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Government to rope in private players to speed up work on rural net plan

The implementation of BharatNet under PPP mode is estimated to cost Rs 29,432 crore, of which the government will spend Rs 19,041 crore as viability gap funding, Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said.

Union Minister for Information and Technology Ravi Shankar Prasad. (File)

The Union Cabinet Wednesday approved a plan to rope in the private sector to complete the pending work on BharatNet, the Central government’s flagship scheme to provide internet connectivity to all 2.5 lakh gram panchayats in the country.

As part of the plan, under a public-private partnership (PPP) mode, 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 implementation of BharatNet under PPP mode is estimated to cost Rs 29,432 crore, of which the government will spend Rs 19,041 crore as viability gap funding, Telecom Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad said.

The Indian Express had in January 2020 reported that with the panchayat internet connectivity scheme floundering at the last mile due to the failure of the implementation agencies, the Department of Telecommunications (DoT) had been looking to rope in the private sector to complete the pending projects under Phase 1 and 2 of BharatNet.

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The PPP model had then been suggested by government think-tank Niti Aayog as well as the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology (MeitY) at a meeting held in the Prime Minister’s Office. According to the model then proposed, the private sector would be invited to bid circle-wise for the BharatNet project, with the selection of the bidder dependent on their quote for viability gap funding.

On Wednesday, Prasad said the PPP model will initially be launched in Kerala, Karnataka, Rajasthan, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Assam, Meghalaya, Manipur, Mizoram, Tripura, Nagaland, and Arunachal Pradesh, with an aim to connect 3.61 lakh villages with internet.

The government has created nine packages among these 16 states, and no player will be allowed to bid for more than four packages. A package will be roughly equal to a telecom licensed area or a telecom circle, which can either be a state or group of states, Prasad said.

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“We will sign a concessionaire agreement of 30 years. If the operational and capital expenditure for these 30 years is calculated, it is estimated that the government would have to spend Rs 95,000 crore. Against this, the government is spending Rs 19,000 to create this architecture,” Prasad said.

The BharatNet project, which initially began as the National Optical Fibre Network in October 2011, has faced multiple problems till date, with several missed deadlines.

In March last year, the government once again pushed the deadline for completion of BharatNet Phase 1 and 2 to August 2021. That deadline, however, is also likely to be missed, officials said, as work had been stopped at various places due to lockdowns imposed to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

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As of September last year, work on BharatNet had either completely stopped or was going very slow in as many as eight states, including Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Telangana, Odisha and Tamil Nadu. Most of these states had then written to the DoT highlighting the lack of workers to dig trenches and lay down optical fibre due to the lockdown.

First published on: 01-07-2021 at 04:15 IST
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