Common Service Centers: Slow Progress



Government of Indias National e-Governance Plan has a clear vision. It aims
to make all the government services accessible to the common man in his
locality, through common service delivery outlets and by ensuring efficiency,
transparency and reliability of such services at affordable costs.

Like all other UPA-led Congress projects this one too is ambitious with a
heavy focus on the aam adami. Not many doubt that the NeGP project is the
single most important project that binds together all the individual
e-governance initiatives under one roof to ensure availability of government
services right up to the grassroots. It is under this project that the
government intends to create 1,00,000 technology-enabled points-of-presence
called Common Service Centers (CSC) for 6,00,000 villages. The project, which is
one of the largest IT public-private partnerships in the country, intends to
reach out to the rural have-nots in a big way.

It is not so difficult to imagine how transformed Indias rural interface
would be once the CSC scheme, under the NeGP, which will serve as a single
window for availing all government and private services, turns into a reality.
Senior officials claim that streamlining grass-root governance would not be a
Herculean task once the CSC scheme is successfully rolled out. Imagine the
transforming capacity of these CSCs to serve rural markets of six lakh villages
using technology. One is surely led to believe that rural India will be
brimming with vibrancy and life.

It sounds like an alluring dream. The government is trying hard to turn it
into a reality by March 2009. However, the fact is that the project has already
missed a few deadlines in 2007, after which it did get an extension. While the
Government does need to be applauded for conceptualizing such a scheme, what we
need to ask ourselves is whether the ground level implementation is really on
track.

Some of the other government mega projects are notoriously delayed. Take
Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana. The much-touted time bound road development
plan under the Bharat Nirman initiative is likely to miss its targets, according
to reports. Through this project, the government was looking to provide
connectivity to 66,800 rural habitations across the country by building 146,000
km of road by 2009. That too is likely to be delayed till 2011.

Considering that bijlee, sadak, pani are so politicized as election issues
and there is no confusion over what a road means, if this project could be
delayed so much, it will of course be nave to expect that CSCsa well-intended
but completely new conceptwould happen without hiccups.

What is notable is that despite all these, some states like Jharkhand have
really progressed well on the targets. So, it will be too simplistic to conclude
that the newness of the concept itself is the only reason behind the delay.

Deadline Hiccups
As things stand today, there is no deadline for NeGP; it is only the various
schemes and the individual projects under it that are time-bound. Other than CSC,
there are two major schemes under the project, the State Wide Area Network
(SWAN) and the State Data Center (SDC). SWAN, which was the first scheme to get
approval, was meant to be the backbone on which all applications and the
services would run. A delay in implementation of SWAN by a state would then
translate into a delay in the implementation of the CSCs, as the states would be
bound to look at other alternatives for connectivity. Till date only a handful
of states have officially launched SWAN, among which HP, Haryana, and Jharkhand
were the firsts.

R Chandrashekhar, additional secretary, Ministry of IT and Communications
explains: If the SWAN is not in place, then some minimal connectivity can be
had through the broadband and the normal network although it may not be a
dedicated and reliable network. If the CSCs are not there then you really do not
have a mechanism to deliver services in the villages.

He is however subdued when he says, It is not that you will be reduced to
zero if anyone of them is not there, but if you really want things to function
properly then you need all the three (SWAN, CSC and SDC).

He points out that the ministry had put up a precondition that before states
implement CSCs, they should have implemented the SWAN, and before they implement
the SDC they should have implemented both the CSC and the SWAN. He adds, So
some states which got delayed in the SWAN also got delayed in the CSC and we
have tried to make up for that by saying that at least you can take concrete
steps for implementation of SWAN.

A person using a touch screen at
an ICT kiosk

CSC has been conceptualized as the delivery center for the entire NeGP
project. The CSC has been designed as an ICT-enabled Kiosk having a PC along
with basic support equipment like Printer, Scanner, UPS, with wireless
connectivity as the backbone and additional equipment for edutainment,
telemedicine, projection systems, etc, as the case maybe.

