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As rural Net project lags, IT Ministry’s CSC seeks to buy out PSU

CSC is a special purpose vehicle (SPV) of the IT Ministry, as part of which centres in rural areas provide various government services such as the making of PAN and Aadhaar card, registration for passport services, and payment of electricity and other bills.

On its part, CSC had defended its move to shift equipment, alleging that in most cases, the equipment for last-mile connectivity was kept by BBNL at places where there was hardly any power connectivity or security.

In an unusual proposal involving two State-owned entities, the Common Services Centres (CSC) of the Ministry of Electronics and Information Technology has proposed buying a controlling stake in Bharat Broadband Network Limited (BBNL), which comes under the Communications Ministry’s Department of Telecommuni-cations (DoT), sources in the know of the development said.

CSC is a special purpose vehicle (SPV) of the IT Ministry, as part of which centres in rural areas provide various government services such as the making of PAN and Aadhaar card, registration for passport services, and payment of electricity and other bills. BBNL, on the other hand, is an SPV of the Communications Ministry and was formed for the smooth implementation of BharatNet, the Central government’s flagship scheme to provide Internet connectivity to all 2.5 lakh gram panchayats in the country.

Explained |How CSC network may help expand passport services

In the proposal sent directly to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) earlier this year, CSC is learnt to have explicitly cited inefficiencies in the working of BBNL as well as in the implementation of the BharatNet project as the reason behind its proposal. It has also said that for the timely completion of the rural Internet connectivity project, CSC must be “allowed to run BBNL with controlling stake”, a source said. The Indian Express has seen a copy of the proposal sent by CSC to the PMO.

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In its official response, CSC denied having “written any letter to the PMO on the subject”, while BBNL said it was “not aware of any such letter written by CSC” and therefore would not like to comment on the development. A mail seeking the PMO’s response to the proposal did not elicit any response till the time of going to press.

This, however, is not the first time that CSC and BBNL have found themselves at odds with each other, especially with regard to the implementation of BharatNet.

In May 2020, BBNL Chairman and Managing Director Sarvesh Singh had written to the Universal Services Obligation Fund (USOF), alleging that CSC had violated a tripartite agreement by shifting equipment used for last-mile internet connectivity without informing BBNL and that this would be a hindrance in providing non-discriminatory access to all telecom and internet service providers.

On its part, CSC had defended its move to shift equipment, alleging that in most cases, the equipment for last-mile connectivity was kept by BBNL at places where there was hardly any power connectivity or security.

Senior officials from the IT Ministry had then said that CSC’s move was only aimed at ensuring continuous connectivity, which was being hampered since, at times, the equipment — kept mostly in panchayat buildings or municipal schools — would be locked up by caretakers, who would switch off the electricity mains and leave for the night. Later, in August 2020, the two agencies agreed to bury the hatchet and work together on finishing the pending projects of BharatNet.

In July this year, however, the state units of BBNL, in their reports to DoT, complained about the “substandard” work done by CSC on the last-mile internet connectivity project, which prompted DoT to write to CSC and ask them to correct the faults in the project as soon as possible.

The BharatNet project, which initially began as the National Optical Fibre Network in October 2011, has faced multiple implementation problems to date, with several missed deadlines. In July this year, the Centre changed its approach, with the Union Cabinet approving a proposal to rope in the private sector to complete the pending work on BharatNet.

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. The government had then said that 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.

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