Why India Needs Smart Villages Not Smart Cities

Social Commentary

Why India Needs Smart Villages Not Smart Cities

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

In the landmark novel Invisible Cities, Italo Calvino writes, “You take delight not in a city’s seven or seventy wonders, but in the answer it gives to a question of yours.” Every Indian city I’ve lived and worked in asks more questions than it hopes to answer, but it all comes down to the penultimate one: “Can you survive me?” That, is an Indian city in a nutshell, all about surviving everything that it throws at you.  

Indian cities overturn the old adage, “Why fix it if it ain’t broke” – for our perpetually wounded urban spaces, it seems more like a case of asking what if it is so broke, you can’t fix it? Our cities have long served as an illustration of wretchedness, of ghostly lives punctuated by the light of modern decadence. They’ve turned into dysfunctional, inhospitable, and in some cases plain unlivable places.

Which is why we should be cautious of ideas like the Smart Cities Mission. The cities included in Round 1 range from Pune to Kakinada to Visakhapatnam. The project’s noble scope is to shortlist and develop inclusive cities with a variety of features, such as walkability, promoting mixed-land use, and checking on an area’s disaster vulnerability.

But we first need to ask ourselves whether this is how we define “smart”.

A couple of years ago I visited Bhubaneswar, a city celebrating its recent smart-city status, with billboards and banners doting the walls of government offices. For most of July this year, Bhubaneswar was submerged, crippled by an average monsoon, which tells me that either the bar is too low for a Smart City, or the expectations lightweight. But the problem isn’t with what a city like Bhubaneswar can do further but what it probably can’t anymore. Like Gurugram – which over the course of the last year and a half – built 11 underpasses to decongest traffic, but ended up increasing the number of accidents, the Indian landscape is sprawling with cities that may well be past the point of fixing. Any initiatives, well-intended or otherwise, fail invariably.

The idea of the village exists only as an outpost – either as an exotic refuge from the city or an underdeveloped idyll.

Take the case of satellite towns, Gurugram being the most famous, where there hasn’t been much improvement either. Gurugram’s development has been vertical, crowding the skyline as much as its tall structures have crowded the ground with shadows. There is obviously aspirational value to the way these towns come up on the outskirts of old cities, sort of like the cool pub that opens right next to an old restaurant. Aspiration that is shaped by the verbosity of design – not by its utility.

About a month ago, I was at an exhibition in Delhi, where 13 architects basically sounded the death knell of their own profession. Most agreed that governments had no idea of what “smart” meant. And judging by the way all of us salivate at high-rises and glossy structures, neither does the public. “The attraction of skyscrapers in the public imagination is a completely media phenomenon,” said Rupali Gupte, an architect in Mumbai. “You have large billboards and front page newspaper ads shouting at you that an address in a skyscraper is the mark of your status. You have ads that blatantly advertise ‘apartments with no neighbours’. So living in ‘towers’ is a mark that you have gone up the social ladder.”

Maybe it isn’t the solution – maybe it is the question. Why do we even want more cities? Maybe the answer lies in Smart Villages, instead of Smart Cities. Just the way we need to boost our primary education system before we can look at upgrading our secondary and higher education, maybe we need to empower what is already demonstrably working.  

The idea of the village exists only as an outpost – either as an exotic refuge from the city or an underdeveloped idyll. The ballast of cultural history has taught us that the village exists only in the past. The city must be the future; even if it’s a future full of death, decay, and isolation.

But here’s where the lessons lie. For those who believe that the average Indian village is an archive of obsolete tropes and idioms alone, must at least once sit through a panchayat, easily the most democratic, most transparent system of governance we have functioning in this country. Transparent, accessible, and largely equal the insides of this vehicle don’t need as much of a change as the parts it is left to run on. Of course it has its problems in places, but it is still a million miles better than the elitist chaos of Parliament Street.

There are a number of pointers that could help shape this still-vague idea. Education should be localised up to a certain grade, infrastructure and amenities should be prioritised  but not without considering their viability, use, and cultural sensitivity. Most crucially, the village needs to have more of a stake, and a say, in investments and industries that come up near it.

That said it isn’t as if the government hasn’t tooted its horn about such ideas because, well, 68 per cent of us still live in villages, and they vote. The Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana, launched back in 2014, required each member of the Parliament to adopt a village and turn it into a “smart” village. The status of a majority of these projects is evidence of the amount of faith the government has in their own initiatives, or worse, has no clue about the shape these initiatives must take.

We are hence stuck with our cities, the carousels of doom that must be navigated at the cost of health, will, family and life itself.  

Cities are understandably seen as the congruence of opportunity and liberalism. The reason Mahatma Gandhi wanted rural India to become sustainable was because he could see there was fabric to the way the village lives, stands together and survives despite its modest position in the scheme of things.

Given the whiff of opportunity and education there is no reason why our villages cannot become ideal models of living. So long as they do not emulate the city.