So far yet so near

Thomas K Thomas | Updated on March 05, 2014

Distance learning Women attend a live Webcast in Arain village, in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district. KAMAL NARANG

E-learning A teacher trains students at a Government school inParawada village, Andhra Pradesh, to use the internet. CV SUBRAHMANYAM


It faces problems aplenty, but the₹20,000-crore National Optical FibreNetwork can bridge the gap between rural and urban India ifimplemented well. Business Line visited pilot projects in Rajasthan, Tripura andAndhra Pradesh to track its progress.Thomas K Thomas reports

Sanjiv Maheshwari, who manages the tele-medicine unit of the JLN Medical College & Hospital in Ajmer, Rajasthan, is today able to provide better care to patients in Fatehgarh, in Arain Tehsil, 60 km away. The health centre in Fatehgarh has digital equipment that transmits vital data, such as a patient’s blood pressure, to Maheshwari’s computer. A video-conferencing facility enables him to interact with patients, diagnose their problems and prescribe drugs or follow-up care.

On the other side of the country, in Ramnagar village, North Tripura district, farmer Lakshminarayan Rajkumar is doing a better job of working his land. After attending a couple of video-conferencing sessions at nearby Panisagar, he got expert advice from scientists on how to till his field and plant crops. He hopes to attend more such sessions.

Down south in Parawada village, in Andhra Pradesh’s Visakhapatnam district, the internet is no longer just another chapter in a textbook for students of the Zilla Parishad Girls High School. They now use it for real every day.

They may be in different corners of the country, but Arain, Panisagar and Parawada have one thing in common. Over the last year or so, the three villages have been running pilot projects for the National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN), an ambitious Central Government initiative to provide high-speed broadband connectivity to 250,000 gram panchayats across the country.

Ambitious project

The ₹20,000-crore project aims to connect rural India to the mainstream with 100 Mbps broadband speeds and deliver services such as E-health, education and commerce, to name a few.

When Business Line reporters visited each of the pilot projects, they found that broadband certainly has the potential to transform lives in rural India, as in the examples cited above. These examples, however, are exceptions; much more will have to be done if the project is to be successful.

Ravi Shanker, Chairman and Managing Director of Bharat Broadband Nigam Ltd (BBNL), a special purpose vehicle set up to execute the project, should know. He has the difficult job of providing 100,000 gram panchayats with a high-speed broadband connection within a month — a huge task, considering that only about 60 villages have been covered thus far.

Challenges galore

There are problems aplenty. Operational issues and a lack of coordination between various agencies involved in the project have already delayed the project by two years.

Tenders to buy network equipment are yet to be finalised and contracts for digging/trenching to lay the cable are still to be awarded.

The problems in Arain, Panisagar and Parawada were the same. Most villagers are either unaware of the project or do not know how to make use of the facilities.

In places where some individuals have taken it upon themselves to put the network to use, they face other challenges such as lack of power to run computers.

In Ajmer, Maheshwari often hits a wall due to the absence of trained personnel to handle the equipment in Fatehgarh. The lack of adequate support infrastructure is also a problem. The village does not have an ECG or an X-Ray machine. Sometimes the medicines prescribed by the doctor may not be available.

“Patients are happy being attended to by a senior doctor without having to travel out of their village. But sometimes I am handicapped due to the lack of infrastructure. NOFN can drive the future of healthcare in India but implementation needs to be sorted out,” says Maheshwari.

The pilot project in Tripura is no different. The State Government ordered both the health and agriculture department to use the video-conferencing facility to deliver services to the villagers. While the Panisagar Community Health Centre (CHC) launched e-OPD services, the quality and coverage of such services has been adversely affected by bureaucratic red-tape and buck-passing between hospitals. As for agriculture, apart from Lakshminarayan Rajkumar, no other farmer has heard of the video-conferencing service.

Jalabasa Public Health Centre, which falls under the Panisagar CHC, has not even rolled out a roster for such services to some of the villages under its purview. And that is affecting people on the ground. For instance, Premadabala Nath, an 80-year-old woman from Rowa Panchayat, had to go back home without getting any remedy for her ailments after a wait of nearly 45 minutes. Reason: there was no paramedic at the Jalabasa Public Centre to measure her blood pressure.

Second attempt

This is not the first time that the Government has tried to take socially relevant services to rural consumers through a broadband network. In 2006, a scheme called the Common Service Centres (CSC) was launched with an outlay of ₹5,742 crore.

It envisages creating service-delivery points in villages to provide a range of applications and information related to agriculture, health and education. Private companies were roped in to execute the scheme but after eight years there are not too many success stories. The worry is that the NOFN project will meet the same fate.

Pranav Roach, President, Hughes India, one of the companies that provided satellite connectivity to the CSC project, reckons that NOFN could turn out to be a waste of time. “By itself a broadband network on optical cable does nothing. It’s like having an airport in every panchayat. It’s good to have it but it’s not a feasible idea.”

BBNL’s Ravi Shanker says that the primary aim of the project is to ensure that broadband connectivity reaches even the remotest village. “Think of this — if the Government did not put this money to lay the cable network, do you think any private company would have done it? We are creating a highway. Various Government bodies, State Governments, private players and other agencies will have to come together to ensure services are delivered efficiently on this network.”

Flashes in the pan

To be fair, the broadband pilot projects are being put to good use in some areas where other infrastructure support is not required. For example, information related to agriculture is disseminated through video conferences. Banda Potha Rao, like any Indian farmer, relied more on the advice of a dealer selling seeds, pesticides and fertilisers.

Often, the dealer would give him a solution that involved buying his stocks. Since the NOFN pilot was launched in Kalapaka village in Parawada district, Rao has been getting advice on his crops from Government scientists every Friday through video conferences.

Word has spread and now the video chat is well attended by farmers from different villages in the district. During one such session, another farmer, Kanna Rao, wanted to know how he could stop wild boars from running amok on his fields. A scientist responded: “Get human hair from a salon and spread it along the plant linings. The hair will irritate the boar’s nostrils and they will run away.”

Jagdish Prasad, Assistant Agriculture Officer at Arain gram panchayat in Ajmer, is also putting the 100 Mbps connection to good use, organising live Webcasts of lectures by agriculture experts from Delhi, for women.

More than 50 women, mostly illiterate, turned up for one session, some from villages 20 km away. “My son talks about the Internet. I was curious to see what live webcast means. Now, I know,” says one of the attendees.

The Arain centre also offers basic computer training to female students. “The project is definitely creating awareness about computers and basic Internet services.

It’s a start and can become big in the future,” says Prakash Chauhan, the IT manager appointed by the National Informatics Centre for the Arain pilot.

(With inputs from KV Kurmanath and Pratim Ranjan Bose)

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Published on March 05, 2014
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