IN ONE OF the three rooms of the Panchayat Bhawan in Khamtarai village in Arang Block, about 50 kms from Chhattisgarh capital Raipur, stands a wall-mounted metal cabinet with two routers installed under the Rs 3,057-crore rural broadband connectivity project, BharatNet Phase II, awarded to Tata Projects Ltd in July 2018.
These devices — meant to light up the village with the internet — have now become a drag on the panchayat’s finances. Poshan Sahu, Sarpanch of Khamtarai, said electricity consumption of the devices is probably higher than that for the rest of the office. “Earlier, I would pay a few hundred rupees. In December 2019, after these devices were installed, it shot up to Rs 1,320,” he told The Indian Express.
The panchayat would not mind the higher costs if services promised under BharatNet were available to the villagers. “We bought wifi-hotspot providers, but we were not allowed to connect them to the device installed,” he said.
Under Bharat Net Phase II, Tata Projects was required to ensure high-speed broadband connectivity (1 GBPS to 10 GBPS) free through WiFi in 5,987 gram panchayats. This involved laying down Optical Fibre Cable over 32,466 km, installing hardware, and establishing a ring of connections instead of standalone connection for each gram panchayat.
The Indian Express had on October 29 reported that Chhattisgarh Infotech Promotion Society, the nodal agency tasked with monitoring the project, had overruled decisions of its two past CEOs, and decided not to levy penalty on Tata Projects despite the company not meeting mutually-agreed milestones. So far, Tata Projects has twice received extension of timeline (EOT), first for a year in June 2019, and then for another six months, which expires in December 2020.
Khamtarai is one of the 200-odd gram panchayats lit (primed for broadband connectivity) under the project. Part of the fourth ring in Arang block, work has been going on in the village for over a year, Sahu said.
But the desktop in the panchayat office remains mostly switched off. “Our computer operator (a village-level entrepreneur or VLE) left and now works at a shop in the city,” Sarpanch Sahu said. Even when the panchayat officials want to operate e-governance portals, the 2 mbps speed hinders all tasks. “We can’t even download a document, even on days we have internet connectivity,” he said.
Adjoining village Kavai, just 2 km away, is not connected to the BharatNet Phase II network yet, said Leela Kosariya, Sarpanch of this gram panchayat. “No digging or other work has commenced, and no device connected… There is no internet in the village; we get our work done from a private centre in Arang,” she said.
When asked why services haven’t reached the citizens even where infrastructure has been installed, Sameer Vishnoi, CEO of Chhattisgarh Infotech Promotion Society (ChIPS), the state’s nodal agency tasked with monitoring the project, said, “BharatNet Phase II project as approved by Government of India was designed to connect blocks to Gram Panchayats. Additional connectivity from Gram Panchayats to offices and houses was not part of the original scope defined in the project.”
CHiPS provides network through SWAN (State Wide Area Network) to Tata with the connectivity of 2 Mbps, “for devices management purpose”. “Wider Range of Broadband can be accessed as and when requested by customers,” Vishnoi said.
Tata Projects did not respond to questions, including on the number of open accessible connections already in place in Chhattisgarh.
In a press statement after bagging the project in July 2018, Tata Projects, however, had said that important services including PDS, 102 (Free Ambulance Service) and 108 (Emergency Service), would be executed at the gram panchayat level. “It will bring improvement in the coordination between security agencies, help provide better health facilities, enhance reach of banking services, help education initiatives through online portals and promote digital payments, thereby, bringing rural population closer to the digital economy. The government will be able to manage G2C (Government to Citizen) service and its ‘schemes/ development programs’ due to the increase in the reach of general service centres,” the statement had said.
For residents of Kalai, free broadband is still a dream. “I went to Arang in the middle of the night to get my result. There is not even a CSC (Common Services Centre) kendra in the village,” said Vinod, a college student from the village, who ran out of mobile phone balance in March, and hasn’t had money to recharge it.
The schools in the village have been shut for most of the year for want of the internet, said Sarpanch Leela Kosariya. “We would really like to have easy internet access to our village. These days, due to lockdown, everything is online. We have to go to the Arang block office to get simple things done,” she rued.
A device has been installed in the Panchayat Bhawan of another village Bhothali in Arang block, but even the Sarpanch Vijay Shahani doesn’t know its utility. “For more than a year, there has been a device in the Panchayat Bhawan. Very rarely, officials come and check it, but there’s no connectivity,” Shahani said.
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