The Covid-19 crisis that has descended with unimagined swiftness has revealed the need for prompt actions in local communities to treat afflicted people and to check the spread of the deadly infection. With more than 1.3 billion people, spread across over 600,000 villages, the need for local self-sufficient, resourceful communities in the un-served and under-served regions has never been more acute.
Even from a non-coronavirus context, there is an urgent requirement to expand and strengthen the presence, capabilities and resources of local community centres. These centres can be very important focal points to ensure that the societal and economic needs of the village, or a community of villages it serves, are adequately understood and continuously addressed to enable self-sufficiency in various areas. These include healthcare, hygiene, education, skill development, entrepreneurship and job creation based on the unique local needs and environment of that community.
The above challenges may seem formidable, but India enjoys a demographic dividend, with 65% of its population less than 35 years old. Besides this, it is one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and has access to advanced, affordable technology. These advantages can rapidly enable and deploy a digitally reimagined world of innovative community-focused solutions and services.
There is, thus, a great opportunity to create a hub of community innovation centres in the unserved and under-served regions of the country. The hubs could develop relevant frugal technology-driven solutions and innovative services that can address the needs of the local community.
This is indeed possible with a focused approach and great synergies between central, state and district officials, the private sector and its over three million NGOs committed to the economic and societal well-being of the country.
Towards this end, Niti Aayog has launched through the Atal Innovation Mission (AIM), the selection and establishment of a network of Atal Community Innovation Centres (ACICs) in tier-2, tier-3 cities and rural India in a unique public-private academic partnership mode. Every ACIC established would get a grant of up to 2.5 crores from AIM with a matching or greater contribution from the applicant. The ACIC is encouraged to form value-adding partnerships with the private sector, NGOs and local MSME industries. These ACICs that would develop as hubs of community innovations, solutions and services, would address the unique local needs of every community they are established in, be it agriculture, dairy, textiles or handicrafts.
The ACICs would leverage the resources, capabilities, CSR funds that their partners bring to the fore. Relevant innovations from one ACIC hub will be shared and replicated with others speedily through the network of hubs being created based on local needs. The ACICs would also host Advanced Tinkering Labs that can serve as a platform for learning new skills and entrepreneurial development in the local community of schools, colleges and technical institutes (ITIs). Low-cost, affordable frugal technologies like 3D printing, robotics, Internet of Things and microelectronics are imperative in a digitally evolving world. The ACICs are planned to be linked synergistically with other innovation and entrepreneurial initiatives of AIM, including Atal Incubation Centres, Atal New India Challenges and Applied Research and Innovation for medium and small enterprises. With the government enabling over 300 million rural Indians to online banking and payment systems, Aadhar which enables a plethora of unique identification solutions, web and mobile applications extending national and global reach, and satellite, fibre and possible 5G technologies, community innovation centres can usher in a new world of grassroot, locally-relevant innovations and the explosive development of rural enterprises. The hub community innovation centres can also synergize with the network of GoI established common service centres (CSC) in spurring local entrepreneurs.
Community centres have indeed played a pivotal role in the growth and advancement of many an advanced economy, and in developing a more equitable, self-sufficient, decentralised ecosystem in the remotest parts of their country, with active participation of the private sector and local industries.
Evolving a vibrant self-sufficient high quality yet affordable ecosystem of education, healthcare, hygiene and job creation in every village of India is a must in the years ahead. Engaging with, and developing robust community innovation centres can usher in a dynamically new quality of life and purpose.
The combined will and efforts of government, academia and industry is key to realise this aspiration for our country while also setting an example for the rest of the world.
As the great Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, the champion of downtrodden and neglected communities said, “If you ask me, my ideal would be the society based on liberty, equality and fraternity. An ideal society should be mobile and full of channels of conveying a change taking place in one part to other parts.”
Innovative community centres may well make these much-needed waves of change across the country.
(R Ramanan is mission director, Atal Innovation Mission, and additional secretary, NITI Aayog. Views expressed are personal.)