Building another pipe dream?
Do we have a proper plan for the NOFN that will enable people living in rural India to access government services?
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The difference between cities and villages in India has always been stark. Services that people in urban areas take for granted are often simply not available in the countryside. This is particularly true when we look at the digital divide that creates a gulf between urban and rural India.
Tilonia is a small village in Ajmer district in Rajasthan that has a panchayat (village council). The village has been made globally famous due to the great work done by Barefoot College, a voluntary organisation set up by Bunker Roy active in the fields of education, skill development, health, drinking water, women’s empowerment and electrification through solar power for the upliftment of rural people.
The panchayat building in Tilonia is quite vibrant, buzzing with various activities. It has two ancient but functional computers operated by Kaushalya, a volunteer from Barefoot College. The sarpanch (village council chief), Kamla, is never afraid to speak her mind. The village is quite progressive, and the panchayat has ensured equal wages for women, implemented the Right to Information Act and so on. It also has a telephone exchange operated by state-owned Bharat Sanchar Nigam Ltd.
Despite all this, Tilonia panchayat does not have Internet connectivity. The government may have installed a cable under its National Optical Fibre Network (NOFN) programme, but a connection to the Internet remains a dream in this village that is just 8km away from the National Highway 8, also known as the Delhi-Mumbai highway.
A little background will help here. The central government has established a company called Bharat Broadband Network Ltd (BBNL) to implement an ambitious Rs.20,000 crore programme to provide broadband Internet connectivity across the countryside to bridge the digital divide and deliver a clutch of government services through electronic means.
The company’s mandate is to ensure that every one of the 249,450 panchayats in India has a 100 Mbps dedicated optical fibre line to ensure government services at the last mile is adequately and efficiently delivered.
However, the real story is that the NOFN line that is hanging from BBNL box on a wall in the panchayat house in Tilonia is lifeless. The people working there said the box and the wire have been there for about a year. The dead NOFN line at Tilonia panchayat office is symbolic of the fact that laying and installing optical fibre cable across India is just one part of the task; breathing life into the cables by having free flow of data is another matter altogether.
I have been tracking the development around NOFN since its inception. The Digital Empowerment Foundation recently conducted a survey in three locations where a NOFN pilot project has been implemented and what we found shocked us (see graphic: Faltering at the last mile). Even though there has been progress on laying cables, there is a serious lack of planning and strategy to make sure that these are fully functional and available to the people, organisations and government offices.
The department of telecom, which oversees the entire programme, claims all 59 pilot locations of panchayat bhavans have working NOFN lines. We decided to conduct a detailed survey at these sites in December last year. To our disappointment, more than 50% of the NOFN lines are either not installed, or they are non-functional. The study reveals that there is a fairly large gap between the initial claims made and the actual state on the ground. Also, the average broadband connectivity that was found available was around 50 Mbps compared with the promised 100 Mbps. Even where there is NOFN connectivity, the ecosystem of services is far below the planned suite of services. Except birth and death certificates, hardly any other service is available. Besides, one of the purposes of NOFN is to use the panchayat as a base to further distribute the connectivity and provide Internet connections and services on demand, but so far, the connectivity has not been able to spread beyond the panchayat buildings.
This study highlights the importance of the NOFN as not only a physical infrastructure but also an integral part of allowing citizens their basic right to access information and services. The poor status and progress of NOFN, even at the pilot level, shows the importance and necessity of proper management and sustained functionality of any infrastructure that is laid down by the government.
We have, as a country, government after government, made millions of structures, roads and infrastructure, but if we were to find out whether they are fully functional or useful to citizens, the answer would be a sad no. To build infrastructure is a small part of its sustained functionality for which the approach has to be well-planned, executed and monitored.
Do we have a proper plan for the NOFN that will enable people living in rural India to access government services? Or will the network become yet another pipe dream?
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan awards. He is also a member of working group for IT for masses at the ministry of communication & IT. Tweet him @osamamanzar.