Is the smart village project in Arunachal really smart?

[ Amar Sangno ]
ITANAGAR, Oct 23: The much touted smart village project being undertaken by the Smart Village Movement (SVM) in Arunachal has been hit by sluggish work, mass termination, and failure to deliver.
The SVM is an Andhra Pradesh-based NGO, currently operating in the state under an expired MoU. Its term expired on 31 July.
Reportedly, the SVM team met Chief Minister Pema Khandu in Delhi in early July, seeking an extension of the MoU, citing various reasons for the slow progress.
To trace the genesis of the issue – the Arunachal government signed a MoU with the University of California (UC), Berkeley, USA, on 9 April, 2018, to establish a cooperative relationship in various fields. The MoU was an initiative of Prof Solomon Darwin, Executive Director of the Garwood Center for Corporate Innovation, USA, and Professor Munis D Faruqui, Director of the Institute for South Asian Studies.
The state government later signed a separate MoU with the SVM, on 13 June 2018, for the execution of the smart village project in Arunachal. Prof Darwin, who was instrumental in the signing of the MoU with the UC, Berkeley, also happens to be the chairman of the SVM.
The total amount for the project was Rs 5.29 crore, of which Rs 3 crore was already released to the UC, Berkeley, and Rs 1.15 crore released to the SVM.
The smart village project is aimed at facilitating relevant technology innovations, research and development in selected villages, and creation of sustainable rural economies through technological intervention, to raise the overall standards of living.
The project is supposed to offer digital platforms highlighting the challenges faced by the villages, which is to be accessed by universities and research institutes across the globe for offering solutions.
Initially, 100 villages across 60 assembly constituencies were selected for the project. Later, the number was reduced to only 70 villages. It is learnt that the fate of the 70 villages is now in a limbo, after the expiry of the MoU’s term and the abrupt resignation of its project director, Shreya Evani, in August.
Evani resigned from the project midway, citing personal issues. However, sources claim that she resigned after foreseeing the future of the project. Evani herself, however, refuted the claim.
Among the selected villages and the districts, only Lohit district (Tezu) has seen any visible footprint of the SVM’s work. The Lohit administration claimed in its report that a mushroom processing unit in Loiliang village, market linkage for stevia cultivation, introduction of health cube in the district health department, creation of a farmers’ database, promotion of homestays, etc, have been initiated by the SVM team.
The Arunachal Times has learnt that the mushroom processing unit in Loiliang village is yet to be established. However, an entrepreneur, Chemso Pul, did earlier receive training on mushroom cultivation, under the initiative of the SVM, at the NEIST, in Naharlagun. On the health cube, the district medical officer informed that she has sought permission from the health secretary for procuring and installing a health cube but the file is yet to be approved.
An officer, on condition of anonymity, said: “We don’t require any NGO (like SVM) from outside the state, especially for the promotion of any department’s scheme. They were asking me for write-ups on homestays in Lohit, but I refused, and they distanced themselves from me.”
In East Siang HQ Pasighat, the SVM’s ‘tamul plate and Barbie doll’ projects have reportedly failed. The SVM had collaborated with a woman entrepreneur, Dolly Moyong, for producing ‘local Barbie dolls’. It is learnt that the DC, Kinny Singh, was instrumental in roping in the SVM team. This daily sent several questionnaires to Singh. All of them went unanswered.
In West Kameng district, Dirang village was adopted for the project; however, no progress has been made so far, after the baseline survey had been conducted.
“Dirang village was adopted under the project, and the team carried out a baseline survey. Also, some private companies had shown interest in investing – but for the last three months, the teams haven’t come,” said DC Sonal Swaroop said.
Similarly, in Tawang, Papum Pare, Lower Subansiri and West Siang districts, the SVM only carried out baseline surveys, without making any further progress. The SVM projected itself as a sound NGO, with impressive PowerPoint presentations on its baseline surveys.
The smart village project was launched with 15 project associates of the SVM, including a project director, with variable salaries. But later it was marred by frequent termination of project associates.
The UC, Berkeley, is supposed to provide training, capacity-building and mentorship to the SVM team, besides piloting technological solutions, designing and providing research and training, guiding field implementation of the SVM’s activities (which may include data collection, field research, asset tagging, and such), in collaboration with corporate partners.
However, no tangible outcome has been seen so far, even after the payment of fees amounting to Rs 3 crore to the UC, Berkeley, for research consultations and designing.
This daily sought a reaction from the IT secretary over the development. The secretary is yet to respond.
Now it appears that the SVM team is preparing an escape plan to leave Arunachal, with the aim of shifting its human and other resources to Meghalaya, where the NGO has reportedly snagged another smart village project.
In the meantime, SVM chairman, Muralikrishna Iyyanki, made serious allegations against the local journalists here of harassing the SVM team.
In a letter to Prof Darwin on 5 September, he said, “There were repeated threats from the local journalists for hiring non-locals; this harassment was informed to the appropriate government authorities. Following this incident we hired a team from the region to address this issue.”
Iyyanki claimed that the slow progress of the project was due to “weather conditions, non-performance of some team members, and security issues for the female staff,” seeking to justify the termination of the last team.
“Several new members from the US and Europe (former MBAs from UC, Berkeley, and Lancaster) and well-qualified folks from Delhi will be arriving soon to Arunachal to take the project forward,” Iyyanki claimed.
Reportedly, V Asok, former Indian Consul General to California, USA, and advisor to the SVM, expressed apprehension over the possibility of the SVM failing in Arunachal, after all the expenses have already been incurred.
It is learnt that he wrote a letter to Prof Darwin, stating that the people would raise questions as to why the targets have not been achieved after the money has been paid.
Where are the tangible outcomes of the signing of the MoU with the UC, Berkeley, and the SVM? What deliverables have they been able to give to the project, as well as to the state, so far? Did the state government sign the MoU without reading the details?
These are the fundamental questions that remain unanswered.