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The Indian government’s programme for Common Service Centres (CSCs), which planned for 100,000 kiosks in at least 650,000 villages, has registered 84,000 CSCs.

As part of the National eGovernance Plan (NeGP), the programme is intended to provide citizens with services at their doorsteps. But some operational hurdles, including those pertaining to the village-level entrepreneurs running the CSCs, remain to be addressed.

Also Read Osama Manzar’s earlier columns

Let me begin with four case studies from the states of Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Assam. The CSC in Birwari village, in Maharashtra’s Thane district, was opened in May 2009. In Choppandi, in Andhra Pradesh’s Karimnagar district, a CSC has been serving 15,000 people since mid-2009. The CSC in Nautan Block, in Bihar’s Champaran district, was to serve 15 neighbouring villages. In Kalangpar, in Assam’s Kamrup district, a CSC has been aiming to serve a population of nearly 20,000 since early 2010.

A spot analysis of these CSCs is revealing. The Thane CSC remains open from 6am to 10pm, serves 1,200 people and additionally 20 nearby villages; its timings and location have allowed thousands of villagers to avail of its services without travelling great distances. In Karimnagar, the CSC is open every day, serving approximately 15,000 people. In Bihar, though, the CSC is opened once every two or four months; in Assam, the CSC has few regular customers and a dearth of services.

The Thane CSC provides both government and business services, including the issue of birth, death and domicile certificates; in Karimnagar, the CSC largely provides business services like ticketing, mobile recharge, and bill payments. In Bihar and Assam, the CSCs are by and large non-functional. Two contrasting strands of thought thus emerge.

One is this: CSCs can run as emerging community enterprises, with both government and private services gradually passing over its counters. If done right, these CSCs can be rural transformation agents. The CSCs in states such as Maharashtra, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka fit into this framework.

The other scenario indicates a hand-to-mouth existence, either because of a lack of services or infrastructure challenges or plain debt. Not coincidentally, this trend is visible largely in states lagging in development indices—Bihar, Jharkhand, Assam, Chhattisgarh and a few more.

So is the success of technology-led services linked to the general development index? Does an advanced level of development and administration determine high traffic in service delivery? Does serving the last mile require wholesome institutional process changes in the first mile?

How much responsibility can be fixed upon the availability of public information infrastructure? In all this, there is a need for a grassroots-based participative framework. In case of the CSCs, something like a Citizens Development Committee (CDC) for every panchayat would be helpful.

Indeed, the idea of making the panchayat the fulcrum of the CSC scheme should have been explored much earlier.

A proactive state can also help build the CSCs into its own electronic framework. Karnataka has a distinct department of e-governance, and Andhra Pradesh has an Electronic Delivery of Services (EDS) unit.

More than that, these states have always had willing leadership support from the highest office or nodal ministry, always eager to innovate to satisfy citizens’ needs.

In contrast, states where the nodal ministerial head is managing three or four key departments, the information technology department seems to always take the back seat. Needless to say, policy needs to be further shaped to have the CSC programme bear real fruit, but it will be interesting to see how the programme advances as it tries to touch that magic number of 250,000 in the next few years.

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

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