The Scheme, as approved, envisions CSCs as the front-end delivery points for
government, private and social sector services to rural citizens of India, in an
integrated manner.

At a time when inflation is at its peak and the government is already drawing
ire from all corners, the delay of the project could well open doors for some
more flak. Looks like the aam adami will have to wait a little longer before
he enjoys services at his doorstep.

Moreover, with 2009 being an election year, there is a lot of sorting out
that the government needs to do to successfully implement the project.

The scheme had been approved by the Union Cabinet in 2006 at a total cost of
Rs 5,742 crore, of which the Government of India was estimated to contribute Rs
856 crore and the state governments Rs 793 crore. The balance was to be
mobilized from the private sector.

Industry sources point out that when the Union Cabinet approved the program
in 2006, the challenges were subdued, as the deadlines were not assessed
realistically. Says an official, What is the hurry of rolling out the project?
We could have had more realistic deadlines. It is because by three years your IT
infrastructure becomes zero value if we dont rollout fast. The ground level
blueprint to make a CSC really operational involving front-end and backend
stakeholders is also something that is not clear to many, he says.

Senior government officials claim, off the record, that there are huge gaps
in the project, and it is unlikely to meet the deadline. Says an official from
the West Bengal Government; Nobody doubts the seriousness of the center to push
it but there are a bundle of issues that need immediate attention. Connectivity
and bandwidth being one of them, if that is not in place how will the project
leap forward? We dont have people like Rajeev Chawla (of the Bhoomi fame) in
every state. He raises a serious issue of leadership in the states for driving
the project.

To that a senior official from the DIT adds, Apart from these serious
issues, it is sad that there are hardly any technology savvy leaders with
dedicated thought process who can drive such projects, create an enabling
environment and bring people together. Constant transfers of IT secretaries too
add to the problem.

Other than that there are a whole lot of other issues like the massive power
crisis in rural India, which again is quite a dampener, he says.

Under the given circumstances, senior officials closely associated with the
project at the center and states admit that the probability of missing deadlines
is very high.




States Status Check
Under the CSC scheme, each state has its own deadline. Even while the
rollout is going on, there are some states which have done better than the
others. Not all states are at par. In fact, senior officials point out that in
all probability, maximum number of states that will be covered in terms of
complete rollout would just be around 20, whereas all others will be at various
stages of implementation as on March 09.

MK Yadava, MD, AMTRON, Assams nodal IT agency, says, We have signed the
agreement with our private partner SREI and Zoom Developers in March 2008, and
the work has already started. All formalities have been completed and the teams
are ready, other preparations are also on. So we are hoping to meet the deadline
of March next year. He promptly adds, Since it is not typically a hardware
project, the scale is massive, involving not only monetary cost but also
investments in building and selecting the right people to drive the project. A
delay of 5-6 months here or there should not be considered such a big deal. We
have a total target of 4,375 CSCs, and I believe we would be able to deliver 90%
in terms of numbers by the deadline.

Assam will have just about 15 operational CSCs by July this year. How much
would that help the state in meeting the deadline though has to be seen.

Orissa is another state which is likely to miss the deadline. Pradeep Rout,
principal consultant, program management unit, OCAC, Orissas nodal IT agency,
points out that the state has some peculiar issues, like its tribal population,
network connectivity, a serious power crisis, and the naxal problem, which
cannot be ignored. We have selected Zoom, SREI and CMS as our operators, for
six zones. We are hoping that in another six months 50% of the CSCs will be
operational with some services. And the rest would be done in six more months.

The state has a January 09 deadline for the complete rollout of the CSCs.

Its a Chicken and egg problem: what
comes first, the CSC or the services

Chandrashekhar is the man driving the Indian
dream of achieving an e-governed nation. In a candid interview with
Dataquest, Chandrashekhar explains the governments thinking and strategy to
take the CSC scheme to its successful rollout. Excerpts

R Chandrashekhar,
additional secretary, Ministry of IT & Communications

With just close to nine months left to the
deadline for a complete CSC rollout, how is the implementation coming along?

