Building smart villages on innovation
Smart Village Movement promises to improve quality of life in Meghalaya's rural pockets
What does it take to build a smart village? A movement that is based on innovation and led by a vision to strengthen the otherwise neglected rural pockets. At a time when the country is busy building smart cities, Meghalaya has joined hands with an expert team from the University of California, Berkeley, to strengthen at least four verticals — healthcare, agriculture, education and household.
The Smart Village Movement (SVM) started as a pilot in 50 villages of East Khasi Hills in August 2020 and is being expanded in other parts of the state. The project is based on open innovation, a new-age concept where innovative ideas are not restricted to the implementing team but are adopted from external sources too. While the Berkeley team is supporting the state government with ideas, there are several implementing partners. In the case of healthcare, Apollo Hospitals and Gramin Healthcare have set up five and 21 digital dispensaries, respectively.
The five Apollo dispensaries are in Rongjeng in East Garo Hills, Dadenggre and Tura in West Garo Hills, and Tyrsad and Mawdngung in East Khasi Hills. “Here, we have a testing laboratory where there is a provision for over 30 medical examinations.
“Once the test results are out, we connect the patients with doctors across the country for tele-consultation. The doctor then prescribes medicines, most of which are available here. More than 70 medicines are available here,” Erisha D Shira, the pharmacist at the Rongjeng dispensary, told Sunday Monitor during a visit. The dispensary has four staff members, including a laboratory technician.
Taniach S Marak, the staff nurse at the dispensary, said the response so far has been good and the staff at the dispensary tries to make villagers aware of the working procedure and how it can benefit them. “Not many villagers can afford to go to the city for a better facility or a specialist doctor. The tele-consultation gives them access to these,” she added.
According to Tulenam Laloo, each dispensary covers about 15 villages in the vicinity, giving this new-age technology-based healthcare programme a wider reach and helping people save both time and money. In the long run, the government is planning extensive use of technology for faster facilities even in the remotest locations.
“When it comes to the healthcare vertical, our aim is to shift from disease management to prevention. We are planning to develop a database that will help in the early detection and treatment of diseases,” said Laloo.
Among the other healthcare initiatives in Meghalaya are aerial logistics using drones and AI-enabled public healthcare management.
In agriculture, the focus is mainly on ‘bettering farmers’ livelihood, creating new jobs in villages and developing new farming practices to ensure return on investment, community and nature’. For this, four farmer development centres have been set up across the state in collaboration with eFresh Global, which provides agri-business solutions. Also, spatial imagery has been introduced in collaboration with Kratos Innovations so that farmers can use satellite data to get insights into reducing input costs and boosting productivity.
The use of technology aims at eliminating the drawbacks, like dependency on middlemen and lack of processing facilities, and helping in better market linkages. “We are only at the initial stage and a lot of iterations will be required. As we are implementing the projects, we are getting to know the drawbacks and pain points. Keeping those use cases, we are improvising the methods or trying to find alternatives for better results,” said Laloo.
The Indian Council of Agricultural Research in Umiam is also working on improving the primary sector in the state. To a query on collaboration with the council, Laloo said it would be an ideal situation if expertise from the best institutions are incorporated and a vetting process by ICAR may be considered in the future.
In the education sector, the initiatives include STEM innovation hub, an IBM data science course and coding programmes. These become important at a time when Meghalaya’s performance in the national education index has been abysmal.
There are three major projects for the sector under SVM. Salesforce, a cloud-based software company headquartered in San Francisco, has set up Trailblazer Labs for children and youths in remote areas where learning is made interesting with hands-on activities. In 2021, it started with two centres in Sohrarim and Nongwah in East Khasi Hills. It was expanded to 20 youth centres last year.
Another innovative centre is Curiosity Gym that combines design, science, technology and art to help children in rural areas create something sustainable. SVM is also collaborating with IBM and NavGurukul for digital learning platforms. “Digital infrastructure in villages is poor. These platforms will give children and youths in rural pockets access to computers, various technologies and other resources,” said Laloo.
The aim of the new-age learning system is to identify the individual interests of children, both school-going and dropout, and nurture those by helping them think out of the box.
At the micro level, SVM is trying to make changes in the living condition of rural families by providing clean drinking water and smart energy in collaboration with Tata Swach and Hygge, respectively.
According to Ram Kumar, who is the nodal officer for the Smart Village Movement, Meghalaya has set an example in implementing the smart village projects, which could not be implemented in Andhra Pradesh and Arunachal Pradesh as envisioned.
“There will be challenges and we are being faced with problems in some cases. However, we are also improvising and improving to make the programmes suitable for each area. This project will have a holistic impact on rural areas. In fact, we in Meghalaya have shown how an existing innovation can be improvised upon to suit the needs of local people,” he added.
Consumers in villages have limited options and SVM will bring about a change by providing more choices in every sector, Laloo asserted.