How NRI Rajnish Bajpai, a IIITH alumnus is defining Brain Gain with revolutionary SmartGaon app

California-based software professional Rajnish Bajpai shot to fame overnight when a Mann Ki Baat episode gave a rousing 5-minute appreciation for SmartGaon, his revolutionary mobile app that is speed tracking AI and technology-driven village development and strengthening the hands of Digital India.

When PM Modi gave a stirring address in 2015 to the San Jose NRI diaspora about brain gain and how India would benefit from the intellectual capital of NRIs, Rajnish Bajpai didn’t sleep for two whole nights! “Prof. Sangal had drilled it into us that apart from earning well, we should work for social impact”, remarks the technocrat who harnessed the enthusiasm of like-minded professionals to launch SmartGaon, a mobile app that is today converting the technology-hungry village youth into harbingers of a silent socio-economic revolution in the heartland.

Working out of his Mountain View California office, the software engineer is remotely leveraging 17+ years of product management and development strategies using Agile and IoT methodologies to bring smart village solutions and marketplace to rural India.   His expertise in product development and management, web and mobile application development, social media strategy as well as building and managing global teams was just the right mix for the task at hand, for rebranding villages as active participants in the Digital India Mission.

An advantageous rural upbringing
Born in Taudhakpur in Rae Bareli, a small village with around 340 houses, his initial schooling was in a village school and later at Saraswati Vidya Mandir and Baiswara Inter college. He completed his B.E in computer science from Rajiv Gandhi Prodyogiki Vishwavidyalaya (2000-04), Bhopal and joined M.Tech at IIITH. While transitioning from a small village to a metro, and especially from Hindi to an English medium education wasn’t easy, Rajnish insists that language should never be a hurdle since it gives you the incentive to work harder and the sense of accomplishment doubles!

IIITH sparks a patriotic fire
It was his quest for a research oriented institute that brought Rajnish to IIIT Hyderabad. It offered various options in computer science, computational linguistics and bio-informatics, his field of specialization. “I still remember the brainstorming sessions at the Old Boys Hostel, the time spent on the sports field, the yoga and meditation classes on campus and the homely food at the New Boys Hostel sitting cross-legged on the floor”, he laughs. “Along with technical skills, I learnt social skills from professors like P J Narayanan, Kamalakar Karlapalem, C.V. Jawahar, Abhijit Mitra, Nita Parekh and Govindarajulu who were always approachable. “He credits his achievements to the pivotal role played by his parents and several teachers along the way who taught him the 3R Principles of Respectfulness, Resourcefulness and Responsiveness.

Rajnish joined Synopsys, a global leader in Electronic Design Automation right out of IIIT Hyderabad and worked in the Hyderabad division before moving to Mountain View, California. He believes that his professional role as Sr. Staff for R&D, Technical Program Manager and Product Manager dovetails beautifully with his passion in social entrepreneurship and is grateful to Synopsys for including individual social impact work as part of their credo.

It takes a village to make a SmartGaon
When PM Modi’s speech flipped the narrative on brain drain and presented Brain Gain as a handle for NRIs to give back to their Janmabhoomi, Rajnish decided to leverage his rural roots and started studying village development in India versus developed nations.  “I created a model and discussed it with my friend, Yogesh Sahu and thus SmartGaon (Smart Governance and Online Marketplace for Rural India) was born. Designed for Android devices, the mobile application is available on Google Play store in three languages.

In 2017, Rajnish took 2 months’ leave and came to India to set up the pilot project in Taudhakpur (his birthplace), where fortuitously his elder brother was the Sarpanch.

“Extrapolating the five basic elements for a human body that poet Tulsidas extoled, we shortlisted five elements required to convert any village into a smart village; Swacch(sanitation), Swasth (health), Sundar (modern), Sakshar (literacy) and Swavalambhi (self-empowerment)”. The architecture of SmartGaon development programs is built around the Panchatatva principle and includes Smart school development, Smart infrastructure development, Sanitation and digital village management programs, Mental wellness program, SmartGaon mentors and Smart skills development for farmers. In collaboration with REACHA foundation and other organizations, over two years, the Smart Skills Build program trained 4000 youth with new technologies to set up small-scale businesses. As part of the SmartGaon Mentors program, 1500 students from 10 rural area schools in 4 states are trained with 21st century skills (including coding skills).

