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Harinder Saini, 36 in Punja Panchayat in Sirmaur district of Himachal Pradesh operates an ICT enabled kiosk, known as Common Service Centre (CSC) in his village. Villagers from nearby areas usually rush to this centre for online payment of telephone and electricity bills, or even for submitting applications for voter id cards, securing Aadhar Card print outs and land maps. The centre runs by Saini also provides other services like facilitating application processing for birth and death certificates and submission of other kinds of online forms.
Taking a bold step, the Central Government on May 2006 had approved the ambitious plan to set up 100,000 CSCs on pan-India basis to provide IT enabled services to India's 640,000 plus villages. According to the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, the programme was supposed to be rolled out within four years. However, seven years have elapsed since the announcement of that epic-scale programme, but the result is clearly far from satisfactory for all stakeholders. A close scrutiny clearly testifies that there are challenges galore on the implementation front inconsistent or lack of power supply, absence of broadband network or poor internet connectivity and lack of training of CSC operators in the villages and local leadership - just to name a few.
Harinder of Himachal Pradesh who reports smooth operations probably is an exception to the general scenario. CSC operators in some pockets cite troubles in their own backyard.
Take the case of Mukund Kumar of Brahmpur village in Darbhanga district, Bihar. Even though he provides a bouquet of IT and computer based services to the villagers such as verification of Indira Awas Yojana, applying for resident proofs, and data entry for MNREGA, he is facing threats from local leaders.
According to him, earlier the local Mukhiya (head of village panchayat) was earning a commission of Rs 1500 in the allocation of Rs 25,000 for Indira Awas Yojana and Rs 200 for resident proof applications. But now these services have been shifted to the online mode (wherein Mukund, the local CSC operator gets a nominal fixed commission) completely doing away with the avenue of extra income for local leaders. Nothing surprising, Mukund is at the receiving end of local leaders' ire these days.
LACK OF TRAINING
Problems do not end here. Lack of training of CSC operators is another significant stumbling block. Many of the operators are clueless about the precise nature of services they are supposed to deliver and they often end up running what in an urban parlance is defined as cyber cafe. It is the duty of the Service Centre Agency (SCA) to impart training to the CSC operators in the villages also known as Village Level Entrepreneurs (VLE). SCA is a private organisation which is assigned to develop necessary infrastructure and appoint VLEs. Various SCAs are responsible for their services in their designated geographical areas in the country.
Ashis Sanyal, a former senior director in the Department of Electronic & Information Technology, Government of India and a significant contributor in the strategy and framework for e-governance infrastructure in rural areas says , "In many places the CSC operators (VLEs) did not have proper training to become an enthusiastic entrepreneur and on the top of it, no survey on community service needs was conducted. SCAs have not imparted adequate training in this regard to the VLEs. This has compounded the operational challenges for the VLEs."
According to a senior official of a foundation which provides services of Service Centre Agencies independently without government support, developing entrepreneurship is a big challenge. "There aren't defined modalities for training and with this gap, you can't expect your CSC model to become successful," he said on the assurance of anonymity.
Economic viability was the top priority of the Government while planning implementation modalities for CSCs in the country. However, computers, printers, uninterrupted power supply and high speed internet make the operation a high cost venture. In some areas, the return on investment has been satisfactory while in some areas, it became a lost making proposition for operators. Mukund in Darbhanga earns Rs 12,000 to 15,000 every month by serving 70 to 80 people every day. If he charges Rs 25 from a consumer for resident proof application, he gets Rs 15, the SCA, Gurgaon based GNG Trading, gets Rs 7 while Rs 3 goes to the Government.
On the other hand, for Manoj Thakur of Sunder Nagri in Mandi district in Himachal Pradesh, the kiosk is far from being economically viable.
In his own words, the condition of VLEs is not as good as the Government had promised to make.Government had maintained that the project will create new employment. But after starting the project, it didn't even provide necessary infrastructure such as computer, printer and other infrastructure, after collecting Rs.17,000 as non refundable security. GNG Trading Company, which signed an agreement with Himachal Pradesh Government to provide the services, promised to pay Rs 3500 per month to VLEs. But it hasn't bothered to meet that commitment except the disbursement of the commission which is a paltry 2.97 percent on Rs 100 transaction. On electricity bill collection, Manoj gets only Rs 2.50 commission irrespective of the quantum of the bill. On Life Insurance Premium Collection, the commission is just Rs 3 per policy.
"Neither the Government nor the SCA is doing anything for VLEs. We are helpless and cannot even recover our invested money which we spent on buying laptop and printer which approximately cost Rs 50,000" Manoj laments.
Trust deficit is another big challenge. Operators are increasingly finding that it is not easy to make rural folk understand the value of their services. In general, rural inhabitants are skeptical about the promises made by the government machinery, NGOs, and corporate houses and they have, therefore, not shown the kind of enthusiasm which can make the business viable for local flag bearers of the project.
BASKET OF SERVICES
According to the official of the foundation (quoted earlier) the major objective of CSCs is to provide IT and computer based services to the villagers by setting up computer kiosks in their places. "We select an entrepreneur in the village, train and support him so that a business model can be developed for him." The major services provided by CSCs in e-governance are health, education, agriculture, vocational training and other commercial services. But without the pro-active involvement of the states and local machinery, making the most out of CSCs is clearly not possible.
"The basket of Government services for the CSCs in various states have not grown as desired. However, it is reported that large number of CSCs have wide ranging basket of private sector services which encourage the people seeking such services through CSCs as their opportunity costs are thereby reduced. As far as Government services are concerned, certain states could integrate some G2C services to their respective CSCs but there is a long way to go", said Sanyal.
Sahaj e-villages, a subsidiary of SREI, as a Service Centre Agency has established 25,000 CSCs connected by VSATs in remote rural areas. The organisation has direct presence in West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, Assam, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Sumanta Pal, senior vice president of the organisation said, "Sahaj's Common Service Centers (CSC) are present up to Gram Panchayat level and provide last mile access to organisations and various central and state level ministries looking for distribution and promotion of products or services, communication, advertising, activation, data collection and research. These centers are run by VLEs who act as a grass root level influencer in convincing and servicing population of the villages."
But on overall basis, the results pertaining to successful implementation of CSCs are at the best mixed in nature. No doubt, it is inherently capable of becoming a game changer for rural India. But reaching to that coveted positioning would clearly be quite a task.