India is a country of villages. Any product or solution that has to succeed and be popular in the country has to be of direct relevance to village life of this country. As per Census of India 2011, the country has a 69% rural population spread across more than 600,000 villages. Now, that being the case, no marketer worth his salt can ever dream of ignoring rural India.
Globally the concept of ‘Smart City’ is a significant initiative that seeks to improve the quality of life of urban citizens. In India too the new central government’s stated priority of building ‘Smart Cities’ has found a relatively modest budgetary allocation of Rs. 7,060 crore for FY 2014-15, though its significance for the long term can be much larger. Be it the push of the ‘Smart City’ concept from solution providers, real estate developers or the government itself, the concept finds wide appeal. The Government of India’s stated plan to set up 100 Smart Cities across the country has the potential to be a game-changer in the country’s urban landscape and the lives of ordinary citizens.
Therefore, I am not adverse to the idea of ‘Smart Cities’. In fact, it is a concept that, if implemented in a holistic manner, has the capacity to fulfill many needs of urban local bodies (ULBs) in a significantly more productive manner than what prevails currently. More importantly, it adds jazz to the concept of city life as it is known to exist in India today, while at the same time helping to counter challenges of pollution, energy management, security, mobility etc. But, while we work to make Smart Cities a reality, a country like India also needs to examine deeply the idea of a ‘Smart Village’. India faces the challenge of rapid urbanisation, which to some extent is unavoidable as the economic pursuits and aspirations of the population, especially the 65% under-35 years (Source: Census 2011) change and evolve. But one of the main reasons for uncontrolled urbanisation is lack of livelihoods, good standard of living and amenities in the backward villages of India. While in 1901, India was home to only 11.4% urban population, as per Census 2011, this now stands at 31%. The UN’s State of the World Population Report of 2007 estimates that by 2030, nearly 41% of India’s population will reside in some kind of urban area.
I don’t think the increasing urban population is a concern by itself. But, increasing and often uncontrolled urban population density is surely a matter of concern. The number of urban citizens is increasing but the number of cities is not. The thermal image map shown here gives an idea about concentration of the Indian population within major urban areas of the country.
This needs to be reversed and suitably managed to improve quality of life in Indian cities. While, emphasis is being laid on decentralising growth by throwing open virgin investment locations, the effort should also be to decentralise management of amenities and urban infrastructure.
While countries like the UK, where 8 out of 10 people now live in cities, are focusing on Smart Cities heavily because the potential to impact a large majority of their citizens, efforts in India, and in fact, where India should take a lead, should be for conceptualising the Smart Village. It was incidentally the same month in 2013, when in UK the Smart Cities Forum met for the first time and the UK BIS (Department of Business Innovations & Skills) teamed with BSI Group (The Business Standards Company) to formulate the Smart City standards for UK, the first such attempt anywhere in the world. Similarly, India along with some pioneers in the concept of Smart City solutions like Cisco, Hitachi and IBM should constitute a forum to look into the granularity of the concept of Smart Village to address the multiple challenges with respect to unplanned urbanisation, under-development of villages, migration for economic pursuits, better standard of living etc.
In a country like India, the idea of building Smart Cities will only facilitate better living for a little over 30% of the population, while the concept of developing Smart Villages has the potential to cover more than half. This will also help in the systematic development of our villages and lend greater weight and urgency to achieving the goals of ambitious national programmes such as the NOFN (National Optic Fibre Network) and FTTP (Fibre to the Panchayat).