Changing the Face of Rural India through Common Services Centres

Filed under: Interviews |

Name: Shankar Aggarwal
Publish Date: 01 June 2010
Designation & Organisation: Uttar Pradesh Govt.

Shankar Aggarwal, a 1980 batch Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer of Uttar Pradesh cadre, is leading the Common Services Centre (CSC) project of the Government of India (GoI), which happens to be the world’s largest telecentre network. At present, he holds the position of Joint Secretary in the Department of Information Technology, Ministry of Communication and Information Technology, GoI, where he is in charge of the e-Governance portfolio. Under his efficient leadership, the country is all set to achieve the mammoth target of establishing 250,000 CSCs across the Indian rural and semi-urban landscape. In a Face2Face with telecentre magazine, he shares the achievements, success and learnings derived from the implementation of a programme of this nature and scale.

On behalf of the telecentre magazine, we congratulate you for successfully leading the Common Services Centre (CSC) programme and its implementation!
Conceived as mechanisms for facilitating e-governance in the rural and remote areas across the country, the CSC programme entered the fifth year in 2010. So, for the benefit of the  global readers of the telecentre magazine, please tell us about the  progress achieved in its implementation so far.

As far as the CSC programme is concerned, its actual implementation started only in 2008. And as on date, around 80 thousand CSCs have been set up across the country, which in itself is a great achievement if you  consider the nature and scale of programme implementation. Several factors were responsible for the delay in implementing the CSC programme, like:

a)    The delay in formalising the contracts with the Service Centre Agencies or SCAs, who are actually implementing this programme on the ground;
b)    The reluctance of the private sector to invest in this programme because of the global melt-down;
c)    The delay in providing G2C services through the CSCs.

The state governments have taken a lot of initiatives, but the speed of implementation has not been according to Government of India’s (GoI) expectations. As per the schedule, the GoI was supposed to set up 100,000 CSCs by the end of June 2009. But it was a really ambitious target, so now the renewed target is December 2010. Since we have already set up more than 80,000 CSCs, we consider it a good achievement, if we take into account all the challenges associated with the implementation of the programme. Moreover, the number of the CSCs will also escalate from 100,000 to 2,50,000 in keeping with the number of Panchayats or the local self government institutions in India.

The Panchayats are playing a very big role today. All the important government programmes are being implemented at the village level under the aegis of the panchayats. Through the integration of ICTs in the Panchayat system, a lot of things like accounts, monitoring, etc. can be taken care of. So, the CSCs should be relocated in the Panchayat premises wherever possible. We are consulting with the concerned ministry and we are trying to convince them to use this infrastructure. It would also curtail duplication of efforts.

The success of the CSC programme is interlinked with a number of factors like appropriate capacity building of the Village Level Entrepreneurs (VLEs), reliable connectivity and content and services, etc. In addition to the progress made so far, what are the next steps in terms of continuity and changes in these areas?

Yes, capacity building is a huge challenge and is also important to make the CSCs sustainable. At the time of implementing this programme, we presumed that the SCAs would take care of this challenge. But because of the global melt down and other challenges, they were not able to provide this support. Additionally, somehow, it is interlinked with the selection of the VLE. If you are able to identify a very enthusiastic and passionate VLE with entrepreneurial skills, he will himself make his CSC successful.

But, while selecting the VLE, some of the SCAs, instead of  looking at their entrepreneurial qualities, considered mainly monetary aspects and selected the person willing to invest money in the range of Rs 50-100 thousand  to set up a CSC, thereby ignoring other qualities associated with a good entrepreneur. Now, we are advising them to consider these qualities while selecting the VLE. Even if people are selected on the basis of other criteria, we have to ensure that they learn the skills to operate the CSCs.

Secondly, earlier, we didn’t have the mandatory provision of the SCAs investing in the CSC programme. We (DIT) left it to the SCAs to have an arrangement with the VLEs. Since in most of the cases, the money was invested by the VLEs, not by the SCAs, so, the motivational factor was missing among the SCAs, as they had already made some money out of this venture.

Now we are thinking of making it mandatory for the SCAs to feed in some investors’ investment into it, so that he has a stake in the programme and he would strive to make it a success. Consequently, he would also ensure the selection of good people for this programme.

In terms of content and services, different state governments have taken initiative and several services are being delivered through the CSCs, like land records Management Information System (MIS) for National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) job card, agricultural information, electoral cards updation, MIS for National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), telemedicine, employment information, Right to Information (RTI), consumer awareness information and publicity, utility bill payments, online ticketing, postal services, financial inclusion, etc. The government has also agreed to transfer data collection jobs related to the digitisation of the National Population Register (NPR) for the issuance of the Unique Identification Number (UID) project to the CSCs in principle. We are working on its implementation.