The main task as you know is to set up 100,000 CSCs all over the country,
one for every six villages. The model of implementation is to do it through
public-private partnership and to select service center agencies (SCA)
responsible for a territory. Roughly speaking, it is one CSC in a district
or a group of districts. So the process of selecting SCAs is handled through
state guidelines under the Government of India scheme. So this process is
going on and most of the states have advanced quite far on that. As of now
SCA selection has been completed for over 90,000 CSCs, and in over 60,000
CSCs the actual physical implementation has also begun.

So, the services are available in these
CSCs?
No, see, one has to understand the way the scheme has been
conceptualized and visualized. The CSCs would be set up by the SCAs, and
they would typically select a local entrepreneur, and then through some
mechanism, the CSC would be set up. Initially when the CSC is set up, it
would provide some of the most elementary kind of services like training for
the use of computers and even word processing, but very quickly this would
start getting wrapped up. For example, the moment the connectivity linkage
is there then other information services, information available on the Web
or full-blown information from government departments will start becoming
available; also citizens would be able to avail of various other private
services. That schedule will be decided by the states and will vary a bit
from state to state depending on their level of readiness.

There is a little bit of a chicken and egg
problem in terms of the government services, what will come firstthe CSCs
or the services. The CSC scheme has tried to break that chicken and egg
problem by ensuring that the CSCs come up first and a certain amount of
government support is provided for them. Its a buffer then for that period
till a full maturity of government services is achieved.

Is there a mechanism that the Center has
devised, to check that these services are at all being made available on the
ground?
It is far too early for us to be talking of regulatory oversight on the
CSCs, in terms of service availability. At this stage, in fact, there is no
state in which the CSCs are more than two to three months old. Haryana and
Jharkhand are the two states where a large number of CSCs have come up
because the process was started at an earlier stage. Some have come up in
West Bengal, and some are coming up in Himachal. So the schedule is there,
the states will have to work it out.

There is a framework which has been provided
by the Government of India under two broad categories. One is the type of
services, which can be made available through the CSCs, and the other is the
e-district project for which currently only pilots have been implemented.
Once those pilots are completed, which typically will take about 12-18
months, rollouts across the state can be done fastersubsequently providing
volume of government services.

Thirdly, for a lot of these services to be
made available electronically, connecting all the government offices becomes
critical because you cannot provide an electronic service to the CSC where
the actual action has to be taken by an office, which is not connected. So
the completion of the SWAN and the completion of the horizontal connectivity
of those offices also has to be mandatory. All of these are, in themselves,
an enormous task.

So a lot of micromanagement is required by
the states, which would actually happen over a period of a year or two. Now
how quickly it can happen is anybodys guess. Maybe in six months a
reasonable amount of information services can be made available. For
instance, all the digital information that is available in the government
access can be drawn for those. Which can be done in literally one month.
Especially once the data center is up, hosting all of these at one point
will become possible.

Jharkhand, on the other hand, is one of the few states, which has achieved
100% CSC implementation. Principal secretary, IT, RS Sharma says that now the
state is at a stage where it is verifying and certifying all the 4,562 CSCs that
have been rolled out. However, Sharma too raises issues with connectivity. Our
private partners are trying to solve the issue by getting into tie-ups with
telecom operators on a standalone basis.

The issue is not only with these two states there are other trouble-makers as
well. The list is long. The delay is inevitable, reasons out Chandrashekhar:
This happens in a country of Indias size. One cannot expect all the states to
work at the same pace and we are aware of that, so even when the decision was
taken to implement it through the states, we were aware that it may slow down
things a little because some states may not react as quickly as others.

