Social Responsibility: Answer to a question on Quora on Indian Government plans to move India online like e-Kranti or NOFN?

I think they will only do the low-hanging fruit – the university campuses and million-plus Cities.

Why not the rest?

A bit about me.  Having worked for Media Lab Asia from 2002-2005 where connecting the first villages to the Internet is what we did (in collaboration with n-Logue Pvt Ltd., a company now closed), I got first hand experience of voice and data needs of rural citizens. We (with IIT Prof Dr Ramamritham and Telecom Veteran Dr Pradhan) then cofounded a mobile content company with Indian farmer subscribers and we exited in 2013 to TCS by selling the IP of our farmer-platform aAQUA.  We executed some projects for the World Bank reaching out to Agri-Universities, KVKs and agri-experts to serve them with new media technologies.

I am not a fan of large government projects and putting it mildly we have seen this movie before.   Shou Yang writes elsewhere about the Chinese experience applies to India as well.

In 2006, The Government of India approved the National E-Governance Plan (NeGP) with an outlay of Rs 22,600 crores to introduce connectivity & e-governance on a massive scale in 5 years. This ambitious scheme aimed rolling out 100,000 [mostly] rural Internet PC kiosks called Common Service Centres (CSCs).  These were to provide high quality and cost-effective video, voice and data content and services, in the areas of e-governance, education, health, telemedicine, entertainment as well as other private services.  The Kerala model where they are being sustained partly by public money is the only model which has worked as is being copied by other states though funds are limited.

The result?   
Except for a pocket of a 100 or so kiosks in West Bengal led by IL & FS  – and I expect there are a couple more success stories like this one –  none of them sustained.

Why?
1. Infrastructure-related problems of connectivity, electricity, security etc., 2. Services – Lack of ready Government-to-Citizen  services such as utility bill payments, License renewal etc. (which is how they were to make money apart from retailing).
3. Marketing – Lack of adequate marketing and limited awareness among village population on what do with the CSC.

See Pages 12-15.  Page on iimahd.ernet.in

Lets take up one of the companies that worked on this.  I have tremendous respect for Comat – they did one of the few successful government sponsored ICT projects – land record digitization (Bhoomi Project) in Karnataka.  In spite of that experience when they were to rollout only 6000 CSCs in Sikkim, Haryana, Tripura, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand they all failed. (Page 22 of the same IIM-A report)

Enough said about CSCs.  RBI has allowed them to do limited banking services (as “Business Correspondent”), hope this gives them a new lease of life.

The status
Back in 2002, we were told assume fiber would come to every village – where is the local language content, where are the services? So we tried building that.  It has been 12 years now.  The only villages that have Internet are those along highways or adjacent to urban clusters.  Broadband (say 1 Mbps up & down) is a small fraction of that.   NOFN – the government fibre connectivity project to all Panchayats is not making progress that it should.  (Source: NOFN work speed needs to rise by 50 times to meet target.)

The solution
The solution I believe is on the way.   It is coming from the rapid urbanization of India that creates economies of scale making it viable for partners in the ecosystem (Device manufacturers, App Developers, Broadband providers, Communication equipment providers, Renewable power suppliers etc.) to serve these populations.  Also an urbanized population is more likely to try out commercial services over the Internet – which nowadays is increasingly mobile.  Fortunately a lot of what was rural 10 years ago, is urban today – so the definition of what is rural and remote is never constant.   We must continue to spend on R&D for Satellite Internet, Baloons and Drones to find low-cost ways to connect the rural population. If we find this, it would make it viable to accelerate roll-outs.

Caveat
Bridging the digital-divide – as this is commonly called – is necessary but not sufficient.    There are several other divides that have to be bridged simultaneously.   Else we will only have young, rich, mostly male people using the Internet.  Overall development is the key – people with better access to roads, markets, jobs, health and education and a more level-playing field for entrepreneurs.

Regarding Tablets and IT in Schools
I agree with Balaji Vishwanathan’s post on this topic.  I cite the work of Anurag Behar at Wipro Foundation and Prof. Kentaro Toyoma while he was one of the leaders in Microsoft Research India.   Their work (easily found on the Web) shows that education needs better teachers, better motivation for teachers, better opportunities for teachers and better schools. I believe Tablets and Internet have a greater role to play in College education and above – not in school.  Steve Jobs acknowledged the lack of impact that personal computers had on schools as one of his big mistakes.

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