Usha Mishra Hayes
Common Service Centre (CSC) Project is an important arm of the National eGovernance Plan (NeGP) aimed at providing common access point to the citizens to modern technology, and through that to various government, business and social services and products. Deepening access and improved governance in rural India is at the crux of the project imperatives. The Sahaj model takes this hallowed objective on to another higher plane, by sharing the ownership, the problematic, the agony and the ecstasy and the achievements of the process with the rural citizens. In an unprecedented drive to enlist committed local enterprise, Sahaj has established a digital, human and physical network of 16,000 Village Level Entrepreneurs (VLEs) within a span of a year and half. Approximately, 10,000 of them are already reaping normal profits of Rs 5000-6000 and another 4000 have just broken even. The economic infrastructure being set up is facilitating some 120 million people to participate in services like insurance, distance higher education, computer education and even development reporting on their villages and blocks.
There are several VLEs, who are consistently clocking an income in the range Rs 30-40,000 per month and these numbers are increasing. The project has gathered momentum going by the earnings and the revenues of the VLEs and Sahaj. The month of August 2009, for example, recorded an almost 50 per cent rise in revenues of Sahaj and, as a corollary, of the combined revenues of its franchisees, i.e., VLEs, over the month of July 2009. The traction gathered is strong and sustainable. Encouraged by the strong financial success of the project, new partnerships and tie-ups are being scripted. The latest among these are Microsoft for Computer Combo Package, Indira Gandhi National Open University (IGNOU) for higher education, DLF Pramerica and Life Insurance Company (LIC) for insurance and the Tally for distance education.
Sahaj has employed the unique franchisee model to roll out its ambitious mandate of establishing 30, 000 plus CSCs across seven states in India and going by the track record, this is bound to increase as more and more areas continue to come in the fold of the company. Unarguably Sahaj and its VLEs today form the largest global network of Internet enabled, computer equipped, rural kiosks. And understandably, then, it is being wooed by a number of global and national players including telecentre.org, Microsoft, Wipro, to name just a few.
This is not to say that the Sahaj model or the Sahaj’s endeavours are an unchallenged, unadulterated success. There have been considerable experimentations, trials and errors. The model has grown out of as much strategic planning as the hard core experience from the field. And there has always been room for failures as much as appetite for success.
The pioneers of the company were not necessarily IT gurus with ‘complete knowledge’ about the ins and outs of various networking and connectivity technologies. Not surprisingly, then, they had some costly lessons to learn like a rather extended toying with the idea of wi-max in West Bengal before giving it up for VSATs. We also have to remind ourselves that this team was literally going where no man (and woman) had gone before, including the seemingly ubiquitous BSNL.
So why is Sahaj story a story of success today? Why is Sahaj succeeding where other bigger and more famous stalwarts like Reliance etc. found it hard to hold on. I think, there are two main reasons for this: one lies with the model and the other with the vision lying with the individual, or a set of individuals. In this article, I am going to deal largely with the first aspect, leaving the second aspect of visionary leadership to organisational development gurus.
As the CSC is owned and operated directly by the VLE or the investor, the stakes in the success of the CSC are clearly highest since the investor or the VLE hails from the local community
On the first aspect of the business model, I have tried my best to answer as dispassionately as possible, though you will recognize that to remain objective is not the easiest thing in the world.
Srei Sahaj has a unique business model. A CSC is operated by a VLE, hailing from that particular gram panchayat, in an arrangement aimed at supporting direct and indirect employment generation in rural India. Apart from being beneficial to the VLE, it also has great revenue earning potentials for its associates. In most cases, a successful CSC ends up employing at least two additional village youth. The local enterprise drives the business and ensures that the local customers are served almost 24X7. As the CSC is owned and operated directly by the VLE or the investor, the stakes in the success of the CSC are clearly highest. Again, as the investor or the VLE hails from the local community, he or she brings in additional element of compassion, service and understanding, and overall, an enhanced sense of social responsibility in serving the rural customers. This understandably often spills, in most cases welcome, into social advocacy, particularly with local, political and administrative leadership for brining in more G2C services to the CSCs and also in business advocacy directly with Sahaj for brining in an increasing range of services and products to the CSCs.
Choosing a VLE and the subsequent setting up of the CSC is the first and most significant step of the Sahaj business process. A Sahaj VLE is more than just a medium through whom the various government, business and educational services are meted out to the rural populace. He is the first point of advocacy, marketing and mobilisation, seeking a change in business-as-usual for the community, publicising his business and creating loyalty among the customers for repeat transactions. Sahaj exercises utmost care and intensive assessment, to select VLEs from among the most enterprising and promising members of the educated rural youths. It, subsequently, focuses on training them in technology, mobilisation and marketing skills, to optimise their innate talents and drive.
Once the VLE selection is completed, the process of rolling out the CSC begins as an immediate priority. Since a CSC provides coverage to a population of about 9,000 people, the location is to be determined strategically after assessing and analysing several factors; chief among these being accessibility, centrality and neutrality of the location. A CSC is located at a rented place or any other place provided by the VLE.
Taking government, private and business services together, the CSC offers a comprehensive range of services to the customers. These services include both online as well as offline services. Srei-Sahaj is continuously exploring avenues to enhance its range of services through tie-ups with Government as well as Private and Business houses, so as to make the life of rural Indians easier.
The wide network of Sahaj is growing by the day, and helping expand and deepen the socio-economic access of citizens in the remotest parts of rural India. By challenging the problems of accessibility and connectivity, among many others, it is brining them into the fold of the market, and enhancing their purchasing power by reducing the transaction costs. Reports tell us that for every rupee that a VLE earns, a villager availing the service saves six times that money. Sahaj has designed the virtual debit card, Skash card, which facilitates this in-situ, online transaction, allowing the comfort and the convenience and yet promoting cash flow in the economy.
There are ostensible problematics associated with a monolithic application of the term ‘rural India’. Despite all government plans and programmes to empower rural India and make them an integral part of the national development that have met with varying degrees of success at various points of time, development has not been uniform in all states across the country. An understanding of this terminological rigour is central in assessing the significance of the reach of Sahaj.
The customers whom Sahaj CSCs directly reach are some of the most remote and backward people, even within the category of Indian rural society. Sahaj operates among some of the most far-flung and poverty-ridden states and districts of India. A profile of the six Sahaj states makes it clear that the states that Sahaj CSCs directly serve are homes to some of the most economically underdeveloped people with a marked disconnect with development. About 53 of the 100 plus districts that Sahaj is mandated to serve have been classified as the poorest and the least developed by the National Planning Commission. Our customers belong to the remote mountainous and insurgency-ridden regions of Assam to the inhospitable terrains of tribal Orissa. Our services are benefiting inhabitants of the most inaccessible and remote regions of interior rural Bihar, where civilisation has barely cut into the remnants of an old feudal socio-economic structure. The districts in Tamil Nadu that we cover are among the economically deprived ones, and we cover all districts in West Bengal, a state plagued by developmental inequality and exposed to frequent climatic calamities. The services of Sahaj are thus reaching the most marginalised communities of India, brought to them and operated by members of their own community through organisational support, and thus bringing about great transformation in these traditionally deprived regions in India. The response of the end-receivers of these benefits, the direct beneficiaries and objects of these endeavours has been highly encouraging, thus proving the financial viability of the model.