides of the pothole-free paved road lined-up with thick foliage and farmland peeping through the foliage, a mosaic of miles and miles of lush-green fields.

At the village periphery, you are stopped by a barrier and are guided to a parking lot where you must park your vehicle. No vehicle is allowed inside the village, you see host of tractors, bikes, cars, mostly belonging to the villagers, parked in the parking lot. You park your car in this secured parking lot, return to the barrier and have a choice to either take a bicycle on rent from the metered renting machine, or haul an EV from the village through a caller system installed at the barrier. You could have also booked the EV in advance at the village website. It takes around 10 minutes for the EV to arrive.

Your EV arrives right on the dot, a chirpy youth greets you, she is your guide for the trip. You board the EV and start your tour of this village. You notice the interior roads are all paved roads not dirt, unpaved roads. The first building you encounter is a huge government senior secondary school in a lush green environment, large class rooms, excellent amenities, large play grounds, and is a “connected school” for distance learning from the best of the best. You are told by the young lady – a student of this school herself, this school has young leader’s exchange programs with some of the best schools in the world, has won several awards in Model United Nations (MUN), inter-school competitions of science and tech, quiz, humanities and music and has a robust sporting focus. This school is a participant of Atal Innovation Mission (AIM), one among many rural schools to get enlisted in AIM. You interact with the teachers, who are all excited about what they do, some of them trained at Azim Premji University; and you interact with the kids in the school, and the level of discourse with these kids is as good as it gets – tech savvy, aware of the world, sure of what they want, and sure of what they want to do.

You continue with your visit and find this government primary school with amazing surroundings, kids playing, drawing, making pottery, kids in groups working together on a task, kids being lessoned in class rooms and in open air sessions with a motley of learning aids. Just the energy of the place starts to rejuvenate you. Your guide tells you that there is a competition among primary schools of the surrounding village cluster that determines the proficiencies of the school in developing social skills, math and reading skills of the primary students, and this primary school is classified as “Tiranga Ribbon School” – the highest award for a school – successively for three years.

Your further go into the village and find the health care center, complete with a dispensary, beds for emergency, vaccination center, pre-natal and post-natal care center, nutrition counselling center, TB and cancer detection facilities, an ambulance, and of-course a young doctor with assistants, and patients waiting to be attended. You wanted to meet the doctor but were told by his assistant that he was on a video call with a physician at AIIMS discussing about a patient’s case, so it will be sometime before he will be free. You are told by your guide that the child mortality rate for this village is zero, and on all parameters of Global Hunger Index (that measures undernourishment, under-5 child mortality, stunting (shortness of age), and wasting (low weight for height) of children), if this village was measured standalone, it would consistently score in the top ten range globally. She shares that every child’s health record is kept online and tracked by the staff of the heath care center to ensure timely vaccination, nutritional adequacy and host of other growth parameters which are regularly monitored. And likewise, for the elderly who are periodically provided health check-ups to monitor their vitals.

Right next to the dispensary, you see a very large pond brimming with water, and you are told this is harvested water, and is the primary source for treated water supply to village homes. Alongside the walkaway on the right side around the pond, you see eateries, neat and clean and as hep as it gets, hygienic, a lazy cup of Nilgiri black or Assam chai and a samosa here, a lassi or a shake there, or even a cafe latte or a cappuccino made from Starbuck’s coffee powder, sitting on a charpoy under light sun, or reading a book on a table set under a tree-shade and glancing at the swans and ducks prank around in the pond, listening to the melodious shouts of the children from the primary school once in a while, or listening to the birds chirp continuously. The young lady tells you the pond area bustles in the evening and insists that you stop by on your way back to enjoy the evening jamboree.

You see an Amphitheatre on the other side of the pond and you are told every weekend, there is some performance or the other – music, dance, plays, stand-up comedy, etc., by artists from various villages, towns, cities, you can buy a monthly or annual pass, and you can attend these performances in any village. You are told the village is a member of Spic Macay and some of the leading artist of the country have performed here. The Amphitheatre also becomes an open-air movie hall from time to time for playing some hit movies to jam packed house. You also see a clearing on the tight side of the Amphitheatre and you get to know that is where village fair comes to life once in every quarter in that village when its turn comes, and every week in one of the villages in 10 km radius. This Mela is a day-long jamboree of fun and frolic, and a platform for exchanging notes by village folks.