However, clarifies Chandrashekhar, One should not see it as a drawback
because the involvement and leadership of the states is paramount in ensuring
the success of this project. Even if theoretically one could have implemented it
centrally by not involving the states, in a much shorter time, but it would have
been disastrous in terms of the success of the program.

Aruna Sundararajan, CEO, Infrastructure Leasing & Financial Services too
makes an attempt to explain the delay: What takes time is the initial
mobilization. Once the infrastructure has been created at the grass root level,
things just flow. We are seeing momentum now, so may be there is a little bit of
spillover but it is largely on track, may be about 10-15% below. IL&FS is the
nodal body designated as the project management agency. Sundararajan works
closely with the department of IT to develop the project and facilitate its
implementation in tandem with state governments.

Sundararajan claims that all the mainline states are on track. All the big
states, except Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh have finished the process, these two
will also start immediately. In two-three months they are expected to finish the
process, according to Sundararajan. Pain states include some of the smaller
states and others like the northeastern states and Jammu & Kashmir.

In some of the smaller states the action has not been initiated because
either the number is too small, like in the case of Daman and Diu, Chandigarh,
and Lakshadweep, where its only four CSCs. Or NCT of Delhi, which entirely is an
urban area. In Delhi things are being managed under the MCD and NDMC. In the
case of Andaman and Nicobar, though in terms of number of CSCs they are entitled
to ninety-one, but the island terrain has made the state opt for a different
approach and not the CSC scheme. Some of the bigger states, including Karnataka,
due to elections. (which recently got over) had delayed the decision of
implementing the scheme.




Kerala on the other hand has been facing special issues as they already had
the Akshaya Centers in place, and the main question was how to integrate these
under the CSC umbrella. On the other hand, Punjab had not even issued the RFP
till recently, while Rajasthan, which had completed the entire bidding process,
faced some issues due to which the state had to re-bid the entire CSC program.

It is only now that the states are gaining momentum. Chattisgarh too is
taking concrete steps, as the state was delayed in its SWAN implementation. A
very significant part of the state did not have landline connectivity and,
therefore, having to build a hybrid with VSAT and terrestrial took some time. As
Chandrashekhar says, It was a heterogeneous network and since the SWAN and the
CSCs are to some extent linked, it did have some impact on the CSC project as
well.

Similarly, he adds, there have been some delays in few of the northeastern
states like Meghalaya, Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland, but these are
now largely under control, except maybe Arunachal Pradesh where there is some
further delay.

However, he adds, in the rest of the states the implementations are is well
under way, which is how selection for more than 90,000 CSC SCA is over, and
60,000 physical implementations have started.

Building a rural service delivery
module is what is going to take time

Admitting that there have been delays, Aruna
Sundararajan feels these are initial hiccups any project of such huge scale
will face. Largely, Sundararajan expects all one lakh CSCs to be up by the
end of the current financial year. she talks to Dataquests Urvashi Kaul on
the progress of the Common Service Centers project. Excerpts

How far has the CSC project
gone, in terms of ground level implementation of the Kiosks?
Already 92,000 of the 1 lakh CSCs have been contracted. It means around
20 states have actually completed the bidding process, and selected the
private operators for setting up these Kiosks. The states where CSCs have
been put up include Haryana and Jharkhand. About 90% kiosks are up, and the
companies that have put them up include 3i Infotech, Comat, E-Gov Services,
and Zoom Developers. In some of the other states of Bihar and West Bengal,
the roll out is underway. The companies involved in putting up the kiosks
there include SREI, Wipro and Reliance. In all, Haryana, West Bengal,
Jharkhand and West Bengal together add to close to 7,000 kiosks on the
ground, and Gujarat has about 700 kiosks ready.

Aruna Sundararajan,
chief executive officer of the IL&FS project

By the end of this year we expect
30,000-40,000 CSCs to be completed, and by the end of the April financial
year, we expect all one lakh to be operational.

