Indian telecentre movement’s sustainabilty a source of concern

Indian telecentre movement’s sustainabilty a source of concern

After I got a first-hand experience of the nationwide effort to set up telecentres as community service delivery points, I told myself: We have a long way to go.

According to one estimate, there are more than 300,000 citizen-centric telecentres in India (including 180,000 cybercafés) being promoted and sustained by government or private entities.

Also Read Osama Manzar’s earlier columns

Known by different names—Common Services Centres (CSC), Village Knowledge Centres (VKC), eChoupals, Community Information Centres (CIC), Agritech Centres, Information Kiosks, Drishtee Kendras, n-Logue Centres—they are designed to provide varied information and services.

The biggest push came with the CSC programme, and after two years of its implementation, according to official figures, more than 85,000 CSCs have already been established.

The larger plan, as highlighted in the Indian President’s speech during her joint address to Parliament in June 2009, is to roll out one telecentre—a Bharat Nirman Common Service Centre—in each panchayat (village council). This totals around 250,000 CSCs.

But the telecentre’s experience across India is uniformly far from desirable.

The latest disappointment is, in fact, the CSC’s nationwide roll-out.

My visits to two places in Bihar and Assam told a sad story. We conducted a baseline survey of 15 CSC operations—in West Champaran and East Champaran in Bihar, and in Kamrup in Assam. The survey was a reflection of how important it has become to infuse life in many of these centres, considered pivotal to enable last-mile public-service delivery.

The centres we visited had numerous woes: almost negligible government services, power breakdowns, pressure on operators to repay loans and an  absence of B2C (business to consumer) services, except for some such as digital photography, typing or scanning. These telecentre operators would not be in such a pitiable state had some steps been taken to transform these centres into rural technology-led micro-enterprises.

A few queries then arise. How can we squeeze any outcome out of telecentre programme?

How can such a programme transform rural development and the digital landscape?

What steps become mandatory at both programme design and implementation stages?

How important is the relationship between public and private partners? How well-placed are content and services plans to justify telecentre infrastructure?

Solutions to these questions aren’t readily available, perhaps because India is still evolving its telecentre movement and experimenting with how they can serve communities and yet connect with a single citizen’s needs.

A concept like the India Telecentre Network (ITN), though, can be useful in evolving an arrangement for telecentre stakeholders to address these issues.

The ITN, an initiative of Global Foundation and the Digital Empowerment Foundation, aims to fulfil the aspirations of the telecentre operators, support agencies and other stakeholders.

The proposed programme, apolitical as well as membership-driven, will ensure that key advantages in the deployment and functioning of the centres are adequately and appropriately leveraged. As such, telecentre operators will be the prime beneficiary.

The ITN is necessary because, as in the rest of the world, while the telecentre movement continues to grow, in India their sustainability remains a source of concern. This sustainability is confronted by day-to-day issues in operations, maintenance, administration, policy and service.

Currently, ITN’s boosters are consulting stakeholders—telecentre owners and operators, public and private bodies, civil society and independent agencies—on ways to scale up telecentre operations across the country.

The need of the hour is to create a comprehensive networking platform for all types of telecentres to connect to each other. This will help ensure that telecentres can turn into operational single window citizen-services delivery platforms and serve institutional and economic objectives.

Osama Manzar is founder and director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chairman of the Manthan awards. Mint is a partner of the Manthan awards.