On the left side of Amphitheatre, you see thick foliage and few white canopies peeping from the top. You inquire from your guide about them and you are told that these are around a dozen permanent village tourist huts built by a VBE and maintained and operated by a top hospitality chain. You are told this village has a constant stream of tourists both urban Indians and foreigners who come to soak in the earthen ambience of Indian villages and taste the rural life by participating in it for a few days. She shares that the tourists even rent rooms in village homes through AirBnB.

It’s been couple of cups of tea and you need to use a wash room, you are pointed to a public washroom and you are surprised to find it is as clean as a washroom of a 5-star hotel – spotless, odourless, clean, hygienic with liquid soap, clean water, hand drier, paper towel, all there. When you return, you pay for your tea using RuPay. The shops here accept any form of digital payment, you are told by the young lady.

You drive towards the village nerve center, the Chaupal Bhawan. You start seeing rows of houses on both sides of the street, all very neat, all painted playfully colorfully, you are told this street in the village is known as Rangoli gali because of this amazing play of color of all hues on the walls of the houses. She tells you that other streets are also named after a theme, Phulwa gali, Sur-tal gali and Parkarti gali, and there is a competition among various streets at to which one is the most beautifully decorated street. She tells you that the small playground for the young ones in the center of the village is a must see for enjoying the culmination of arts of all the streets. You love the peppiness of this village, a village full of life.

You don’t see open drains, hanging electric or cable TV wires and potholed streets. You notice well-managed, operational solar-powered street lights all along the street. You are told by your guide a whole lot of this has been built by leveraging government’s rural development schemes, for road building, for lighting, for solar powered street lights, LED lighting, etc. She informs that entire village uses only LED, all of them have availed government scheme for getting cooking gas, all of them have got toilets built in their homes by using government funding. There is zero open defecation in the village, she shares. This is an amazing kid, so well aware of what goes on in her village. And then she shares that every single development data and every detail – 396 data points in all – of this village and every village in the country – all 640,867 – inhabited, floating or abandoned villages – are available on census website for public access. You just take in the enormity of task, of collecting such huge data for every single village, accomplished by our government bodies and you get to understand our country a little better, and even more amazing is that your awareness in being increased by a young girl in a small village of our country.

The Chaupal Bhawan, a four-story building, stands at the end of the housing area of the village. The ground floor houses an auditorium to seat couple of hundred people. Your guide tells you this is where the village panchayat meets periodically with the village folks to discuss village issues. This auditorium is also used for hosting speakers from Government, business, social and political forums. You also notice a host of cubicles with computer terminals and Wi-Fi connectivity for use by villagers or visitors. You are told that even the grand-amma in this village is pretty digital savvy and knows how to like or dislike on YouTube or Facebook, and some of them have even posted their recipes on YouTube which are a huge hit!

The first-floor of the Bhawan houses offices for the Sarpanch, Panchs, the BDO and other Government staff engaged with the village. It also has a board room, where regular meetings of village panchayat are held. You are told, for ensuring complete transparency, all these meetings are telecast to all village folks live on a local TV channel V-SPAN (much like the C-SPAN channel in the US with identical objective).

The second floor houses a host of meeting rooms with AV facilities. You are told these rooms are utilized for holding periodic video conference calls between Farmer Producer Company and its member farmers, and SME organizations like IARI or GB Pant Agricultural University, etc. on host of topics like soil testing, innovations in farming techniques, better ways of managing crops, etc. Also, the Village Business Enterprises (VBEs) engage with their mentoring organizations via video-calls from this center. These meeting rooms also serve as temporary field offices for NGOs, NPOs and FPOs engaged with this village for its development. You notice an office for Village Internship and Exchange Programs that coordinates with various institutes in India and abroad for internships in the village and student exchange programs. You also see quite a few young people in some of the offices on this floor, you are told village continuously receives interns from various institutes like IITs, IRMA, IIMs, NITs, HBTI, etc. who are provided with specific projects throughout the year on village development. This engagement with India’s leading institutes has paid off big.

