Costly failure

| Updated on November 23, 2018 Published on November 23, 2018

BharatNet’s failure to deliver calls for a complete overhaul of the implementation machinery

It’s a national shame that seven years after the project was first envisaged, the ambitious National Optical Fibre Network, rechristened BharatNet, has singularly failed to deliver on its objective of triggering a broadband revolution across the country by connecting over 2.5 lakh gram panchayats with fast broadband, despite thousands of crores of taxpayers’ money having already been spent. Already, 1.15 lakh gram panchayats have been connected, and the physical execution of the project is scheduled to be completed by March 2019. However, when it comes to actual connectivity and utilisation, BharatNet has achieved little. A lack of ownership of the project by Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd and the inability of Bharat Broadband Nigam Ltd — the special purpose vehicle created to execute the project — in ensuring timely project implementation have cost the nation a great deal. As this paper reported earlier, Telecom Secretary Aruna Sundararajan has sharply reprimanded the chiefs of BBNL and BSNL, noting: “Though a clear utilisation target has already been set, the actual utilisation on the ground is understood to be less than 10 per cent of the target. This points to an utter lack of professionalism on the part of BBNL and BSNL with poor planning, lack of monitoring and co-ordination between the two organisations.”

While the note underscores the Centre’s displeasure at the lack of progress, the issue cannot be addressed with mere reprimands. The scale of under-delivery calls for a complete overhaul of the BharatNet implementation machinery. What is now required in the interest of this visionary project, are quick decisions to fundamentally alter the direction of the project. State governments must be brought on board to ensure the project gets adequate support at the district and panchayat levels. The nation cannot afford to lose any more time. All resources and energies would have to be mobilised so that all gram panchayats are reached in the shortest possible time. A thorough inquiry into the effectiveness and outcomes of the money already spent is also called for.

Digital India is more than a slogan. When it comes to adopting digitisation and online platforms, Indian users are among the top consumers globally. At the centre of this transition to a digital world is the availability of a reliable and affordable data network. Private telecom companies, including Reliance Jio, have announced plans to connect over 1,100 cities with optical fibre. While this will cater to the urban consumers, BharatNet is critical to ensuring that rural India also reaped the digital dividend. The project was supposed to attract billions of dollars in investments, help train a million youth for new-age jobs and radically transform governance, healthcare and education delivery in rural India. These laudable — and necessary — goals cannot be sacrificed at the altar of bureaucratic incompetence.

Published on November 23, 2018
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