An early victory was the creation of 243 quality toilets within a record 48 hours in Taudhakpur under the Build Toilet program. CCTV cameras for security and public address systems were installed across the village for proper information dissemination, which increased PDS distribution from 30% to 90%. The other major transformation was in village school infrastructure development that saw school attendance swell from 20 to 140 students and in 2 years, it was pegged as one of the area’s best schools and received an award from the Chief Minister. Under Swacchata Abhiyan, the village got a beautiful makeover with dustbin placement, wall paintings with inspiring messages and tree plantation. The best part of the app is its user-friendly feature, especially for requests for certificates, village news, grain distribution etc.

Rural Transformers and a movie
“In 2018, when PM Modi spoke about our app for 5 minutes in his Mann Ki Baat capsule, it would become a big turning point”. Suddenly, there was a groundswell of support from NRIs globally and rural youth who wished to join the initiative. Anuj Bajpai from Padariya Thoban village spearheaded the change in his village and would become the face of the first smart gaon of Madhya Pradesh. His village story was captured in ‘Yeh Gaon Mera’, a movie gathering rave reviews at film festivals. Wonderful success stories started emerging of Gaurav Surana who joined this initiative and continues helping in transforming villages across India. The Gram Mart feature allows farmers and entrepreneurs to upload and market products, like Machundar village that was famous for its pickles.

“Our soul is in our villages “, mulls Rajnish. “We should experience our roots with village tourism, learn new things and purchase homemade goods. We started with one district in Uttar Pradesh followed by Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra and Rajasthan and today we have 6,500 village requests. We are currently working with 20 villages with focus on 3E development – Education, Employment based skills and Entrepreneurship assistance via our resource centres. We provide the admin panel and village coordinators to monitor complaints and we work with Common Service Centers that provide government-related services at minimal charges. 20 startups in health, education, agriculture, and smart infrastructure are associated with our programs. Our goal is to make our villages future-ready and self-sustainable within 3 years. Smart Gaon has now completed five years”.

It took three years to break ground. The main big impact was the Taudhakpur and Padariya Thoban villages where collaboration created ripples amongst the nearby villages. When the pandemic lockdowns began, the communication system was already in place and “we ran educational and entertainment programs, and with NRI funding, we created oximeter banks in 90 villages, helping around 3.5 lakh people”.

Home is where the heart is
“In our village, we grew up celebrating festivals together, enjoying cricket and other games. I was the first youth in my village to pass high school with distinction and that became an example for others.

“My father taught us to always help others” observes Rajnish who believes that it is important to give 5% back to society. I divide my entire week into dedicated time slots, for my profession, family, hobbies and passions. I play cricket, and practice yoga and meditation and that gives me good energy. I enjoy talking to people and sharing ideas, hiking with friends, visiting USA’s beautiful national parks or vacations in Hawaii. But when I come to India, I head home to my village”, says the family man who makes time for daily chats with his mother and weekly calls to his siblings. His wife Ojaswi Mishra, a Software professional is very supportive and continuously helps him with SmartGaon.

“Ao milkar kadam badaye, gaon ko smart banaye. When I see the changes that our efforts have brought and the proud smiles on people’s faces, I am overjoyed”. The two awards that Rajnish cherishes the most is the Synopsys Excellence Award from the CEO of Synopsys and the NASSCOM Tech Award in 2021. He was recently conferred with an honourable doctorate from Crown University for business administration. In a callout to fellow Alumni, Bajpai says “Let’s come together and do something for society. We live in a digital world where geographical boundaries don’t matter anymore”.

Deepa Shailendra is a freelance writer for interior design publications; an irreverent blogger, consultant editor and author of two coffee table books. A social entrepreneur who believes that we are the harbingers of the transformation and can bring the change to better our world.


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