Last year, an NIT developed a 4G enabled device and solution for canal sluice gate opening. Earlier, most villagers would loathe to get up at 2 am in the morning, when this village’s turn for sharing canal water came, to open the sluice gate for water from the canal to irrigate their fields, and instead for their convenience they kept borewells which continued to deplete the water table. The innovation from NIT enabled them to open the sluice gates without leaving their homes and they can even set a timer based on the canal water releasing schedule. Simple collaborative innovations like these have had significant impact on village development and you are told this village is a big beneficiary of such innovations.

The top floor of the Chaupal Bhawan houses Monitoring and Management Center (MMC) which is manned 24×7. Built like an ATC, it has a view of the whole village and its surroundings. The MMC has the full database of the village, everything that needs to be known about this village, the MMC has it available digitally. You are showed the layout of the village on a monitor which provides multi-layered view of everything in the village – various security camera feeds of entry points to the village, playgrounds, schools, pond, amphitheatre, tourist camp, streets, cattle pen, VBE complex, ATMs, et al; status and operation and maintenance of street lights; status of electricity distribution systems; water feed monitoring; streets with their cleaning and maintenance schedules; fire management systems and their upkeep; plumbing, piped gas distribution, communication wirings, everything about this village is digitized and managed by this MMC, to an extent that all village cattle is tagged and monitored from MMC. The MMC has full view of the fields and is used to monitor the well-being of the crops, identify any intrusions by cattle, swarms, theft, etc. The MMC, you are told, also serves as Disaster Management Center and has an early warning mechanism in place for timely detecting and addressing potential disasters, like fire or flood or heavy rainfall, etc. Going through the demonstration of the MMC, you start to feel safer in this village than your own city.

From the MMC, you take-in the breath-taking view of mosaic of farms all around you. You also notice rows and rows of some white-polythene houses. You wonder what are these in the middle of the farms. You also see solar panels in the distance in the farms. Just then a drone buzzes past the MMC and you are startled and confused to the hilt. What is all this? The MMC manager helpfully comes to your rescue. What he shares is truly amazing.

Several years ago, this village had significant paucity of water, so much so that not even half of the farmers were engaged in farming with meagre yields and miniscule income from farming, and the other half had migrated to the cities working mostly as laborers. Today, this village delivers the best yields in the country – 10X better than before. Their produce gets top billing in the market, and the income of farmers is 10 to 15x of what it used to be. Every single farmer who has any land in the village has returned to farming.

This transformation has happened by deploying advanced technologies and techniques in every aspect of farming. Right from automated and periodic soil testing, to employing technologies like drip irrigation, mulching, polyhouse farming to significantly reduce use of water, reduce pesticide usage, and increase the yield several times, to crop management by utilizing crop mapping by drones, continuous monitoring of the health of the crops by utilizing IoT, and accurately predicting crop yields by AI tools, to deploying post harvesting solutions that extend the life of perishables and allow for better market price.

The farmers have formed a Farmer Producer Company (FPC), managed by professional resources, which has enabled them to pool their resources for technology introduction, in organizing pooled farming equipment and pooled labour, in developing post harvesting storage and chiller facilities, in developing supply chain for their procurement and for their produce, and in developing organized market access to all the nearby urban centers, as well as for exporting the produce to many countries.

You are told that even the small and marginal farmers are able to earn 10x than their earlier income by right selection of their crops, increasing their yields and quality of produce, reducing their wastage, reducing their cost and significantly better prices through excellent market access. Success of marginal and small farmers was the turning point for this village and its path to becoming one of most prosperous villages in the country where every farmer flourish.

From the MMC, you can see a large livestock pen on the left of the Chaupal Bhawan. You are told by the MMC administrator that this livestock pen has been built by the village to house all the cattle of the village. Every village home has an assigned slot to keep their cattle in this pen. The upkeep of the cattle is a collective managed responsibility, and there are strict guidelines that are followed for feeding, cleaning, sanitation, periodic health management by a professional vet, mechanised milking, etc. The livestock produce quality has significantly increased and the income from it has also gone up significantly. This has also freed-up village women folks, who were spending considerable time in tending to livestock, to undertake more meaningful work. This organized livestock management of this village has also become a role model.

