Rethinking Smart Villages

It is estimated that as many as 23 million inter and intra state migrant workers[1] migrated to their home states during the pandemic. What happens when they are back in their districts and villages? Are the State Governments welcoming them with open arms?

Three states, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat — which together account for more than a quarter of the country's population — have abandoned federal and state labour laws that protect workers' rights to minimum wage and safe working conditions, among other protections. [2] And yet experts see opportunity in this crisis and believe that such reforms will bring in more investment for industrial growth, showing a complete lack of empathy to the working conditions of the poor labourers.

The politicisation and excessive focus on a consumption led economy has unfortunately not given us time to mourn for the loss of thousands who believe that they were not only left behind during this pandemic behind but also forgotten and left to die.

It’s hard to place in the history of our country when we became a growth-obsessed country with no regard for the poorest of the poor? What happened to the ‘no one left behind’ motto? It is not surprising to note that the wealth of 63 Indian billionaires was higher than the Union Budget of 2018-19 (which is around Rs 24,42,200 crore or more than 10% of the country’s GDP).[3] We were taught that India is a mixed economy “which seeks to compromise between capitalism and socialism. In such a form of economy, the elements of government control are combined with market elements in organising production and consumption.” Well looking at the figures above it certainly seems we have become a capitalist economy and have somehow forgotten the socialism part of it.

The politicisation and excessive focus on a consumption-led economy has unfortunately not given us time to mourn for the loss of thousands who believe that they were not only left behind during this pandemic behind but also forgotten and left to die. It is about time we start acknowledging these villagers as not just ‘migrants’ but as citizens who contribute to the growth of this nation and as workers who deserve equal rights. Its time we understand what India’s internal migrants really mean to our country?


Earlier this month what came as a surprise was a statement by Nitin Gadkari which mentioned that ‘we need to focus on smart villages instead of smart cities’, apparently Smart Cities project was such a success that it needs now to be replicated also at the village level. Or perhaps Smart Villages would be the utopian idea for which the migrants are coming back?


Time and again there have been efforts to develop rural India to not only reduce the burden from the over-crowded metropolitan cities but also to provide employment opportunities to villagers closer to the comfort of their homes. From Gandhi’s ‘Gram Swaraj’ to Modi’s ‘Adarsh Gram’, the concept of a utopian Smart or a self-reliant village has excited the imagination of many. Leading institutions of the country have published papers with their ideas of how a Smart village should look like? SMART village as defined by Professor Ramachandra from the Indian Institute of Science defines SMART a Self-sufficient and Self-Reliant village with the empowerment of Manpower (rural youth) through locally available natural resources and Appropriate Rural Technologies. Professor N. Viswanadham and Professor Sowmya Vedula from the Indian School of Business concept of a Smart village is built on the STERM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Regulations and Management) framework, which emphasises the importance of Regulations and Management, besides Science, Technology and Engineering in creating an efficient service sector. And more recently The Shyama Prasad Mukherjeee Rurban Mission of the Central Government with the aim to bridge the urban-rural divide suggests a cluster approach to stimulate local economic development, enhance basic services, and create well planned Rurban clusters.


Without undermining the importance of technology, innovation and digitization to solve problems of rural India, which also needs to be emphasised is the idea of solidarity and collective well-being. With its unparalleled heterogeneous society, India is in dire need of national unity and solidarity to address issues of unemployment, rural development and migration, now more than ever. It is not only important for the city governments to promote solidarity-based strategies in their post-pandemic recovery plans, but it is also important for villages and towns where migrants have returned to ensure that they accept the returnees and not ostracise them for all that is happening in the World.


It is only through collective mobilization that an equitable model of development that is both fair and sustainable for the village can be designed. As mentioned by Peter Utting, a pioneer in the field of social and solidarity economy, we need to recognize the role of collective action and active citizenship for both economic and political empowerment of disadvantaged or fragile groups in society, and reintroducing notions of ethics, sharing, equity and democracy in economic activities.


It is high time that the government and industries put people above profit, thus making the system more equitable in terms of labour conditions, and participative in the decision-making processes. This democratization of economy will subsequently lead to a greater degree of social well‐being and happiness. It is also seen that developmental decisions taken in a participative and democratic manner involving all sections of the society are more sustainable as there is greater ownership and accountability towards the decisions. For example, the decisions could be around what industries to be established, or infrastructure facilities that need to be provided. At a micro level, the societal decisions could also be made in terms of what materials should be reduced or reused, or what materials should be recycled as a priority, toward a common good, regardless of economic profitability.


There are many examples across the globe where the communities have put people above profit. Retalhar in São Paulo, Brazil which specialises in reverse logistics of used corporate uniforms to refurbish or repurpose them into new products or Corong Galeri in the Philippines which operates an eco-tourism cooperative working together with local indigenous communities to move them into decent work from dynamite fishing and damaging coral reefs to make ends meet. It is high time that we start learning from the Global South and not always look to the North for inspiration. Our neighbouring countries and even within India there are many examples of villages that have broken the shackles of poverty and have emerged triumphant. A case often taught in leading universities across the globe is that of India where 13 million farmers own a 5-billion-dollar business and the management keeps 16 per cent, rest all profits to the farmers. There is dire need to have similar models that celebrate local production and puts them on the map of India. Who knew that AMUL would put Anand on a global map.


There is one thing common in all these examples and that is the ability to meet current needs without compromising the right of future generations to meet their own needs. There needs to be a more collective model of ownership while taking care of their financial balance guaranteeing their sustainability. Could we have a social economy in Madhubani which celebrates the traditional handicrafts and have a ‘made in Madhubani’ label which becomes a norm for all the paintings that are sold in India and abroad? Champaran, where many migrants have come back, was also the place which transformed Mohandas into the Mahatma. To bridge the gap between education and work, Gandhi had set up several self-sustaining ‘Buniyadi’ schools where training in spinning, carpentry, farming and weaving were imparted as a part of school education[4]. Could Champaran play another key role in the new Satyagraha which was started in the same place exactly a century ago?


In Japan, after the East Japan Earthquake of March 11, 2011, the Japanese word “Kizuna,” which means “solidarity (bonds/ties),” became very popular among Japanese people and many of them joined the activities of volunteer organizations and NGOs to help those who suffered from the earthquake and tsunami. We as Indians also need to find our Kizuna and take this moment to pause and be there for one another. Clearly the old system is broken and we need to find alternative ways and ensure that ‘no Indian is left behind anywhere’


Footnotes

[1]https://scroll.in/article/962804/at-least-23-million-migrants-are-returning-to-indias-villages-can-the-rural-economy-keep-up

[2]https://www.dw.com/en/coronavirus-indian-states-abandon-labor-protection-to-revive-economy/a-53559175

[3]https://www.livemint.com/budget/news/63-indian-billionaires-wealth-higher-than-the-union-budget-for-2018-19-oxfam-11579494650444.html

[4] https://www.thebetterindia.com/70247/gandhi-first-satyagraha-champaran/ About the Authors

Piyush Dhawan is the Cofounder of the Circular Collective was awarded the prestigious German Chancellor Fellowship last year to work on the topic of Circular Economy. He has for the past decade been working with Bilaterals and Multilaterals on a range of topics including business and biodiversity, Vision 2030 for Haryana and Future of Indian Cities.  


Saumya Mathur is an alumna of The University of Edinburgh and TERI University and has over 8 years of experience in the field of environment, development and natural resources management.


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