India File

The broadband tangle

Pratim Ranjan Bose Varun Aggarwal | Updated on February 27, 2018 Published on February 26, 2018

No link: Even though mobile towers have come up in Murud in Raigad district of Maharashtra, this panchayat office, which was set up with BBNL facilities, has connectivity issues   -  PAUL NORONHA

BusinessLine visited villages in Rajasthan, Tripura and Maharashtra to see how BharatNet, the national optic fibre network, was faring – for the third time since the roll-out began eight years back. We saw that cables had reached remote corners, but the Net was not being used. Varun Aggarwal and Pratim Ranjan Bose explain why

“Please do something to restart this centre. Our children’s future depends on this,” pleads Madanlal Acharya at the Chawkidar Atal Sewa Kendra in Arain village, as he takes BusinessLine through the dismal state the centre has been in despite being built as a pilot for the ambitious BharatNet project almost eight years ago.

A dusted padlock welcomes you when you enter the Atal Sewa Kendra in Arain village in Rajasthan’s Ajmer district. The centre is not shut officially but nothing works here.

Project gathers dust

As Acharya unlocks the door, the status of India’s pilot BharatNet project reveals itself. There’s a computer room, a citizen service kiosk, and a high-definition projector is attached to the ceiling for video-conferencing facilities. But everything is covered in layers of dust and cobwebs.

“All these equipment, worth lakhs of rupees, are going waste for lack of support from the government,” says Sayani Devi, a sarpanch at Arain village.

Arain was the first village to be connected under the National Optic Fibre Network (NOFN) project, which was rechristened BharatNet in 2012.

The village received a telemedicine facility to connect patients with doctors in Ajmer’s Jawaharlal Nehru Medical College and Hospital. But for the lack of facilities and trained staff, the centre has been shut for more than a year.

“The intent of the BharatNet project is good, but poor execution is rendering it useless,” says Sanjiv Maheshwari, the head of telemedicine unit at JLN Medical College and Hospital.

Nearly 2,500 km away, a similar story unfolds at the villages in Tripura. “Internet connection has been snapped for non-payment of bills six-seven months ago,” says Meenakshi Nandi, a rural programme manager (RPM) at the Jalebasa Gram Panchayat (rural body) in North Tripura district. Under BharatNet, all connected villages received free internet connectivity till mid- 2017, after which the government decided to charge a fee to make the project financially viable.

In October 2012, each of the more than half-a-dozen panchayats in Panisagar block were offered 10 mbps of data connection.

But connection alone does not ensure usage. In 2013, the Department of Electronics and Information Technology (now a ministry), offered computer peripherals to panchayats, and also funded a project through the National Informatics Centre to extend links from panchayats to local health centres and government schools.

To top up the initiative, RailTel, the project contractor, donated nearly ₹20-lakh worth of computer peripherals under the CSR project. The intention was to convert the block into an oasis of e-governance. And by early 2014, when BusinessLine visited Panisagar block, life moved around computers at Jalebasa, Bilthai, Rowa and all such panchayats, making headlines in the national media.

No clarity on responsibilities

The frenzy did not last long and for a single reason: The scheme was launched without any clarity on revenue generation and maintenance. NOFN authorities did not enter into any agreement with the State, and the State government preferred to assume it would be the Centre’s responsibility to keep it running.

The first casualty was the connections to hospitals and schools as the NIC withdrew support in March 2015 as per their contract with the government.

By early 2016, when BusinessLine made a second visit, RailTel was still providing bandwidth free of charge, but connections became unstable as the last leg service provider BSNL was reluctant to maintain the lines free of cost.

BusinessLine visited the spot again in 2018 only to find that connections to all panchayats in Panisagar were snapped in early or mid-2017 for non-payment of dues, which is as low as ₹999 a month for a 10 mbps connection. Couldn’t panchayats pay for this measly sum and use the facility? Couldn’t they raise this money by rendering some fee-based services to the villagers?

“Obviously we could. Now that it’s not there, our RPMs are spending more in travelling down to the block office,” said Kamakhya Ranjan Das, secretary of the BJP-run Bilthai panchayat in Panisagar.

But his hands were tied. The State government, which is hell bent that all public services be free of cost, did not give the freedom to the panchayat in either revenue generation or paying providers.

Second, BSNL demands a consolidated payment from the Block Development Officer’s office (BDO) for all panchayats. It means everyone should suffer if one panchayat fails to pay. Last but not the least, the State did not leave any instruction to BDO to pay such dues.

“We asked the BDO about the non-availability of internet services. He said the connection was snapped for non-payment of dues. There was no further clarification,” said Das.

 

 

 

A local BSNL official in Arain confirms that there has been confusion between BSNL and BBNL (Bharat Broadband Network Limited, created to run the BharatNet project) on collecting payments for the service.

“In the last six years that the Bharat Net project has started, we have not yet received an approval to connect the telemedicine centres in the villages to city hospitals. We have laid the cable connecting all the villages, but the village sarpanch or the State government needs to start paying. That has not happened due to the lack of coordination between State and central governments,” said a senior BSNL official in Ajmer, who did not want to be named.

About 1,100 kilometres south of Arain, in the Raigad district of Maharashtra, BSNL had laid the fibre years ago. Yet some of the village panchayats are not even aware of what the whole project is all about.

Of the three village panchayats visited by BusinessLine, only one had a working internet connection, which was in use for e-governance. But it remained a far cry from the 100 mbps connection that the government promised with facilities such as e-education, e-healthcare and e-commerce.

“We have been using internet for the issuance of death certificates, birth certificates and land records, but there is no support from the State government to extending this for education and healthcare,” said Yogendra Dwarkanath Goyaji, the Upsarpanch at Mazgaon village.

A ray of hope

The failure of the pilots may have alerted the BharatNet authorities to redesign the project to ensure its sustainability. (As per June 2017 data, India has around 420 million Net users, second after China.)

Recently, the Centre announced key changes in the project, including rolling out Wi-Fi hotspots so that villagers need not go to any single location for internet facilities.

Office-bearers of half-a-dozen panchayats visited by BusinessLine were unanimous that they needed the service, and that raising ₹999 a month to pay the bills was a doable target.

“We had no clue about the problem,” said Samir Das, the deputy head of Fatik Roy gram panchayat at Kumarghat in North Tripura district. Das, a ruling CPI(M) activist, had no idea what kept the computers inoperative till BusinessLine briefed him about the issue. “I thought it is the usual bureaucratic red tape.

If it is a matter of barely ₹999 a month, we are keen to pay and get it running and serve the constituency better,” he said, promising to discuss the issue with other panchayats in the block and get it resolved.

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Published on February 26, 2018
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