On the right side of the Chaupal Bhawan you see a large two-storied building, you are told by the MMC administrator that this is the Village Business Enterprise (VBE) complex, which houses around two dozen business units owned, operated and managed by the people of this village. It is rectangular complex built like a community shopping complex with rows of “shops” laid out on the rectangular periphery, the only difference being these are not “shops” but manufacturing or processing or services enterprises. Depending on the business needs, these units can vary from 200 sq. ft. to 5000 sq. ft. or more. You see rows of trucks lined up on the outer periphery of the complex, which is the docking area for loading/unloading of the trucks. You are told that the center part of the complex has administrative offices of the VBEs, cafeteria and washrooms for the people working in the complex. You notice solar power panels on the roof of this complex, you are told the VBE complex has full power back-up through its own solar power generation, they even supply excess power to the tower companies whose towers are situated around the village. You are told that the VBE Complex has one of the best functional and comprehensive shared infrastructures among similar industrial and service parks. Your guide offers to organize a tour of the VBE Complex and you are intrigued enough by the VBE to readily agree to it.

You reach the VBE Complex (VBEC) entrance and are asked your details for issuing a visitor pass. You are told the VBE complex is biometric access controlled with 24×7 security personnel, 24×7 security camera monitoring, and all visitors require an escort from the VBE to enter the premises. You get your visitor pass and are now accompanied by a VBE personnel who will be your guide for the VBE tour. He first takes you to the two storied VBE administrative complex which is in the center of the VBE complex.

On the left side of reception of the administrative complex you notice a display board with the names and unit numbers of all the two dozen entities at the VBE complex. You are very surprised at the diversity of the VBEs that are housed in this complex. Several manufacturing unit for customized uniform design and stitching; designer embroidery unit; customized hand weaving unit; vegetable dye making and dyeing unit; for processing unit for farm honey; processing, packaging and distribution unit for organic vegetables grown in the village; products like paper cups for tea or water; manufacturing of generic packaging material; plastic and metal powder coating and screen printing unit; manufacturing unit for janitorial and cleaning materials; manufacturing unit for office furniture and customized furniture; manufacturing units for sports goods, like bats, hockey etc.; field service centers for electronics and consumer durables for the top brands in village clusters in and around 100 kms of the VBE; repair centers for electronics (cell phones, TVs, etc.) and consumer durables (fans, coolers, LED lighting, etc.) for the top brands in village clusters in and around 50 kms; field service center for full maintenance of towers sites in village clusters in and around 20 kms of the VBE; vernacular BPOs for rural consumers for insurance, financial services, mutual funds, etc.; delivery center for E-COMM companies in village clusters in and around 100 kms; diamond polishing unit; metal craft unit; unit for designer hand weaved material; unit for village tourism and travel consultancy; and of course traditional Gram Udyog units for handicraft, masala, papad manufacturing, etc. The diversity and additional possibilities are amazing. What is striking is none of these units require massive investment or very complex skills.

Adjacent to this display board there is a board displaying some of the clients of these VBEs, and it is a who’s who of the Industry – Tata, Reliance, Airtel, ITC, Maruti Suzuki, Hero Motors, HDFC, ICICI, Usha, LG, Samsung, Philips, Amazon, Flipkart, Big Bazaar, Grofers, Big basket, Firestar Diamonds, BD Mahajan and Sons, EIH, etc.

You are told that the combined revenue of these entities is around Rs. 100 crore and they are employing 1,500 people from this and surrounding villages. Your guide shares that all the VBEs are profitable and there is talk of the holding company of these VBEs going for public listing!