According to you, what have been the major achievements of this programme? Please tell in detail for the benefit of our readers.

I would say that the people are very enthusiastic about the programme. As mentioned, at present, 80 thousand CSCs are already functioning. The rural populace has also benefitted from this programme. Many of the CSCs may not be working optimally, but people are getting a lot of information from them. For example, in Madhya Pradesh, all the examination results and forms are available online. So, now, instead of going to the nearby town, they go to the CSCs for filling up these forms and submitting them online. A lot of other information and services are also available online.

Connectivity and electricity have been the major challenges impeding the growth of the programme. As soon as we ensure good and round the clock connectivity and power supply, the CSCs will change the face of the country. Then, the VLE will not suffer losses since the CSCs will remain open all the time for more and more people to come and utilise its services. In the villages, since the VLEs will be available at the CSCs to guide the people and help them utilise its services, they would prefer going there and save their money, time
and energy.

CSCs are the change agents because, first of all, through the CSCs and the ICT infrastructure available there, the poor and marginalised people can have access to all kinds of relevant information and opportunities. Its unavailability is the primary reason for their poverty

The CSCs are described as the ‘Change Agents’ in the society. What are the changes that the CSCs are catalysing and/ or could catalyse in rural India?

They are the change agents because, first of all, through the CSCs and the ICT infrastructure available there, the poor and marginalised people can have access to all kinds of relevant information and opportunities. Its unavailability is the primary reason for their poverty. So, in other words, he or she could be at par with their better off counterparts in the urban areas in terms of knowledge about opportunities. This is real empowerment.

Another change brought in through the CSCs is financial inclusion. About 65 per cent of the people living in the rural areas are not financially included. Now, through the CSCs, they are able to avail of banking, micro-finance and other financial services. Because of being able to operate a bank account, they can have financial stability. Moreover, on that credibility, they can also apply for a loan. So, they can start small businesses and improve their income.

At the same time, a lot of information regarding pesticides, fertilizers, seeds will be available to the farmers. The only challenge is to deliver this content in local language. Right now, majority of online content is in English language only. But, I think, in two/ three years time, a lot of relevant content in local languages will be available on the Internet. So, once you have access to information, public services, financial services, good quality educational content, etc. rural life will improve tremendously.

From your perspective, what have been the major impediments to implementing the CSC programme across the country? What strategy did you and your team deploy to counter these challenges?

Because of its nature and scale, the CSC programme has been facing a lot of bottlenecks. We have taken a number of steps to solve these challenges:

a)    Problems associated with round the clock availability of connectivity- Earlier as per the Master Service Agreement or MSA, the SCAs were supposed to provide connectivity. But in actual situation, either the connectivity was not there or its quality was rather poor. So, DIT is supporting BSNL financially to provide connectivity. As per their schedule, they were supposed to provide connectivity to all the 100,000 CSCs by September 2009. But because of several impediments, such as the slippage, the time taken to formalise the contracts, etc., they were not able to adhere to their timeline. Now, according to the renewed target, we are planning to provide connectivity to each and every CSC by December 2010 or by early 2011. We are also considering alternative connectivity devices.
b)    The second major challenge is power availability, but it is not in our (DIT’s) control. We have advised the SCAs to install generator sets in the CSCs to generate electricity. But power through the generator sets is very expensive, so, the VLEs are hesitant to use them. In the first place, they are not able to generate revenue and by using the generator sets, the cost of running the CSC will further escalate and they will be required to invest money from their pocket. To find an answer to this problem, the GoI is considering solar and other alternative sources of energy. On an average, a CSC requires 300 or 350 watts of power to run smoothly. So, if they are able to fulfill their energy requirements through a solar panel, then they would not be dependent on the conventional energy sources.
c)    Financial sustainability of the CSCs is also a big issue. We are planning to give the VLEs a fixed monthly revenue viability support, which would enable them to pay for solar panels or connectivity. We are also thinking in terms of giving a token salary of Rs. 500 to the VLEs. This way, at the end of the day, they would realise that even if he hasn’t been able to generate any income, he has some money. So, both these incentives will act as a motivational factor for the VLE to continue to operate the CSC. Anyway, whenever you set up a micro enterprise like the CSC, you would not earn money from day one. It takes almost a year or so to set up a business and start generating income through it.

