The central government’s flagship scheme, BharatNet, which aims to connect all the gram panchayats and, subsequently, villages to high-speed optical fibre-based internet is running behind schedule in both phase one and phase two of its implementation, according to the latest data accessed by The Indian Express.
As of June 25, a total of only 1,56,833 gram panchayats, excluding block headquarters, were service ready whereas the internet connectivity service was opened only in 1,50,744 gram panchayats.
Of the total, 1,18,635 gram panchayats had been made service ready under phase one of BharatNet, while only 34,689 have been made service ready under phase two of the scheme as of June 25, according to the latest data available.
A gram panchayat is considered service ready when it is connected to the main grid of the internet of the block headquarters of that area, whereas the internet connectivity in that gram panchayat is considered open only if there are end users connected to the internet grid.
Under both phases of the scheme, optical fibre cable had been laid in 1,73,233 gram panchayats, of which fibre was laid in 1,23,654 gram panchayats under phase one, while optical fibre cable was laid out in 49,579 gram panchayats under phase two.
The government had aimed at connecting all the 2.5 lakh gram panchayats in the country with high speed optical fibre-enabled broadband by 2019. Under phase one, 1 lakh gram panchayats were supposed to be connected to the internet via high speed optical fibre by 2019, while another
1.5 lakh were to be connected under phase two by March 2020.
In March 2020, the deadline for both the phases was pushed back by 17 months to August 2021, while, later in September, the government said the timeline for the completion of phase two of BharatNet would now have to be pushed beyond August 2021, too, as “the pace was affected by the lockdown and movement curbs imposed by various governments due to Covid”.
On August 15, meanwhile, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during his Independence Day speech, announced that the government would now connect all the 6 lakh villages in India with high speed optical fibre over the next 1,000 days.
The erstwhile BharatNet project, which started in 2011 as National Optical Fibre Network, has missed several deadlines and has thus been delayed by more than 92 months now. On June 30 this year, the government changed the scheme’s implementation strategy and decided to rope in private players to finish the pending work of BharatNet.
The work will now be completed under a public-private partnership (PPP) mode, where the concessionaire will be selected through a competitive international bidding process and will be responsible for creation, upgradation, operation, maintenance and utilisation of BharatNet. The revised strategy will be followed in 16 states for now.
The Indian Express had in January 2020 reported that with the panchayat internet connectivity scheme floundering at last mile due to its own implementation agencies failing, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) had been looking to rope in the private sector for completion of the pending projects under BharatNet phase one and two.
The request for proposal for the PPP mode is likely to be released over the next fortnight and the government will then invite bidders for the project, a senior government official said. The total estimated cost of the BharatNet implementation under PPP mode will come to Rs 29,432 crore, of which the government will be spending Rs 19,041 crore for viability gap funding.