On the right side of the reception there are bunch of certificates displayed, the most prominent of them was TL9000 Quality certification of the VBEC site and all the entities operating in it. You are told TL9000 is the most stringent quality standard in the world and it measures the operational performance of all performance parameters on monthly basis and allows a global comparison of these performance parameters of all TL9000 certified entities in the world. VBEC has been TL9000 certified since its inception, and you are very proudly told by your guide that the VBEC has been consistently delivering global best in class quality, measured and audited by TL9000 auditors, consistently for over 9 years since its inception. Right next to these certificates, you notice a gallery of awards, there you see an award by QuEST Forum, the global standards body of TL9000, recognizing this VBEC’s consistently global best in class performance. There are several other awards from the industry forums, CII and others, your attention is caught by the prestigious BML Munjal Award for Business Excellence through Learning and Development which was awarded to this VBEC last year. Your guide tells you there is significant effort by the VBE in skilling and continuous employee development and there is significant collaboration with NSDC’s skilling entities who jointly develop customized curriculum with the VBE and engage training partners to continuously train VBE employees. You are told there are fully equipped training rooms on the first floor of this building, complete with training labs.

The VBE administrator shares that the management of VBEC has strict compliance of labor laws including wage laws, PF, ESI, medical insurance, etc. He proudly tells that VBEs are not sweatshops built on the exploiting of its workforce, every law of the land is followed by these VBEs. The VBEs have been envisioned to take care of their people, who will in return build a world-class business.

You see a series of offices on the ground floor of the admin complex, you are told these are shared offices for the VBE management and have all office related amenities and equipment. There are common ERP, HR and financial systems that VBE Management has developed that is used by all the VBEs with customization for each unit. These comprehensive shared systems for automation enable efficient operation of the VBEs. The shared infra and services allows these VBEs to minimize their overhead expenses significantly. There is control room also situated on the ground floor, which monitors 24×7 security cameras, fire alarms, intrusion alarms, etc. The rear side of ground floor houses the cafeteria for the employees where fully subsidized food is provided to all the employees.

You are now escorted to the units built around the periphery of the administrative complex. From the ceiling to floor glass exteriors, you witness neat and clean and very organized units, you see employees in proper work gear as per their respective unit’s requirements, you see in every unit process charts and work instructions prominently displayed. You witness very organized, structured, calm work environment. You are told, that one of the major emphasis is that all the VBEs get extensively and repeatedly trained to plan comprehensively and follow processes rigorously. You see large banners of 5S displayed prominently in the corridors, and you decide to test the 5S compliance of the VBEs. One of best test for 5S compliance and that of people’s quality and mindset is the how the wash room of the facility is maintained. You ask your guide to be excused for a visit to the wash room. Yet again, you find a wash room maintained like a five-star washroom – very neat and clean, hygienic and everything that needs to be in place, found in its place. When you return, you tell your guide about how pleasantly surprised you were with the upkeep of the facility and wash rooms specifically, you are told that everyone, including the top managers and visitors use the same wash rooms and at all times, these are kept in mint condition, like the rest of the facility.

As a final test, you ask your guide if there is process document written for visits by people like yourself. Your guide promptly logs on to the VBEC intranet from his 4G mobile and shows you a comprehensive process document of visit management, and a “controlled” hard copy you are told, is available at the entrance reception of the building as well as the main reception of the building!

It’s almost 5 in the evening, you are told by you tour guide this is also the end of the workday which is 8 AM to 5 PM, and that employees will be returning to their homes, and we should also head back.

It occurs to you that, as part of its development, China developed these huge urban centers with millions of jobs, forcing people to move away from their homes in the villages to these urban centers, and in the process completely decimating quality of life of its people. Whereas what you witnessed today was just the opposite of what China did, by building centers of global excellence in every village that create jobs in the village and allow people to improve their quality of life to what they truly deserve.

It’s 7 PM and you decide to head home. You thank your fabulous guide for this absolutely amazing day. You start walking back to the parking lot, replaying the day in your head, and every thread you pick, tells you, you will miss this day for a long time. A thought starts gathering momentum that you should probably shift to the village!

Author: Sanjay Vidyarthi, ex-MD of iQor India has recently moved to village and is full-time focusing on transforming rural economy. He is presently Founder and CEO, Bharat to India Connect (B2Ic), a voluntary, pro bono initiative of industry professionals for rural economic development through sustainable rural job creation.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed are solely of the author and DigiAnalysys does not necessarily subscribe to it.