There are several other challenges that need to be addressed in a collaborative manner because of the multiplicity of stakeholders whose actions influence the outcome of these challenges. Some of these are:

i)    The delay in formalising the contracts with the Service Centre Agencies or SCAs, who are actually implementing this programme on the ground;
ii)    The reluctance of the private sector to invest in this programme because of the global melt down;
iii)    The delay in providing G2C services through the CSCs. The state governments have taken a lot of initiatives, but the speed of implementation has not been according to Government of India’s (GoI) expectations.

Due to all these challenges, the CSCs are not getting the kind of revenue, which was expected of them. In addition, they have not been able to achieve respectability in the community they are serving. Moreover, we are going to increase the number of the CSCs to 250,000. When we are able to tackle all the above mentioned issues and challenges, then, the private sector would be more willing to set up CSCs and these would be viable from day one.

We understand that henceforth, CSC eGovernance Services India Ltd, a Special Purpose Vehicle, set up by the DIT, will be leading the CSC programme across the country. Please throw some light on its organisational and management structure. What are its plans to take this movement forward?

Yes, we have already incorporated in the CSC programme a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) known as CSC e-Governance Services India Ltd. At the central level, the SPV will play a major role in coordinating the CSC programme. For achieving this, the SPV will have arrangements with the SCAs on the one hand and with important  Financial institutions and organisations, like the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), on the other.

We have also entered into a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with CISCO for the delivery of good quality educational and health related content. They have also agreed to provide the content in local languages. The SPV is also going to ensure more robust knowledge sharing among the SCAs and the VLEs.

A delegation led by you visited ATACH, Foundation’s Chilean network and had a good interaction with them. As far as India is concerned, how would you advise Foundation to go about building a national network in this country?

The Foundation can achieve this through enabling and facilitating knowledge and best practices sharing and learning at the global level. Here the Foundation can play a very important role in bringing in awareness about the wider telecentre networks. It will make them feel a part of the wider global network where their counterparts are innovating and experimenting with a number of services, technology, content, etc. But these best practices should be made available in the local languages. For example, a number of new practices are being adopted by telecentres in Chile. Those practices should be shared with the Indian VLEs running telecentres in India. At the moment, it is not happening. So, I would request the Foundation to develop some knowledge sharing models in local languages and use them to disseminate good practices from all over the world. Today the major deterrent to sharing is the unavailability of content in local languages. Even if the content is available in Hindi, more than 50% of the people will be able to make use of them. Even the telecentre magazine should be made available in at least four or five Indian languages, like Hindi, Tamil, Bengali, Telugu, etc, so that the VLEs are able to read it.

Learning is essential for the VLE because he has invested a lot of money in the business and he must also earn. He should be exposed to what telecentres are doing in other countries, like Chile. For example, in Chile, we learnt that telecentres are being used for a number of social activities also, such as generating awareness for  keeping the neighbourhood clean. They have become a centre for social activities and they are bringing in a lot of changes through the telecentres. The moment the VLEs are connected with the world, they will feel empowered.

One of the main pillars of Foundation is the Academy. Post the inputs received from your organisation, especially from you, the Foundation has amended and simplified the course content. How will your department encourage VLEs to sign up for the course?

In this regard, we have requested IGNOU, the secretariat of the Academy to develop content for VLE training. They have already initiated the process of developing the content. Thereafter, all the VLEs will be trained based on these modules. These modules are not only on Computer education, but they take up other topics related to telecentre management, like entrepreneurship skill building, delivering G2C and financial services, effective communication skills, etc. In this way, they can have a broader view of the services to be channeled through the CSCs. In this respect, we are in dialogue with IGNOU and other organisations and they are considering it.

According to you, what are the lessons that national and regional telecentre networks operating in other parts of the world could take from the coordination and implementation of the Indian CSC programme.

The first thing to note about this programme is that it is one of its kind. No where in the world, a programme of this stature is being developed or implemented. In India, we are setting up 250,000 telecentres. So, problems like that of connectivity, energy, enterprise, mandatory conditions from the government are bound to happen. The learnings associated with the way we have managed this programme could be shared all across the world. We have developed the PPP model to implement this programme, but in other countries, the programme is being implemented either through community participation where it is owned by the community, or the entire programme is being implemented by the government. Here in India, the scenario is a little different – the government is providing all the necessary support, and the investment is being made by the private sector. So, the Indian CSC model is the most robust one. These CSCs are also catering to villages comprising  thousands of people compared to their counterparts in other countries.

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