The boxes sat next to the desk of Amit Bansal, the district information officer of Jhajjar, the Haryana district that lies about 50 km west of Delhi. They contained new computers purchased by the department for a new Information Technology lab in the district secretariat.
Bansal was busy uploading the latest voters’ list on the district’s newly-constructed website when a representative of the company that supplied the computers walked into the room. He wanted to know if the machines were working okay.
Bansal called in two of his staff members and shot off instructions. “Ensure that the operating system is loading and get them to install all the necessary software on each one of these machines,” he said. “And then pack these up in the same boxes before you leave.”
Asked why would he want to have the new machines repacked and left to gather dust, Bansal had a clear answer. “The infrastructure is not ready,” he said.
Not only is the lab in Jhajjar still under construction, the broadband internet connection promised by the central government under the Digital India programme is yet to materialise.
Launched last year by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Digital India, one of the marquee programme of the central government, aims to bring the internet to 1.2 billion Indians by 2019. About 300 million people in India have access to the internet, mostly on their mobiles. Modi, in his election campaign in 2014, had promised to bring the internet to the rest, and use it to power businesses, create jobs and make the government accessible to citizens.
But two years into office, his vision is running into roadblocks, both physical and financial.
The most basic building block of Digital India is the network of optical fibre – or underground pipes that carry high-speed internet to villages. The programme builds on the initiative of the previous United Progressive Alliance government to create such a network. In 2011, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government launched a project called the National Optical Fibre Network that aimed to bring internet connectivity to over 2.5 lakh gram panchayats in the country with a budget of Rs 20,000 crore. The project deadline was March 2017, which was advanced by Modi government to December 2016. The optimism, however, was misplaced.
The progress on rolling out the infrastructure has been slow. Until May 2015, only 19,440 gram panchayats – less than 10% of the target – had been covered, according to a standing committee report tabled in Lok Sabha. The committee took note of the snail’s pace of cable-laying and said achieving the Digital India targets looked like an “extremely Herculean task”. This year, in March, the government revised down the target to one lakh gram panchayats.
In Jhajjar, one of the 21 districts of Haryana where Digital India is being implemented on a priority basis, the picture is complicated. On paper, the cables have been laid and the district is connected, but officials at the secretariat admitted that there’s no connectivity yet and it’s unlikely to come in the near future.
“The cables are there but the servers needed to start the internet connection haven’t arrived,” said Shashikant, who is responsible for rolling out e-governance programmes in the district. “The state and central governments are just sitting and waiting. I wish there was some support from them so that things could actually happen here in Jhajjar, just the way they happen in Delhi.”
Jhajjar isn’t an exception. Far away in the state of Jharkhand, Bokaro, another priority district, is similarly struggling to achieve its targets under the Digital India programme. “The cables are there but there’s no internet,” said a senior official, who requested anonymity. The companies laying the optical fibre network have managed to connect only 18 of the 251 panchayats in the district, he said.
The Ministry of Telecommunications has outsourced the task of laying the network of optical fibres to public and private companies. In March, the department of telecom wrote to one of the companies, Railtel, pointing out that its performance has been “very poor” and only 6,000 kms of fibre has been laid while ducts for these cables have been laid for more than 10,000 kms.
On their part, the companies have claimed that they are victims of the lack of co-ordination between the Centre and states. Even after they obtained permissions, they faced resistance from local residents in areas where they had to dig cables.
The end result, said Osama Manzar from the non-profit Digital Empowerment Foundation, is akin to “building a school but not hiring teachers or admitting students”.
He said: “They are laying pipes and registering villages as connected without ever firing up those connections and checking if the speed is fine or if the connection is even working.”
The business of service
Mohit Gupta is one of the most vocal critics of Digital India in Jhajjar. The young final-year engineering student has reason to be upset: he put his money into setting up a common service centre under the programme, and the investment isn’t paying off.
Common service centres, known as CSCs in government parlance, form the last-mile link in Digital India. Derived from a previous Congress-led UPA initiative called the national e-governance programme, CSCs are supposed to be the link between the government and the people. These centers are meant to function as digital outlets providing a bouquet of services at minimal cost by utilising the optical fibre network which connects gram panchayats to government websites.
The Jhajjar administration has been boasting through billboards and advertisements that citizens can access multiple services, including obtaining caste and domicile certificates, filing taxes and booking rail tickets at 90 CSCs across the district.
But Gupta, who runs one of the CSCs in Jhajjar city, pointed out that the centres are running purely on the enterprise of individuals like him.
“The government support is minimal,” he said. “They just allow you to set up a center and provide login credentials to the portal where these services can be accessed.” With the optical fibre network not in place in the district, Gupta is paying Rs 1,500 for an Airtel broadband connection.