There have been delays; do you think the
momentum will now pick up?
What takes time is the initial mobilization. Once the infrastructure has
been created at the grass root level, things just flow. All the mainline
states are on track. The big states, except Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, have
not yet finished the process otherwise central, western, southern, and
northeast India have completed the process. Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh are
also expected to finish the process in two-three months time.

Which are the states which are going to
require special focus?
The states that will require special focus will be the northeastern
states, J&K, Himachal Pradesh, and the states with terrain issues. However,
the operators have been selected in the northeast and J&K, and they are now
in the process of putting together the infrastructure. In the northeastern
states it is largely Srei, Comat, and couple of other names. In J&K, it is
one of the big banks.

What are these services that we are
talking about?
IT education services seem to be very popular in Haryana and Uttranchal.
IT skills and basic Internet browsing are currently there along with
e-governance, but I think as they go up the value chain there will be more
advanced applications like even telemedicine.

How many companies are really interested
in developing the rural interface?
It is playing out differently in different places. Like in places
Jharkhand, in one of the kiosks, people were actually using this to download
songs. In another kiosk there are a lot of IT education kits as many kids
are coming in for IT education. In many places language will be a barrier
and maybe Internet browsing, etc, will not be that popular. So, I think, a
lot will depend on how well we are able to customize to local needs, but
clearly education and communication are going to be the big breaks.

How much impact do issues like clarity on
spectrum and broadband connectivity have on the CSC project?
I cant say it is not effecting because CSC roll out has actually been
impacted. The 1 lakh CSCs were divided into three phases: phase one didnt
require any spectrum, wherever BSNL had connectivity in rural stretches,
they were asked to go and upgrade into broadband, and that is happening.
There has been no hitch on the infrastructure side. The remaining 50,000
were linked to spectrum because government had set the goals of broadband
wireless. That is what has been delayed but BSNL has broad spectrum now.
BSNL is getting spectrum connectivity into remote areas, so that issue is
being taken care of. The larger issue is of building a rural service
delivery module and rural business that is going to take time.

How are you addressing the issue of
capacity building and that of mindset change?
The fact is both capacity building and mindset change cannot happen
immediately. It will take time but the idea is value being delivered right
now, the services that they most require, if those are available that is
when they will start coming in, that is what will trigger greater usage. And
this will take some time.

Who is Monitoring?
The list of states that have already missed a few deadlines is long. Even in
the ones already operational, there is lack of clarity as to when they will
actually start offering the complete bouquet of government services. What
complete rollout actually means is again something which is not very clear.
Whether the state departments are ready to put all their services up, again
lacks clarity. There are questions to which answers are required. Is merely
putting together the infrastructure enough? Or has the center thought of a
mechanism to check whether the services are actually being delivered in these
ICT Kiosks? Most importantly, are the states ready with the services that they
plan to deliver?

Yeh Sugam nahi durgam hai,
says Surinder Mohan Prasad

Interestingly, there is no mechanism that exists at present. Chandrashekhar
explains, At this stage, in fact, there is no state in which the CSCs are more
than two to three months old. Haryana and Jharkhand are the two states where a
large number of CSCs have come up because the process was started at an earlier
stage. In West Bengal some CSCs have come up, and Himachal Pradesh.

Surinder Mohan Prasad, a 70-year old pensioner in Shimla looked in distress
when Dataquest met up with him at one of their functional ICT-Kiosks. Prasad
wanted to get some of his pension details, which he failed to get even after
making three rounds of the Kiosk. On being asked how the CSC, called Sugam in
Himachal, is helping him, this is what he had to say: Yeh Sugam nahi Durgam hai.
The lack of clarity among citizens as to what kind of services are available in
the Kiosk, is again a big issue.

It is not a question of one kiosk where one person is unhappy. The question
which looms large is whether the states are ready to be transparent, and deliver
services that the citizens really need. Not many doubt that the CSC project is a
huge opportunity to touch rural India like never before, but is it a
well-thought out project or is there more to it than meets the eye.

Urvashi Kaul
urvashik@cybermedia.co.in

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