The Centre’s flagship project, BharatNet, is going at a snail’s pace again and is unlikely to meet its target of connecting all the 2.50 lakh gram panchayats (GP) by 2025 because of the lack in coordination among different stakeholders.

The budget this year lays down 2025 as the deadline for completion of the project which means laying of optical fiber cable (OFC) in all the GPs and making them service-ready by then. However, highly-placed sources have told BusinessLine that almost insurmountable hurdles have cropped up in meeting this deadline, especially in getting right of way (RoW) from different authorities in the States.

Through the States

For instance, in Tamil Nadu, the memorandum of understanding (MoU) was signed in December 2017, for the project to be implemented in four packages (A, B, C and D) for connecting 12,524 GPs. Out of these four packages, work has been awarded for 6,429 GPs in October 2021 (C and D), whereas package A and B (containing 6,095 GPs) are currently under litigation (government working on the disposal of the pending litigations), sources said.

Similarly, in Chhattisgarh, there is a poor upkeep of in-service GPs and more than 90 per cent GPs remain down, and in Maharashtra, the progress of work is slow and connectivity is also impacted due to RoW permission from the forest department.

The Ministry of Telecommunications has signed MoUs with seven States — Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Gujarat, Jharkhand, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and Telangana — under which these States will roll out the project on their own with partial funding from the Centre.

“The work is very slow, especially in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, and the tender of village connectivity through PPP model had no response,” a government official told BusinessLine.

Questionable quality

The official said the total fiber laid as on date is around 5.65 lakh kilometre (km) under the BharatNet project. However, around three-lakh km was given to Common Service Centre (CSC), which works under the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology, for operations and maintenance (O&M) of network in July 2019.

But, the quality of fibre and even its existence became questionable due to CSC’s failure, leading to no response in PPP model due to poor or non-existent network on ‘as is where is basis’, said another official.

CSC, which is also a core scheme under the ‘Digital India’ programme for making all villages digital, is also taking services of internet from private players to give services to these villages. “Around 77,000 GPs are being connected through the BharatNet, all other connections are being taken from the private broadband service providers,” said a senior official at CSC. There are around 4.50 lakh CSCs across India now.

According to the BharatNet website, as of December 6, length of OFC laid is 5, 58,022 km, and 1,81,024 GPs have been connected and 1,71,675 GPs made service ready (on fibre and satellite).

Private firms reluctant

The BharatNet project has been in the works for several years (more than a decade now) and according to various sources from the government and the industry, many private firms are also reluctant to join the project in the public-private partnership (PPP) mode, terming it as a ‘dead asset’ now.

It was initially launched with the objective of providing optical fibre to each GP and six lakh villages across India. However, the scope has recently been extended again, to reach all villages.

The Cabinet had cleared an additional outlay of ₹19,041 crore last year for BharatNet project, making the total outlay of ₹61,109 crore for the project, including the already approved amount of ₹42,068 crore in 2017.

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