With the owner bearing the cost of infrastructure, equipment and utility bills, the economics were not encouraging, he said. He was fortunate to have space available within his family-owned shop to set up the centre. But for those who need to pay rent, in addition to other bills, the business from the centre was not adequate to cover costs, he contended.
For one, they could only charge customers the government-mandated amount for services, ranging from Rs 40 for a certificate to Rs 100 for preparing an application. This revenue has to be shared with both the local and state governments.
On an average, the daily turnout at Gupta’s centre rarely exceeded 20-30 customers. Through April, most of them were students, who spent Rs 10 to check their school exam results. Often, customers came to make enquiries, but did not actually make a transaction.
On a Friday afternoon in April, for instance, Gupta spent an hour explaining the process of booking a railway ticket online to a young man who went away without actually booking one. In what underlined the irony of Digital India, the young man was carrying an expensive smartphone – and yet did not know how to book a ticket online.
Rahul Khullar, the former chairman of the Telecom Regulatory Association of India, oversaw the rollout of Digital India programme. But he now confesses to being disappointed with where the programme stands.
“Digital India requires you to look at an entire range of issues which are beyond just infrastructure even though infrastructure is the minimum basic requirement,” Khullar told Scroll.
One of these issues is digital literacy – do citizens know how to use the internet? Another is utility – would they consider it worthwhile to use it?
Khullar said the government has largely failed on both fronts. There is little demand for state-provided broadband internet. Mobile networks have filled the gap and apps like WhatsApp have proven useful to people, he said.
“People don’t have any use for this technology that you [the government] are building,” he said. “The ecosystem requires creation of software and apps which are useful to people and can be provided in local languages. That has not happened so far.”
This is evident in Jhajjar where young people flaunt expensive iPhones and spend hours on social networking sites, but when it comes to getting government work done, they line up outside CSCs and government offices.
“People love using 3G but they don’t know how to book a train ticket or get their own marksheet online,” said Radhe Shyam Gupta who runs a common service center at Dulhera village in Jhajjar district.
The centres are supposed to double up as "digital literacy" centres, offering a course to citizens for free, but few locals in Jhajjar knew about this. “We don’t know what internet is and nobody came to teach us,” said Raju, a 40-year-old mechanic who repairs motors and machinery, when asked about the digital literacy programme. He said he had a computer at home but had avoided taking an internet connection.
“Kids use it to watch obscene stuff,” he said. “I can’t afford dal twice a day so why should I buy expensive internet plans just because Modi ji is promoting it?”
Fraud and funds
The digital literacy might not be creating internet-savvy citizens, but it has helped shore up the viability of common service centres.
The week-long course is fairly simple, claimed CSC owners. It takes them about an hour to teach someone how to use a computer, they said, and students are put through an online test at the end of a week. For every student who clears the test, the CSCs are paid Rs 375 per student in case of a general category student and Rs 500 for a backward community student
This has become an opportunity for money making, claimed officials.
Amit Bansal, the district information officer, said that almost 90% of the digitally literate citizens can’t even switch on a computer because their test has been given by someone else – usually the owner or manager of the CSC.
“The test taker is required to sit in front of the camera but it doesn’t capture who is sitting next to him,” Bansal said. “It’s usually the CSC owner who has offered a candy or ice cream to the test taker and has filled up the answers with the keyboard on his lap.”
A former official from TRAI requesting anonymity said that the National Digital Literacy Mission is a “farce” created to save face when the government fails to provide internet to people.
“They [the government] have to defend their over-ambitious targets [of laying optical fibres and providing connections] which are never going to be achieved,” he said. “They will say they focused on digital literacy which they achieved, but what is the use of knowing what the internet is when you aren’t going to get it for the next five years?”
The official claimed that the fundamental problem with Digital India was the lack of funds. The special purpose entity floated to execute the project, the Bharat Broadband Nigam Limited, is financed through a special corpus, the Universal Service Obligation Fund. The project needs an estimated Rs 1.5 lakh crores in the next five years. The TRAI official said finding this money was next to impossible.
“These are castles in the air,” he said. “You need to spend more than Rs 30,000 crores a year on the Digital India mission to keep it on track. In its 14 years of existence, the USOF [the Universal Service Obligation Fund] has never spent more than Rs 3,000 crores a year.”
Meanwhile, in Dulhera village, a new batch of school students is being prepared to sit for the digital literacy test at the common service centre. One batch of students has already received the certificates.
“All except two students failed their class 10th board examinations,” smirked Raju, the village motor-mechanic. “But at least now they are digitally literate.”